Effective Altruism and the Arts

From time to time I find myself explaining Effective Altruism ideas to those who have a long history of donating to the arts. Understandably, most of the time the idea that their donations thus far have been "ineffective" rubs people the wrong way and leaves them a bit prickly to the idea of Effective Altruism.

I wanted to take a minute to share a response I wrote to a blog, mainly for the selfish reason of having an easy link to direct people towards about my opinions on EA and first world charities. This was written as a response to the blog entitled Effective Altruism Probably Isn't


I agree that the question "how many lives are saved" does lead you to the answer that you should be donating to a very singular type of cause. Though I don't think there is a problem with this. Asking how to save lives is a good and important litmus test to pass in your charitable giving. I think the key point that may be missing in wondering about supporting things that "make life worth living" is that charity isn’t about self-actualization; it is about making the world a better place.

The best way to help people give their money is to help them define their own passions and concerns and then help them find agencies which serve to promote those.

I think in this quote of yours the idea of 'altruism' is getting mixed up with self-actualization. Now don't get me wrong! I am all in favor of making life worth living and allowing everyone to peruse self-actualization. What I think is problematic is when this gets conflated with charity. Charity isn't selfish. Charity isn't about me.

 because these suckers are expensive

because these suckers are expensive

I love the ballet. I was a dancer for 10 years. I donate to my local ballet because I love it and because it speaks to me on a deep and soulful level.

I don't think this is charity: it is self-interested.

These donations come out of my entertainment budget, not out of my philanthropic budget. Because these donations are about me. And that is OK! That is good! Self-care, fulfillment, and meaning in life are precious parts of being human. But that doesn't negate the fact that there are thousands, millions, of people around the world who don't get the chance to approach self-actualization. So I choose to do my charity where it will be most effective at saving lives, in the belief that those lives will have a chance to contribute to the beauty of the world. But these people will never be able to contribute if we only focus on causes that speak to our passions.


While most of these ideas aren't new to most Effective Altruists I think they bear repeating. Again and again.

I think I also fall into the relatively small camp of people that think EA values could, and probably should, be extended to the nonprofit world as a whole. I don't see anything wrong with asking yourself "is my local soup kitchen feeding the most people possible?" Notice I didn't ask if my local soup kitchen was serving the cheapest food possible, or what their overhead was. It isn't about doing things cheaply necessarily, it is about doing them effectively.

I think that getting people to ask these deeper questions of charities and their own philanthropic work is ultimately what changes the world. Arguments about diversity, AI risk, and utility aside, what is going to make impactful and lasting change is the ability to analyze and reason about our philanthropic choices.