Effective altruism and art is, to put it mildly, a controversial issue.

Some writers question whether effective altruism will lead to the destruction of art charity:

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… 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.

This antipathy is not all on the side of people who prefer funding art over funding effective altruist causes. Some effective altruists use art as the ineffective charity they contrast effective charities with. (I would suggest that perhaps people who donate money to preserve paintings do so because they want paintings to be preserved, and not because they are trying to maximize their positive impact on the world in the most cockamamie way possible.)

To be clear, even if you are an effective altruist, you can still donate to arts charities. If you’ve taken the Giving What We Can pledge, you’ve agreed to donate 10% of your income to the charities you believe have the most positive effect on the world. With the other 90% of your income, you can do whatever you like. You can save or invest it. You can go on a nice vacation. You can light it on fire in front of your friends to watch their faces of horror. And, if you so choose, you can give to the Hero Initiative, donate to your local children’s theater, or back artists you like on Kickstarter or Patreon.

(Interestingly, some effective altruist charities do wind up as arts funding. You can listen here to a song produced because a man used his Give Directly money to buy instruments. Sample lyrics: “GiveDirectly has helped those who were in thatched houses and now almost everyone is having iron roof house. They have helped everyone who used to sleep in thatched houses, now all you see are shining iron roofs.”)

There is nothing wrong with caring about more than one thing. Every effective altruist I’ve ever met has cared about things other than EA. They care about their partners, their children, their friends, their communities; they care about philosophical discussion, programming languages, sex education, D&D; surprisingly often, they care about their art.

Caring about art is not effective altruism. Effective altruism is about having the largest positive impact possible. Effective altruism’s position on art is “art is not an effective way of having the largest positive impact possible,” just like its position on parenting is “parenting is not an effective way of having the largest positive impact possible”, and its position on D&D is “D&D is not an effective way of having the largest positive impact possible.” But effective altruists can, and do, care about things other than effective altruism.

As far as I can see, there are three options you can take as an effective altruist. First, you can declare that you only care about having the largest positive impact possible, in which case you don’t want to make art, have kids, or play D&D, and also you are an extraordinarily unusual person. Second, you can be intellectually dishonest and pretend that by sheer coincidence D&D is the optimal thing to do to improve the world. Perhaps you’re building your community? Third, you can say “look, making art, having children, and playing D&D aren’t actually the best ways of improving the world– but as it happens, I don’t just care about doing the most good possible. I am allowed to want more than one thing.”

“But Ozy!” you might say. “Organizations like 80,000 Hours tend to frown on becoming an artist as a career path. Surely that means that effective altruists as a group disapprove of art?”

First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing whatever career you like best and taking the Giving What We Can pledge. That is a perfectly valid way to be an effective altruist, one that the majority of EAs have taken. As it happens, this career path is pretty underrepresented in 80,000 Hours’s blog posts, but this is mostly because there’s not a lot to say about it other than “keep doing things you like and keep donating,” which makes for boring reading.

Most of 80,000 Hours’s research is aimed at people who want to change their careers so they can have the largest positive impact on the world possible. If you really want to be an artist, then you clearly don’t want to change your career so that you have the largest positive impact possible. You want to be an artist. That’s fine! Like I said before, nearly everyone cares about more than just having the largest positive impact possible.

Second, we need to think about personal fit. Personal fit is how good you are at your job and how much you enjoy it. Since in most fields– particularly altruistic fields– there’s a big difference between the very best and the merely average, you can have a much bigger impact as an exceptional person at an altruistically not-so-great career than you can as a mediocre person at the most important job in the world. How does this apply to art? If you are already a professional artist, you probably have an excellent level of personal fit for being an artist. The people who don’t have that level of personal fit are working as waiters while they wait for their big break. ‘Artist’ might be an objectively suboptimally altruistic career, but that doesn’t mean that working artists would do more good for the world if they hung up their paintbrushes or laptops and instead took up careers as foundation grantmakers or in policy-oriented civil service. You might be a really good artist, who has a lot of opportunities for advocacy and raising awareness, and a terrible civil servant.

Third, you know what other career 80,000 Hours tends to frown on?


In general, social determinants of health (things like sanitation and nutrition) matter more than doctor quality and quantity when it comes to making people healthy. Really good doctors can help people when they come down with cholera, but if you have good sanitation you don’t get cholera in the first place, which is a much better situation all around. And there are a lot of doctors in the world. You might think “oh, that child with cancer got better because I treated them, so therefore I saved one life,” but that’s ignoring counterfactuals. Except in very unusual circumstances, that child probably wouldn’t have died on a street corner without you. If you hadn’t decided to become a pediatric oncologist, there would have been a space in your residency, and someone who ultimately ended up becoming a dermatologist would have become a pediatric oncologist instead. So the actual benefit of your career is the zits that went untreated due to there being one less dermatologist, and also how much better at saving people’s lives you are compared to the person who would have otherwise had your job. When you do the math, the average doctor saves about one life every two-and-a-half years. For comparison, the average American can save one life a year, just by writing a check to the Against Malaria Foundation. As a do-gooding career, being a doctor underperforms being an unusually charitable secretary.

That said, here are some things that are obviously not true claims about effective altruism:

  • In effective altruists’ ideal world, no one would become a doctor.
  • If effective altruists got to allocate all the charitable funding in the world, none of it would go to doctors.
  • Effective altruists don’t care about people being healthy.
  • Effective altruists think it is morally wrong for people to become doctors. (In fact, Scott Alexander, one of the most famous effective altruists who isn’t a professional effective altruist, is both a doctor and a writer.)
  • Effective altruists want to fire all the doctors and replace them with an enormous pile of mosquito nets.

Given that, I don’t think that 80,000 Hours’s claims about being an artist ought to imply the equivalent statements about art either. “Right now, ‘artist’ isn’t a very good career for doing good with” does not mean “in an ideal world no one would become an artist”, “art is bad”, “it is morally wrong to become an artist”, or “we should fire all the artists.”