How Many Lives Does the Opera Save? Effective Altruism and the Arts

Remember a decade or so back when day trading was all the rage? The occasionally dubious vocation elicited a lot of moralizing and hand-wringing from some quarters. "What benefit does a day trader provide to society?" they'd ask. "These are smart people, and there are serious problems in the world. Why can't they do something more impactful and substantial with their time and intellect?" 

From an ethical and utilitarian standpoint, the argument has some merit. But it's also a philosophical rabbit hole. Who determines what work is "valuable?" How can an asset, whether one's time or capital, be best utilized? If we take this logic at face value, aren't 80 percent of jobs meaningless? Should IP writers immediately resign and go volunteer for Doctors Without Borders?

This thought process underscores why arts organizations need to resist the urge to become mired in the intellectual swamps surrounding effective altruism. The term connotes that in a world of countless intractable problems, one dollar might be more valuable than another. It's about getting the most bang for your philanthropic buck. There's even a metric for it: lives saved per dollar. 

This sentiment was most notably espoused by Bill Gates in an interview with the Financial Times. In it, he 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." 

And to hear the Washington Post tell it, if this model gains traction, it can put the arts out of business entirely.

Since the existence of the arts may be at stake here, let's take a deep breath and step back to get a handle on what effective altruism is and isn't. Australian ethicist Peter Singer is one of the foremost proponents of the effective altruism movement, and his manifesto is his book, The Most Good You Can Do. In this interview with Forbes, he argues that giving $1,000 to fight poverty in Africa will have an exponentially larger impact than giving $1,000 to fight poverty in the states. The return on investment is simply greater.

When it comes to the arts, Singer doesn't pull any punches. "In the present world we live in," he says, "I don't think we should give money to the arts. Yes, it's fine to help community projects to help kids express themselves artistically; that's a different matter. But giving tens of millions of dollars to established institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I think there are better things you can do with that money." 

We admit, Singer has a point. In fact, we here at IP have been occasionally sympathetic to this mode of thinking. That said, it's important to parse Singer's logic a bit further. Singer seems to acknowledge that the premise that any arts philanthropy lacks substantive value is a myopic perspective. Take his caveat about "community projects." Imagine, if you will, a child growing up in the inner city, surrounded by drugs, crime and violence. One day, he takes a field trip to a recording studio, made possible by a local arts nonprofit. The visit sparks an interest and a subsequent career in music. His life takes a positive turn, thanks to the intervention of an arts program. Was his life "saved?" To someone like Russell Simmons, cofounder of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, yes, the arts most certainly saved this kid's life.

Fortunately, it seems that the value of this community-oriented type of arts exposure is something all of us, including Singer, can agree upon. Heck, even Bill Gates himself acknowledges the value of art—contingent upon how it can supplement his foundation's larger global health initiatives. Back in January, the Gates Foundation announced—and no, we didn't make this title up—"The Art of Saving a Life Project," which "brings together more than 30 world-renowned musicians, writers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, and photographers to demonstrate how vaccines continue to positively change the course of history."

In other words, it's hard to imagine effective altruism posing a fatal threat to educational, community-oriented arts philanthropy. (It also paints the Washington Post's question—"Could effective altruism destroy the arts?"—as a bit histrionic.)

However, could effective altruism reduce the number of multi-million-dollar gifts to big-city opera houses, museums, and symphonies? Will the David Geffens and Oscar Schafers of the world wake up one day and say, "Hmmm, maybe this $25 million could be better spent elsewhere?" It's perfectly possible, but given these mega-donors' cozy relationships with their respective boards, flush bank accounts—and the inconvenient truth that it's, y'know, their money—probably not anytime soon. A lot of affluent minds will need to be changed.

In fact, despite the ethical allure of effective altruism, there's actually a counter-narrative at play. Research suggests arts philanthropy is actually gaining momentum. Giving USA's 2014 report on philanthropy found that arts and culture saw an impressive 9.2 percent year-over-year increase, representing the highest jump in the nine categories tracked by the organization. That said, the arts sector, while bullish, remains a small piece of the pie. Estimated gifts to arts and culture totaled $17.2 billion, a record high, though that figure represented just a fraction (4.8 percent) of the $358.38 billion total. But it's progress. If effective altruism aims to erode the intrinsic value of arts, it's up against some strong headwinds. 

And why has giving to arts organizations increased? One reason is the fact that donors realize that no dollar is given in a vacuum. Just as one dollar devoted to, say, the construction of a new theater is one dollar not given to actor's pay, money siphoned away from the arts realm will eventually produce a less vibrant arts environment that can lead to an unforeseen domino effect—donors abandoning creative placemaking projects, lost jobs and building contracts, less vibrant local economies, and so on. These are negative outcomes that can materialize when effective altruism is taken to its logical extreme. 

Small organizations that provide Singer-approved kinds of arts experiences still need to remain vigilant, however. Effective altruism resonates strongly with the tech-savvy and affluent millennial demographic who comprise the next generation of any institution's donor base. These are a demanding bunch who generally take a far more clinical and dispassionate view of the arts.

Lastly, lost in talk about the value of a new museum wing is the fact that this mode of thinking certainly isn't relegated to the arts and culture space. Take a spin through IP and you'll find many causes—Ivy League universities and animal rescue, just to name a couple—that could be deemed ethically dubious by the effective altruism camp. Something to think about.

Related - Millennials Without a Cause: How Can Arts Organizations Engage This Demographic?