The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Could effective altruism destroy the arts?

Worth it? (Daniel Bockwoldt/European Pressphoto Agency)

Gary P. Steuer is the President and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

In an interview in the Financial Times, Bill Gates equated donating to a museum with blinding people. Seriously. He was referencing the ethicist Peter Singer, whose work has fostered the “effective altruism” movement: Gates asked why anyone would donate money to build a new museum wing rather than to prevent illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 percent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,” he said. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.”

Effective altruism is absolutely rooted in a laudable commitment to making a maximum impact on the world’s most pressing problems, and Americans have generally not paid enough attention to the crushing human catastrophes in the Third World — public health, poverty, refugees. However, if taken to extremes, effective altruism has the potential to pose a serious challenge to the arts.

For those dedicated to supporting culture, the scariest part of the effective altruist movement is that it seems to resonate strongly with the new generation of young, data-driven donors. Arts groups are already facing the challenge of how to make themselves relevant to this younger demographic, many of whom associate “the arts” with rich people, old people, black tie galas and Euro-centric culture. In 1937, the median age at orchestra concerts in Los Angeles was 28 — it is probably at least twice that today.

Much has been written about the multi-trillion dollar transfer of wealth that will occur as the significant assets of the Boomer generation are passed to their children, the Millennials. We are already seeing evidence of this next generation rejecting their parents and grandparents commitment to arts and culture, and steering their families’ philanthropic efforts towards different goals.

The effective altruists’ completely dispassionate assessment of “value” — lives saved per dollar — does not allow for a holistic approach to what makes a healthy society. If everybody gave as they did, we might well end up solving Third World crises at the expense of deepening crises right here at home. Rampant poverty and public health challenges in the United States would ultimately damage our local and national economies, diminishing our long-term capacity to help abroad. In addition, many 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.

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.

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.” Sadly, our nation and our communities would be immeasurably diminished as a result.

The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation which has historically funded a full spectrum of causes and organizations in Denver, recently decided to focus 100 percent of its grant-making capacity on arts and culture. This was driven by both a belief in the critical importance of culture to the community and the reality that philanthropy, directly or indirectly influenced by the effective altruist approach, is increasingly focused on problems perceived as more pressing. The foundation believes that its arts grants directly serve and strengthen at-risk communities.

Maybe we just have our finger in the dike of a movement that cannot be stopped, but maybe we can be the leading edge of a countervailing movement, one that highly values culture as part of what makes us both fulfilled human beings, and one which fosters healthy communities: for all people, rich and poor, at home and abroad.

Read more about this topic:

Christine Emba: Effective Altruism: a primer

William MacAskill: Working for a hedge fund could be the most charitable thing you do.

Jeremy Beer: Traditional charity fosters love. Effective altruism doesn’t. 

Catherine Hollander: How do you quantify ‘good’?

William Schambra: Most Americans aren’t efficient philanthropists. That’s a good thing.

Peter Singer: Excellence in opera or saving a life? It’s your choice