From Dr Strangelove (nuclear war is scary) to Paradise Lost (rebellion against God is seductive but bad) to Uncle Tom's Cabin (slavery is evil) or the many protest songs over the years, e.g. "We Shall Overcome" (black civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s) or "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" (against the Vietnam War), art and culture have been used to convey many ethically-relevant ideas. Indeed Horace defined literature to have the dual purpose of delighting and instructing.
This post explores the merits of creating works of art, fiction or culture geared towards EA. Art and culture are meant in a broad sense of the term which captures novels, songs, and films. The post's aim is to gently encourage people in the EA community to express these ideas creatively.
Readers may find it fun to skip straight to the appendix, which sets out a few of my own ideas. I have certainly taken great pleasure in playing with those ideas.
- 1.1 What do we *mean* by art/fiction/culture?
- 1.2 Do we *want* to use art/fiction/culture to communicate EA ideas?
- 1.3 *Can* we even use art/fiction/culture to communicate EA ideas?
In this section I will conclude that communicating EA ideas through art is hard, especially when defined in a fairly "pure" manner, but with some creativity I think it’s achievable. I also believe that it is a good use of time/effort, but I will also explore some counterarguments to this claim.
- 2. A cursory assessment of different art forms
- This is a list of different areas/types of art/culture, together with assessments of how popular the art form is, how easy it is for someone to create that art at all, how easy it is to achieve widespread success or a large audience with this art, how easy it is to communicate complex or EA ideas using that art form
The second section will suggest that novels, stand-up comedy, and poetry appear to be the most suitable art forms. Note however that the basis for this assessment is highly subjective and has very little data/evidence to back it.
1.1 What do we *mean* by art/culture?
I treat art/culture here as
- Anything which enables ideas/memes to spread widely
- And has some sort of creative merit that makes consuming that art interesting or enjoyable
This definition is intended to exclude the likes of university courses on Effective Altruism or non-fiction books – these sorts of things are good, but already exist. I’m also intending to exclude instances of writing posts about EA on social media (although perhaps in exceptional circumstances this might be considered art). I’m intending to include culture such as novels, films, songs, plays.
1.2 Do we *want* to use art/culture to communicate EA ideas?
At first glance, if we believe that EA concepts are correct and help make the world better, it seems obvious that spreading them is a good idea. Counters to this include the following:
- I understand some EAs believe that talent/ability are power-law distributed, meaning that if you focus your efforts on influencing a small number of high-impact people, you’ll have massively more impact than influencing lots of people to a small extent
- I can understand this objection, but I don’t think I agree (quite apart from the fact that ranking people on their impactfulness feels ugly). Firstly, writing fiction or creating art is fun, so it’s not clear that the time spent on this activity has much opportunity cost. Secondly, it’s hard to know who these high-impact people are, so influencing lots of people makes it easier to ensure we’re influencing the “best” people. Finally, these high-impact people are unlikely to achieve impact on their own; most likely they will operate alongside other people, and warming those people up to EA ideas or normalising EA ideas is likely to help these high-impact people operate better.
- The constraints of the medium may lead to a low-fidelity transmission of ideas
- This might be true, but the opposite might be true too. After all, encountering creative new ideas and playing with them in your head might be a great way to have new ideas transmitted to you. To my mind, the best way to test whether this is true is to try it. For some examples, I include as an addendum some of my own ideas.
- Poorly executed cultural artefacts may put EA into disrepute
- Poorly executed anything may put the doer into disrepute. This objection comes up often, but I think it’s easily tackled – simply don’t brand your work is explicitly EA-related (but be willing to be honest, if asked, about your influences). This was my approach with my startup SoGive (which, by the way, isn't about any form of art).
I’ll now add a few advantages of doing this:
- Some people have become excited by EA ideas after reading a book such as Doing Good Better or something by Peter Singer. This same effect may arise among people who are unlikely to read those particular books
- Anecdotally, I’ve heard a number of members of the EA community say that they harboured some ethical ideas that their friends and family would have thought weird, such as donating a large proportion of their income. Finding a community of people with shared values is one way to resolve this, but encountering these ideas in more popular culture may also help people feel less weird and isolated.
- Producing the art may bring benefits to the EAs who create it
- The opportunity cost of the time spent producing the art may be lower if the effort of creating it feels more like fun than work
1.3 *Can* we even use art/culture to communicate EA ideas? (tractability)
I would like to distinguish between object-level EA ideas and abstract/meta-level EA ideas.
To help distinguish between the object-level category and the abstract or meta-level category, note that it is a contingent fact the world we live in that (eg) there are lots of suffering animals, however the idea that 1000 times more good is 1000 times better than less good is more universal.
