Guided by the Beauty of One’s Philosophies: Why Aesthetics Matter

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Hi! This is my first post here. I had been thinking about aesthetics for philosophical movements and ended up using Effective Altruism as a case study, so it felt appropriate to share the essay, first published here, on the EA forum. Note that it’s not written primarily for an EA audience, and it is somewhat of an outsider’s perspective. I’ve been familiar with EA for several years, but I probably got some things wrong anyway.

The most successful ideology of all time is arguably Christianity. It is two thousand years old, has about two and a half billion adherents, and has been the dominant religion of most of the most powerful countries. Few belief systems have come close, although the other big religions are in the same order of magnitude. If we ask the question of secular ideologies, then the strongest contender is probably liberalism, which has been at the core of the political and economic systems of the wealthiest states over the past few centuries.

Now let us perform a little exercise. After you have read this paragraph, close your eyes, and take a few moments to visualize Christianity. It won’t be obvious, since Christianity is an abstract idea, but you should be able to see something anyway. You can imagine the sounds, too. When you are done, do the same for liberalism.

What did you see and hear?

To my mind’s eye, Christianity immediately evokes magnificent cathedrals, spires rising into the sky, the play of light through stained glass, and elaborately ornamented architectural detail. I see Jesus on the cross, and indeed crosses everywhere: the cross is a simple symbol, easy to remix into countless variations. I hear organ music, and choirs singing, and bells ringing, and the hypnotic utterances of a priest during mass.

I am not a Christian, but I enjoy singing in this church as part of a secular choir. It’s not even an especially interesting church, but its aesthetics are good and different from the aesthetics in the rest of my life.

Liberalism is trickier to visualize, but some things come to mind too: the Statue of Liberty overlooking New York harbor. Lady Justice, blinded and watchful. Neoclassical buildings, serving as the houses of government or the law, with their white marble columns and stately appearance — a nod to the birthplace of democracy in ancient Athens. Sounds: the chatter of lively debate in a coffee house of the Enlightenment; the bustle of an industrious and ethnically diverse city; the scribbling a quill laying down the principles of political liberty.

The partially built Statue of Liberty in Paris, 1878 — a gift from a liberal republic to another, drawing from symbols of ancient Rome, the French Enlightenment, and modern America.

These descriptions point to what we can call an aesthetic. An aesthetic is a coherent, recognizable style. It manifests in everything from architecture to music, clothing, poetry, storytelling, or website design. Aesthetics determine how beautiful a thing is, which is simply a specific way of saying how interesting it is.

Not all aesthetics are created equal. It seems clear to me, at least, that Christianity has a richer aesthetic tapestry than liberalism does. Yet liberalism still has an aesthetic. Other religions and philosophies have their own, with varying levels of definition: the relationship between an ideology and its art is not straightforward. The aesthetic of a movement can be intentional or incidental. It can derive from existing prestige and power, or it can be the cause of prestige and power (or a mix of both in a self-reinforcing feedback loop). It can obscure the goals of the movement through attractive propaganda, or make them legible by bringing to light a clear vision.

Whatever the situation, it should be obvious that aesthetics matter. They matter because they are unavoidable — if you don’t define them, they will be defined for you, probably in a haphazard way — and because they are often associated with success in some way. It would be a mistake to view them as a superficial part of your enterprise, a casual task that you can offload to some marketing department to deal with PR while you focus on “the important problems.” Companies, political parties and philosophical movements that ignore their aesthetics are poised to do less good for the world (at least according to them) than they could otherwise do. What could possibly matter more?

One such movement has been catching quite a bit of tailwind recently: Effective Altruism. Rooted in utilitarian ethics, Effective Altruism seeks to maximize the good that a person can do in their life by examining the impact of various choices, such as careers and giving to charity. With the recent launch of organizations such as the Future Fund, it has been able to mobilize large sums of money and is becoming an increasingly relevant part of the public discussion on global problems such as poverty and risk from artificial intelligence.

This is, overall, a good development. People making a serious effort at improving the world is great! But for reasons that I have had a hard time articulating, I have been unable to get enthusiastic about Effective Altruism, despite knowing about it for years and agreeing with most of the philosophy it rests upon. I have been led time and time again to the inescapable conclusion that Effective Altruism is the right approach, at least in theory — and yet I really balk at the idea of identifying as an effective altruist.

Why would that be? A possible answer is that I’m mistaken about my own beliefs. Perhaps, as a fallible human, I do not truly want to be ethical. Or perhaps utilitarianism is not the right framework for me. Yet neither of these things match my internal experience: I do think that people should try to do good, and my complex thoughts around utilitarianism lean towards it being at least as good as the alternatives.

A more likely hypothesis is that I dislike the current incarnation of Effective Altruism in the real world. That could be because of its social scene, for instance. But again that’s not quite it, since I interact with effective altruists often enough and enjoy doing so. Neither is it because I disagree with the priorities of the movement as I understand them.

