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Does art reduce suffering?

March 30, 2013


Since reading Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics one lazy summer holiday – it was nestled between the Bryce Courtenays and Catherine Cooksons at the beach-house I was staying at – I have considered myself a utilitarian.

That book, plus the time I’ve spent over at the utilitarian community Felicifia, and getting to know the work of the younger thinkers shaping the field such as Brian Tomasik and Toby Ord, has reshaped my worldview in important ways. My moral outlook today is now markedly different from the conventional, left-liberal Weltanschaaung I had in my twenties. I’m passionate about reducing suffering of sentient beings in the most effective possible ways – through tackling global poverty, ending factory farming, developing ways to lessen the suffering of wild animals, and exploring how to reduce the pain of future sentient beings (human, animal and especially artificial intelligent machines or putative “suffering subroutines”).

But where does that dramatic shift in my ethical outlook leave my lifelong desire to “do art”, principally by writing stuff, the only vocation I’ve ever felt drawn to? Art is not generally, in my opinion, an efficient way to reduce human or animal suffering. It may increase happiness (though I’m not sure it does that any more effectively than a hug or a cup of tea or a game of soccer or gift of a pair of socks). But regardless, the particular flavour of utilitarianism I identify with puts much more emphasis on alleviating pain rather than inducing pleasure.

Surely there must be some examples of creative works that have reduced suffering? Certainly, some have probably furthered goals of social justice and in a roundabout way decreased suffering. Some examples in no particular order: the movie 9 to 5, for wrapping up a bunch of key liberal feminist complaints in a comedic, candy coating appealing to middle America; the film Philadelphia, which sought to increase empathy for people living with HIV/AIDS; Babe, which apparently led to people abstaining from pork; the songs “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”; the sitcom Will & Grace, which normalized, to an extent, the portrayal of gay men on television; To Kill A Mockingbird; Uncle Tom’s CabinOliver Twist and David Copperfield, for shining a light on child poverty in Victorian England. 1984 and Animal Farm framed the parameters of the public debate about totalitarianism, and probably alerted a few useful idiots to the evils of Stalinism. I’m sure there are others.

The problem is that these politically effective works of art, that have a net positive utilitarian impact, are few and far between. In the context of the millions of books, films, songs and pictures produced each year, they’re essentially black swan events. What’s more, there’s no obvious link between their political or utilitarian impact and their artistic merit. Indeed, more challenging and original artworks — a key defining trait of good art, in my aesthetics —  seem prima facie unlikely to make much of a widespread impact, because by their nature they appeal only to a niche audience. What’s more, avant garde art (particularly visual art) prides itself on a sort of non-obviousness, and the really heavy hitters in the history of polemic artworks have been nothing if not obvious. Uncle Tom’s Cabin wields its message like a polemical baseball bat.

Where does this leave the artist who’s interested in reducing suffering in a measurable way? I’m not sure; I’m still trying to work that out. Perhaps they should become a doctor instead (or a software tycoon who gives away their fortune to charity). Perhaps, like good food or sex or dancing, art should simply be practiced gratia artis, with a clear acceptance that it is a totally ineffective way of reducing suffering (and in the strictest sense, following Singer’s golden pond analogy, selfish and possibly morally horrific).

Though of course, one could follow the 80,000 hours philosophy and simply make lots of money from one’s art and then donate it to a highly effective charity, such as the Against Malaria Foundation. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover the problem with that strategy.

One Comment

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  1. February 19, 2020

    Great points! You have left out that art reduces the suffering of the artist. Promoting a world in which people feel comfortable doing art allows more people to reduce their own suffering.

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