With less than a week to finish my screenplay for the last round of a big screenwriting competition, I stepped on a train with two members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism. Holly Morgan was the managing director for The Life You Can Save, an organisation that encourages privileged Westerners to help reduce global poverty. Sam Hilton had organised the London pub meet-up where I’d first heard about the movement (known as ‘EA’ for short; its members are EAs). The pair of them were heading to East Devon with a few others for a cottage retreat, where they were going to relax among sheep and alpacas, visit a ruined abbey, and get some altruism-related writing done. I decided to join them because I liked the idea of finishing my script (a very dark comedy) in the idyllic English countryside, and because I wanted to learn more about the EA goal of doing as much good as you possibly can with your life. We were already halfway there when my second reason for going threatened to undermine my first.
Around Basingstoke, I asked Hilton what EAs thought about using art to improve the world. In the back of my mind I had my own screenplay, and possibly also Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Oscar acceptance speech for best director, which I’d once found inspiring:
I want to thank anyone who spends a part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music. Anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unlivable without art.
It turns out that this is not a speech that would have resonated with many Effective Altruists. The idea that someone’s book, film, painting, or dance could be their way to reduce the world’s suffering struck Hilton as bizarre, almost to the point of incoherence. As I watched his furrowing brow struggle to make sense of my question, I started to doubt whether this retreat was an appropriate venue for my screenwriting ambitions after all.
In 1972, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer published an essay called ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, which contained the following thought experiment. Suppose you saw a child drowning in a pond: would you jump in and rescue her, even if you hadn’t pushed her in? Even if it meant ruining your clothes? It would be highly controversial to say ‘no’ – and yet most of us manage to ignore those dying of poverty and preventable disease all over the world, though we could easily help them. Singer argues that this inconsistency is unjustifiable. The EAs agree, and have dedicated their lives to living out the radical implications of this philosophy. If distance is morally irrelevant, then devastating poverty and preventable disease surround us. Any break we take from working to reduce suffering throughout the world is like having a leisurely nap beside a lake where thousands of children are screaming for our help.
The EA movement started coalescing in Oxford in 2009 when the philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill came together with around 20 others to work out how to make radical altruism mainstream. MacAskill told me that they went by the jokey moniker ‘Super Hardcore Do-Gooders’, until they came up with ‘Effective Altruism’ in 2011. Along with various other EA-affiliated organisations, Ord and MacAskill co-founded Giving What We Can, which suggests a baseline donation of 10 per cent of your income to effective charities.
This is often what EA comes down to: working hard to earn money and then giving as much of it as you can to the needy. Good deeds come in many forms, of course, and there are other ways of making a difference. But the gauntlet that EA throws down is simply this: does your preferred good deed make as much of a difference as simply handing over the money? If not, how good a deed is it really?
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/art-is-a-waste-of-time-or-so-effective-altruism-claims