But for most press related matters, numbers are more mundane, in the low thousands, and trying to forecast the trade-off is worth it. Sometimes it is better not to do it. The recent coverage of Effective Altruism by Rhys Southan (with a distorted title by someone else, but keep in mind not even your interviewer has complete control over his writing), is a good case in point. I invite you to use it as proxy for how much you are willing to be distorted. Here are the parts of his article that mention my name:
From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children. An idea often paraphrased in EA circles is that it doesn’t matter who does something – what matters is that it gets done. And though artists often pride themselves on the uniqueness of their individuality, it doesn’t follow that they have something uniquely valuable to offer society. On the contrary, says Diego Caleiro, director of the Brazil-based Institute for Ethics, Rationality and the Future of Humanity, most of them are ‘counterfactually replaceable’: one artist is as pretty much as useful as the next. And of course, the supply is plentiful.
‘We’re actually very stacked out with people who have good mathematic skills, good philosophy skills,’ Robert Wiblin, executive director of the Centre for Effective Altruism, told me. ‘I would really love to have some artists. We really need visual designers. It would be great to have people think about how Effective Altruism could be promoted through art.’ Aesthetic mavericks who anticipate long wilderness years of rejection and struggle, however, would seem to have little to contribute to the cause. Perhaps they should think about ditching their dreams for what Caleiro calls ‘an area with higher expected returns’.
And the next paragraphs are the content from which he drew them, about a 1/4 of the whole written interview (the rest was simply discarded), I don’t want you to assume beforehand that I find his a very degrading or very uplifting change in what I said. I want you to see for what it actually is, so you can judge for yourself if you would do an interview if you were in my place, Our cluster of ideas, from Transhumanism and Singularity to Effective Altruism and X-Risk reduction are becoming mainstream by the day. You may have to face similar choices to those I did. Rhys was actually very interested and from my experience, he distorted quite a bit less than what is usually done, so take this as a below standard level of distortion:
When I was originally going to write an article about effective altruism, it was going to be about earning to give. My one hesitation was that I felt like someone else could easily write a similar article about earning to give, and I worried that made my “replaceability” very high. (And it turns out it was — someone had already written such an article.) Do you find yourself applying the concept of “replaceability” to other aspects of your life? Like could you consider the replaceability of someone you’re dating and the marginal improvement of happiness they bring to your life compared to someone else you could be dating?
That is a great question because Love, as very few things in life, is exactly the kind of emotion in which you can’t apply the logic or replaceability, or as we philosophers call it, counterfactuals. A great part of what love is is valuing a relationship. A specific one relationship that is built over time. Most songs about love, as Marvin Minsky reminds us, are about how the loved one could become anything, even a dumb psycho crazy nutcrack, and we would still love them. There are things that counterfactual reasoning can’t buy. For all others, there is effective altruism.
I suspect artists will tend to resist the effective altruism idea: there seems to be no place for them within EA, unless they happen to already be very successful, in which case they can earn to give. Do aspiring artists who want to do art full time pretty much have to give up that dream and change courses if they want to become effective altruists?
Artists are fighting in red markets. The things they make dispute people’s attention, and there are way more things available to pay attention to then there is attention to be given. Nearly all artists are counterfactually replaceable. This is why you feel they have no space within the EA movement. What I find interesting is that most of the early effective altruists come from a philosophy background, and the exact same is true of philosophy. Nearly no one reads academic publications by philosophers, and the area is so disputed it is hardly the case that anyone who left the profession would leave a significant blank behind that no one else could fulfill. Even then the EA movement thrives among philosophers, we should expect that over time, artists will find similar unusual paths to either conciliate their interests, or else shift their perspectives.
And related to the previous question, one thing that effective altruism does is put things in perspective, and artists and other creators of various sorts won’t like the perspective EA provides: by judging actions based on how much they improve well-being and decrease harm, the works of art, comedy routines and so on that people create turn out not to be that important after all. Devoting years of your life to writing a novel, for instance — while many see this as noble in some way — seems to be a horribly inefficient way to make a positive difference. Is there a way to reconcile effective altruism with artists’ beliefs that their creations are worthwhile contributions?
The short answer is no. Something will have to give, either effective altruist artists shift their art to promote altruism, like some friends of mine are doing here in São Paulo, or they abandon the artistic field. Art is a noble pursuit, and it should always be the case that a small subset of humanity is pursuing artistic expression and interacting with the world in that way. But I don’t think it will ever be the case that this subset will become so small that it would actually be worth it, all things considered, to choose to become a novelist instead of an effective altruist in some other area with higher expected returns. Not because the value of art is any less than people believe it is, but just because it is infinitely easier to understand the value of art, than to understand the value of saving the lives of hundreds of people who live across the ocean, or across the century. When I say it explicitly it may not seem that way, but hundreds of millions of people are able to see the value of art, and only very few, less than one in a million, if you consider the entire world, have already understood how much good they can create by being as altruistic as possible.
This is it, make your decisions accordingly and keep in mind that the media is part of reality, in a sense, of nature, it is not good or bad intrinsically. It has it’s properties just like gravity, which can help or hinder, and if you want to use it, you have to understand those properties and be prepared for them.