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Effective Altruism – A Critique

museum thank you



Beware of academic modeling…unless you keep it simple it falls apart. The August 11, 2013 NY Times business section had an article by Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University entitled “Good Charity, Bad Charity” that address the complex behavior of philanthropic giving and tried to fit it into an academic model.

Singer addressed the hypothetical donor of $100,000 and the “effectiveness” of giving to a museum’s campaign to build a new wing or giving to reducing the incidence of trachoma, an eye disease in developing counties that causes low vision and eventual blindness. He noted how for $100,000 you can prevent debilitation and blindness in 1000 people, or you can support advancing the aesthetic experiences of 100,000 museum visitors over 50 years. His calculations equated for every 1000 museum visitors, one person could be saved from blindness.

His calculations aside, I am surprised that Mr. Singer’s analysis could not see beyond the simple calculations that would be expected of a first year graduate student. Let’s broaden the discussion to more relevant scale.

Singer is trying to contrast the “effectiveness” of arts and culture organizations to humanitarian (foreign and domestic) organizations. Using his “effective altruism” calculation, which he claims is a growing evidence-based international movement; the likes of museums, theaters, ballet and symphony are doomed to valueless extinction. While I am not directly employed in arts and culture fundraising, it is clear Singer is using the wrong denominator in his calculation.

Donation / effectiveness is essentially his formula. Living in Boston gives me first hand understanding of the effectiveness of arts and culture institutions on alleviating strife around the world. Do you think the dozens of world class universities, high tech, bio tech and investment companies would be congregated in Boston (or any other city or community) if it were devoid of soul-enriching and inspiring cultural institutions? Talented people are attracted to and inspired by cultural experiences. These talented people create companies and employ other talented people who go on to move the needle in science, technology, medicine and a host of humanity improving contributions.

These organizations make profit, drive the economy and pay taxes enabling our government to invest in things like AIDS research and appropriate billions to provide these drugs internationally. One could argue that support of the arts and culture, like the $100,000 to that new museum wing, have cured disease, fed the hungry, provided water to the thirsty and will contribute to the slowing of global warming.

Yes, I have gotten carried away…to make a point. The decisions of philanthropists large and small are often driven by altruism, but the calculation of “effectiveness” is deeply personal and should not be the subject of serious academic scrutiny.

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