Archives and Altruism

Last night I went to a talk at KCL by the renowned philosopher and ethicist Professor Peter Singer. Singer is probably best known as the author of ‘Animal Liberation’ and for providing the intellectual underpinning for animal rights and veganism.

Currently though, his interests are centred around the idea of ‘effective altruism’, and this was what he was speaking about last night.

Effective altruism is an ethical position, and a framework for personal decision-making, with two key tenets:

  1. We should give as much of our personal earnings and wealth as we can to causes which, one way or another, reduce suffering (Singer gives equal weight to the suffering of all sentient creatures, meaning his definition of causes would include those that alleviate the suffering of animals – but that’s a discussion for another day!).
  2. We should choose our causes carefully so that they maximise the reduction of suffering. As an example, Singer noted that the cost of training a guide dog for the blind was around $4,000 (I think that was the figure). For that same sum, thousands of people in the developing world could be treated for trachoma – a major cause of treatable blindness. Singer’s argument is that, given the choice, we should donate to causes devoted to addressing the latter because far more people will benefit. Another aspect of this is that we should carefully research our charities and causes so that we donate to those with the best governance and highest effectiveness.

What has any of this got to do with archives?

Well, one of the points covered by Singer was that of choosing to donate to cultural or artistic causes – for example an appeal by a public gallery for donations to purchase a paintimh. He talked about how we can quantify the amount of human happiness that might be obtained by the that painting being placed on public display. We can predict the number of visitors, and make a judgement about how much their lives will be enhanced by the painting. Then we can, again, compare this with the suffering that could be alleviated by donating our money to causes treating trachoma. Unsurprisingly he concluded that the latter was more effective altruism.

I felt that this was something of a straw man argument, and allowed him to dismiss culture too easily, without addressing more challenging questions. An alternative example immediately occurred to me:

A collection of records, artefacts, recordings, artworks etc relating to a displaced people has come to light. It is the only collection to detail key elements of this people’s history, culture and testimony. It is irreplaceable and at high risk of loss without public donations. How do we quantify the psychological and emotional harm to current and future members of this group if this collection were to be lost? How also do we place a value on the more general loss to humanity of the disappearance of vital aspects of cultural memory? There surely is a value, but I’m not sure how one would calculate it.

A point to stress is that if the collection is lost, there’s no going back – that’s it, it’s lost for good.

I didn’t pose this in the Q and A partly because there were a forest of hands and partly because I felt it was likely not to be of a great deal of interest to most people. But it is, I hope, of interest to archivists and I’d love to hear others’ views. Do you accept Singer’s premise? What value should be placed on the preservation of cultural memory when compared to the alleviation of human (or animal) suffering?

Overall I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Singer’s argument. As a personal creed, it’s certainly a compelling idea that we should look hard at whether we need all the consumer goods and comforts that we purchase and whether we should instead be increasing our charitable donations (he mentioned, incidentally, that there is some evidence that doing so can actually make us happier).

But I think my feeling is that it’s an idea which, at scale, only makes sense because it’s never going to be fully adopted, and so we can avoid the knotty problems about short-term versus long-term, direct versus indirect impacts on a problem and so on.

In any case, a lot to chew on!



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