Wednesday, September 09, 2015

WaPo forum on Effective Altruism

The Washington Post is discussing Effective Altruism.  There are two critical contributions, neither of which I find very compelling:

(1) William Schambra claims that most Americans are too selfish to care about global problems or contribute to global charities: "Given the American tendency towards materialism and individualism, we cannot rely on grand causes to summon us to public-mindedness. Rather, it comes only when it is shown that public involvement is closely linked to our personal interests."
He then worries that EA will undermine local civic organizations and community charities, which more people are actually willing to get involved in.  But if people are not receptive to EA's message, I'm not sure why it would have any such effects.

I also think it's a mistake to see effective altruism and civic activities as essentially in conflict.  The central message of EA, as I see it, is that (i) we should all contribute substantially to making the world a better place, and (ii) we should try to ensure that these contributions are as effective as possible.  This message does push a lot of activities traditionally regarded as "philanthropic" out of the philanthropic sphere: participating in your local civic organizations is not a way to satisfy your duties of beneficence.  But EA leaves plenty of room for additional hobbies (it's a big tent, and even utilitarians don't in practice advocate for anything as psychologically unsustainable as pure altruism), which could well include traditional "philanthropic" / community-oriented activities -- they're better than watching TV, after all!

So, it's simply not true that EA is bad news for all those who want to help out in their local communities.  It's only bad news for those who want to think of themselves as good people while not also helping out in any more significant way.

(2) Gary Steuer worries that effective altruism could destroy the arts.  Again, it needn't, so long as one sees support of the arts as an extra hobby, which isn't dependent upon giving it philanthropic priority.  But Steuer is more ambitious:
[M]any of the things that are important to our souls — beauty, hope, joy, tolerance, inspiration — are fostered through the arts. They may be very hard to sufficiently measure in a world of purely data-driven philanthropy. This does not mean they are not important.

Of course, many things are important.  The question is how to prioritize when we lack infinite resources: Is financial support to the arts able to achieve things that are as important as what global health charities can achieve?  Singer's vivid example of building a new museum wing at the cost of blinding 1% of the visitors strongly suggests not.  We only support the arts when the opportunity costs fall on others besides ourselves.

Steuer continues:
There is also a condescending undertone to the effective altruist approach. It assumes, however unintentionally, that the poor need only their basic needs met, that they do not have the same need as others do for the beauty and inspiration of the arts. Clearly we need to do a much better job communicating to the effective altruists the connection between the arts and other social challenges.

It would be interesting to uncover evidence connecting "the arts and other social challenges".  My suspicion is that the imagined connection is largely wishful thinking.  Misguided attempts at instrumentalization aside, I think the arts (like philosophy, and other forms of human excellence) have significant intrinsic value.  But you can't engage in them if you die of malaria in infancy.  Meeting basic needs is thus a precondition for realizing "higher" values in one's life.

I don't see anything in the EA approach which denies that the global poor aspire to more than merely meeting their basic needs.  It merely tells us that we (philanthropists) should prioritize ensuring that basic needs are met (insofar as this is the most cost-effective way to improve lives).  After that, I think, people can be trusted to beautify their own lives.  (What's really condescending, in my opinion, is the contrary assumption that the only way to legitimately engage with the arts is through the sorts of resource-intensive live performances and displays that wealthy people prefer.)

In perhaps the most ludicrous paragraph of the entire piece, Steuer writes:
If the next generation continues to be less engaged as audience members and arts attenders, and much less philanthropic towards the arts, then the cultural life of our country is in for some very rocky decades ahead. In his recently-published book “Curtains?,” Michael Kaiser, the former chief executive of the Kennedy Center, stated “We have been fortunate to live in a remarkable era of arts accessibility, a true golden age. But it is coming to an end.”

Have these people never heard of the Internet?


  1. "But EA leaves plenty of room for additional hobbies ... Again, it needn't, so long as one sees support of the arts as an extra hobby, which isn't dependent upon giving it philanthropic priority."

    Wouldn't EA eventually (moving down along the curve of charitable opportunities) support donations to lobbying groups to divert funding from the arts to foreign aid, first through transfer of public subsidies, then through cancellation of the charitable tax deduction for the arts, and finally through taxation of private activity?

    And likewise for civic organizations, universities, churches, and so on?

    People like Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews, as well as many less famous names have made arguments for policy change along these lines, and it seems to fit with the individual-level causal decision theory willpower account of demandingness. Even if EA is currently small and weak, critics may still critique it for the effects it would have if it becomes large and strong.

    1. Sure, but even there, you're just talking about possible nudges towards more beneficial activities, not anything particularly extreme. If the criticism is just, "But I don't want more beneficial activities to be encouraged over my preferred hobbies," then I really don't see much of an objection here.


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