The table indicates that object-level EA ideas can be communicated relatively easily, but that at the more abstract level, this is hard to convey artistically.
Having given this some thought, I'm of the view that abstract-level EA ideas *can* be conveyed through art/fiction/culture, even if it's hard to do so. The best evidence I can give for this is that, having given it a lot of (pleasurable) thought, I've thought of some ideas that I think are potentially thought-provoking and engaging. I have listed some in an appendix.
I list here some techniques that I feel have been helpful in generating ideas. I do not claim to be an expert on this. My tips will be biased towards short stories/novels, because that’s the area where I’ve expended most effort myself.
- When talking about EA ideas with “normal” people, notice what creates tension or discomfort. Think about it, and understand why.
- I previously used to try to fill my time with productive tasks as much as possible; e.g. if I’m on public transport then I might check my emails. I’m now more prone to have time for quiet reflection to think through ideas.
- Talk to other writers about their creativity and ideas. When you hear something you like, see if you can adapt it to incorporate the EA ideas you’re interested in
- Try to find pre-existing fiction/art/culture which can be the vehicle for your idea, and which just requires a “tweak” to make it convey your EA idea. In my experience, the “just a tweak” approach won’t actually work – adapting it properly will require departing substantially from the original. However it can be helpful for idea generation
I’ll add that I’ve been thinking about this for about 3 years, and only recently come up with ideas that I like enough to want to start writing (so I’m still far from finishing any of my stories yet). I mention this to set expectations that the process may be slow. (Or maybe not if you’re better at creativity than I am!)
I am unclear on the extent to which this is already happening. There may well be other EAs out there creating art/culture relating to EA ideas. There is also pre-existing culture which is pertinent to EA (I believe I saw someone make a list of novels/films/etc that might be of interest to EA thinking at some point several years ago, although I’m not sure where that is). As an example, Saving Private Ryan (a film which I've not seen) mocks (I'm told) quite powerfully deontologically driven ethical decisions whilst also highlighting the negativities of war.
2. Assessments of different forms of art/culture
This section reviews several different types of art/fiction/culture and provides assessments of their suitability for conveying EA ideas.
Just to reiterate, the method of creating these assessments is highly subjective and had little-to-no science behind it. I would suggest that this be treated as a first draft, and I would be happy for others to evolve this thinking further, both by questioning the dimensions of analysis (i.e. the columns in this table) and the individual assessments.
Again, I'm attempting to include a table here, however this is difficult to render effectively on this forum, and on my screen this looks too small to be easily legible. Apologies that my many attempts to capture this here better have been unfruitful.
If you’re wondering why I excluded art form X, the answer is almost certainly that I didn’t think of it.
The method for combining the assessments into an overall score was to linearly combine the scores with a weighting of 0.5 and 0.5 for the two tractability scores, 1 for the popularity score, and 2 for the suitability for expressing EA ideas score. Having done that, I used this as a starting point and then adjusted using my judgement.
The aim of these four assessments is to capture:
- Tractability 1: this is trying to capture the fact that some art forms are quite accessible (e.g. writing requires literacy and a computer, or at least a pen and paper) whereas others might require something more demanding (knowledge of music, ability to dance or sculpt) If, in fact, you already know (e.g.) lots about music, the assessment may need to be tweaked for your specific circumstances.
- Tractability 2: Just creating a thing at all is relatively easy – creating something good enough to be considered high quality is harder, and this is trying to capture that. Note that everything has low tractability on this basis, so a score of “good” is intended to be relative. It’s a place to capture that, for example, not only does a popular film need a marketing budget (as indeed, a popular book might too) but it also requires the right networks and lots of equipment (whereas self-publishing has democratised the book publishing process)
- Popularity reflects the fact that even if you create something good, some art forms have only a niche following
- Suitability for conveying EA ideas is self-explanatory
I'm of the view that expressing EA ideas through art/fiction/culture is an (as yet) underexploited method of communicating these ideas. I'd suggest that the benefits of this have the potential to be positive for consumers of the arts and also for those creating it. I myself have had many hours of pleasure from thinking about the stories I've been dreaming up.
My analysis (which is very much an initial stab which could probably be improved on) suggests that novels, stand-up comedy, poetry, and comic strips are good choices.
Appendix: some of my creative ideas
Beautopia -- your attractiveness reflects your karma
One day, inexplicably, "The Change" occurs -- everyone wakes up looking very different to how they looked before they went to sleep (albeit still recognisably the same person). Eventually people work out that how youthful and attractive people look is largely driven by the sum of the good or evil they have done (or their karmic balance). And your actions continue to influence your appearance after The Change.
