Hello, and welcome to the founding post of the Effective Aestheticism movement.
Effective Aestheticism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the beauty of the world. Effective Aestheticism is based on a very simple idea: we should make the world as beautiful as we can.
Obeying the usual rules about not defacing art, having orange wallpaper, or defecating in the street is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare.
warm glow aesthetes
Psychologists have noticed many people spend small amounts of money on many different kinds of art. These “warm glow aesthetes” aren’t motivated by true beauty, but simply enjoy the feeling of buying art. They normally don’t spend very long investigating different options in depth, rather they tend to buy things as they find them.
Effective Aestheticists are different. Effective Aetheticists will feel the pull of a pretty vase made by their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is truly the most beautiful thing. They know that a masterpiece is better than a pretty vase and that three masterpieces are better than one. So they don’t just grab whatever piece jumps out at them. They want to find the artworks that will produce the most beauty, given the abilities, time, and money they have.
Many, (though far from all), Effective Aestheticists are kalonitarians. They believe that the beauty of the whole world is found by quantifying the beauty of each of the things in the world, and then aggregating these numbers. Against those who think that one must never personally do anything ugly, they argue that creating ugly things can sometimes be justified for the sake of producing a greater number of beautiful things.
For example a kalonitarian might be willing to burn a portrait of her late mother if it were necessary to bring five similar portraits of other people into existence. A kalonitarian would applaud someone with moderate talents who became a choreographer. But might applaud that person even more if she instead became a stockbroker and used her greater wealth to found a dance school.
When we study art in great depth we find that for the same cost, some schools of art produce artwork that is ten or even a hundred times more beautiful. Effective Aestheticists spend a lot of time finding these exceptional schools and giving them as much money as they can afford to give. In pure numerical terms this is often far more effective than producing art yourself, or even focusing on flashy but inefficient things like conserving the Mona Lisa.
I’m going to conclude by telling you about an email that I received while I was writing this post. The email began, “Last Tuesday, I underwent cosmetic surgery to replace all of my old face with something far more beautiful”. There’s about 100 people each year in the U.S. and more in other countries who do that. I was pleased to read it. Chris went on to say that he’d been influenced by my writings in what he did.
Well, I have to admit, I’m also somewhat embarrassed by that, because I still have my original face. But Chris went on to say that he didn’t think that what he’d done was all that amazing, because he calculated that the amount of beauty that he had added to people who look at him over his life, was about the same that you could achieve if you gave 5,000 dollars to the London School of Fine Arts. And that did make me feel a little bit better, because I have given more than 5,000 dollars to the London School of Fine Arts and to various other effective art schools.
So if you’re feeling bad because you still have your old face as well, there’s a way for you to get off the hook.
Ok, so obviously this is a joke. And apologies to Peter Singer for gross copyright abuse. But there’s a serious point here about how the Effective Altruist movement deals with its own perception of how reasonable it is.
Other than “it’s offensive that you’d compare EA to this”, exactly what is wrong with the effective Aestheticism movement? I expect that thinking about this will help explain exactly what common sense ethics feels like from the inside.
So, what’s my reaction to Effective Aestheticism?
Well my first is that I don’t care much about beauty. Well that’s not true, you’d need to be soulless to not care. But I care a limited amount.
One pattern I see over and over is some EA explaining that by doing XYZ you can make vastly less suffering in the world, and some normal human saying “that’s very nice, but I’m not sure I’m interested in that very much”, and the EA being incredulous.
Suppose someone told you (with all kinds of graphs and studies to back it up), that if we all gave 10% of our income to some project we could make the world ten times more beautiful than it is now (in a way that had no implications for the suffering/happiness of sentient creatures). Would you care? How about twenty times? How about a million times? I mean, it’d be nice if that happened magically, but I’m not super excited to do it myself.
The second is even just in terms of making the world more beautiful. I’m far from convinced Effective Aestheticism is going about it in a sensible way. A world where we pursue the most beauty per dollar spent is a world that fails to be beautiful in an important sense of the word.
Now of course a sophisticated kalonitarian has decades of complex philosophy adding in huge caveats to this and adding in lots of very convincing justification. But I’ve never seen it. Ultimately aesthetics is just a matter of personal preference anyway, so I’m going to ignore those philosophers as not interesting. Obviously there aren’t matters of fact about what kinds of tastes are correct or incorrect. Some things are obvious (The Last Supper is beautiful, Piss Christ is not), but after that it’s up to us all to decide for ourselves.
And note that I still think this even if there is a science of aesthetics. Suppose someone who has spent decades studying art and who is backed up by centuries of academic study comes into your house, points at a picture on the wall and says (utterly unsolicited) that for the same price you could have got something twice as good. Suppose they are correct, and that you would, on reflection, agree with their assessment. How do you react?
If you defer to their domain expertise and find this advice helpful and appropriate then I don’t understand how your brain works. Anyone who does that is an asshole, and being correct isn’t justification.
But what about ethics?
I don’t actually think Effective Altruism and Effective Aestheticism are the same. I think Effective Altruism is better, more important, has a better foundation in the world around us. But I don’t think it’s actually as deep-in-my-bones-common-sense obvious as most people in the EA movement think it is.
I don’t think EA needs to lie or dumb itself down to respond to this problem. Nor do I want to suggest EA is incorrect about anything it asserts. I wouldn’t expect people to care less about doing good just because it’s not obvious to others. I simply want to point out that acting as though it’s obvious and intuitive you’re correct about this topic is not a good way to interact with normal humans.