Some people have pointed to parallels with The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I have multiple plot ideas for the Beautopia world. Here's a few of them:
- A girl gets bullied at school, gets into a sticky situation and ends up doing something nasty and becoming less attractive, leading to her love interest going off her. Suspended from school and deeply depressed, she finds herself looking through some old notes left behind by her dead father. She discovers that he had created a special database which enables people to rank charities according to their bang for your buck (and more impact per buck means more attractiveness for your buck). She goes on a mission to Africa to find the database (which has been taken there by her father's cofounder). She is being stymied by someone who she thinks is helping her; she doesn't know that he has a vested interest in a charity which is cost-ineffective. She ultimately triumphs, leading to her being more attractive, and also creating a better, healthier world.
- A group of people start going to a gym (before The Change). They become friends, even though they are quite different and have different motivations. After The Change, much of the way they use their time no longer makes sense, and they lose a lot of what feels like a core part of their personal identity. The story explores how different people respond to change, and shows how the ability to adapt to new circumstances and take pleasure in diverse things (including helping others) will help you in the long run
- A priest is sexually abusing children. At some point shortly after The Change, a friend of someone who has been abused becomes upset when the abused friend dies by suicide. Unable to find a healthy way to express his grief, he confronts and kills the priest. He knows that other instances of people killing someone have rendered the murderer less attractive, however in this case the killer becomes more attractive. The killer is then unsure about whether to come clean, but point to the improvement in attractiveness as evidence that the murder was the right decision. The story raises questions about the importance of the rule of law, and has echoes of "Minority Report"
Dead baby currency
This idea is inspired by https://80000hours.org/2012/06/dead-children-currency-51/
The concept is that every time you spend £3,000, a dead infant appears in your arms, and a big chunk of your vision is obscured by unavoidable hallucinations showing you the grieving family of the child, lasting for about 30 seconds. You are then left holding the baby, quite literally. That night, you will also have a nightmare which will vividly show the family of the child and how they loved the now-dead infant, and how they are suffering now.
The plot I have in mind has two strands.
Plotline 1: a lady from the bottom billion (say from sub-Saharan Africa) longs to have a child; somehow she manages to encounter a genie who enables her to have a child, and then cruelly the child dies. In her anger she summons the genie again and when she can't have her child back she wishes for something drastic to happen -- this causes the dead-baby-currency phenomenon to happen.
Plotline 2: the other plotline follows a man from Florida who has worked very hard to set up a business selling luxury yachts to high-net-worth individuals. In the dead baby currency world, he can't succeed. His wife (who spends £3,000 a month on clothes, and more on hair and shoes) becomes angry and depressed and their marriage falls apart. His business fails too. In his despair, he too manages to summon the genie. The genie says that to undo the dead baby currency phenomenon, he has to find the lady who caused it all to happen in the first place. On his journey to find her, he learns more about life for people in the bottom billion, and works out that a way out of the dead baby apparitions is to donate the money to good causes, e.g. to Malaria Consortium* . Finally in order to get this undone, the genie makes him wait for one year. After one year, he decides that he doesn't want to change anything, and the dead baby currency remains.
* cost per infant's life saved for Malaria Consortium = c £3,000; this ignores benefits to mortality rates among over 5s and development benefits; source GiveWell's CEA.
Lady with scope-sensitive empathy
The story tracks a lady whose empathy is quite normal when she considers something at the level of an individual. However she is someone for whom one death is a tragedy, and a million deaths is a million times as bad.
This has several consequences for her. For example, when someone explains the concept of hell to her as a child, she cries non-stop for a week, and can only be calmed once someone tells her that hell is not real. History lessons at school are tough for her. She is frequently bullied because of her odd behaviour.
The plot: she has been living her life for some time, just thinking she is an odd person, when an eerie warning suggests she is not safe. As the action-packed plot develops, she realises that she needs to look deep into her own psyche in order to understand the way her brain works, and ultimately to work out who are the people who genetically engineered her, and how can she keep herself safe from them.
Computer game with in-app donations
This is a Mario-style game, with in-app purchases that serve as "power-ups" for your character. The money then actually goes to a charity which the player can choose. Gameplay is paused briefly for the donation, but defaults to the same charity choice as last time, and is initially defaulted to a cost-effective choice of charity. Players are not coerced into choosing cost-effective charities. The effectiveness of the power-up is determined by the cost-effectiveness of the charity. E.g. if the power-up makes the character go faster, then the speed varies according to the charity's impactfulness. Doing this obviously requires data about the cost-effectiveness of lots of charities, however my organisation SoGive has such a database. Interested game players have the option to follow a link which will provide them with the justification for the power-up varying in effectiveness according to the choice of charity.