Instead, the most interesting explanation I have at the moment is that Effective Altruism has an aesthetic problem. Its visual style is underdeveloped. Its ideas are expressed with dry and boring language. It inspires very little art. As a result, it has been difficult for me to get excited about contributing, or even to make sure that the values of the movement match mine. And I’m not the only one in this situation. The scientist Michael Nielsen recently said that a disregard of the arts by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer may be a sign of something wrong in Effective Altruism’s very foundations. So we could reasonably conclude that Effective Altruism is made less effective and perhaps even less altruistic by the lack of intentionality around its aesthetics. If true, this poses a serious problem to the movement.

The logo of Effective Altruism, for your aesthetic consideration.

This is not primarily a post about Effective Altruism, nor is it a full-fledged critique. Rather, it is the perspective of an outside observer who wishes well on the movement, and who worries that a lack of aesthetic may be a larger obstacle than effective altruists may think. More importantly, it is a useful case study of a philosophy with minimal aesthetics, which we can use to examine three reasons why beauty matters to a movement: attracting people, making members feel good and remain involved, and solving the value alignment problem.

Most things that can be called a “movement” depend on recruiting members. This can be done in any number of ways, including rational persuasion, peer pressure, and outright coercion. But the best method is arguably seduction.

Religions understand this well — or at least, the ones that have survived to this day do. To thrive, a religion must gain new followers in either of two ways (or both): by encouraging its members to pass on the religious memes to their children, or by convincing non-followers to convert. In both cases, having a rich artistic and architectural tradition helps.

In politics, the art of gaining new converts is known as propaganda when it is done by someone in a position of power. Communist propaganda, with its clearly defined realist aesthetic, comes to mind. But aesthetics also matter for movements that are trying to gain power, notably in democracies in the form of political campaigning. Political parties engage in marketing, a term that also describes the act of seduction in the world of business.

North Korean propaganda is the best propaganda! (source)

The relationship between power and art is complex, and it seems common that aesthetics receive more attention not before, but after a seizure of power (which itself depends on the strength of ideas or of an army, or both). Once a new king has established a dynasty, he will commission monuments and lavish buildings to legitimize his rule. Once a revolutionary movement has taken hold of the capital, it will create art to show its moral superiority over the previous government. In this way, politics works differently than religion, whose focus on spirituality often means that the aesthetic experience is central from the beginning.

Therefore, I would hesitate to claim that a movement (or company) must invest in its aesthetics well before it has grown. At the start, resources are limited. There may be other priorities.

In the medium to long term, however, aesthetics matter. The reason is that they are what Scott Alexander has called a “symmetric weapon.” Once you are important enough to have competition (from other ideologies, parties, religions, companies, etc.), then ignoring your own appeal means that you will lose support to your competitors if they use their weapon. Unlike an asymmetric weapon — something like logic, which works well only for the people who side with truth — a symmetric weapon can be effective no matter who uses it. The Nazis can create inspiring art, and if you don’t counter with your own inspiring art, then you’re giving the Nazis a chance.

Some effective altruists are keenly aware of this. An essay from late 2021 argues that fun writing can save lives, since it allows important ideas to be read more widely and therefore improve their impact. (“Fun” isn’t quite the same thing as beauty, but can be considered part of aesthetics.) What’s quite fascinating is that the author spends more than half of the essay’s length anticipating objections such as “Won’t interesting writing lower the quality of the epistemics?” and “The highest impact people don’t care about it being interesting.” Her answers are on point, but clearly the issue is somewhat controversial among effective altruists. And all this preempting didn’t manage to catch everything: the discussion below the article brought up several other points of pushback.

Many of the comments were about a specific concern: the difference between mass-market and elite appeal. A piece of art or writing could be intended to reach as many people as possible, by using strategies such as clickbaity headlines or sexualized imagery. But you don’t always want to do this. In fact, sometimes you want the opposite: your aesthetics should seek to attract only a sliver of the population, to get only the best people and to avoid growing too fast. Arguably, Effective Altruism is one of these “elite-first” movements: the people who identify as effective altruists are expected to be highly-educated, sophisticated people who have given much thought to ethics and philosophy.

This concern is valid, and it adds useful nuance to my take. But it doesn’t contradict it. Even if your movement is supposed to be for the educated or the powerful, you still need to do the job of rallying those people. In fact, the small size of the elite, together with their generally higher means of achieving goals (due to wealth, intellect, and connections) means that competing for their attention is even more crucial to success. And whether they want to admit it or not, elite people are sensitive to aesthetics. A billionaire who agrees with Effective Altruism may pride themselves in thinking that they don’t care how “interesting” an essay is, as long as it’s correct and impactful, but they will be less likely to read a dry and boring essay anyway.

Put differently, the aesthetics you need depend on your target audience, and it’s very much worth worrying about that. But there does not exist a possible target audience for which aesthetics don’t matter.

Having attracted people to your movement, the obvious next step is to make sure that they stay involved. To make them stay, you need to provide them with something — such as joy, meaning, or interesting experiences. To achieve this, a sensible strategy is to surround them with beauty.

Think of two companies, both equally attractive on paper. One has dreary offices, dominated by the color gray, fluorescent lighting, cubicles, and practical desks and chairs. The other has established its workspace in an elegant old building, and filled the place with plants, sunlight, colorful furniture, and art. Which one is more likely to retain its employees?

The playful Google office aesthetic (left, source) has become cliché by now, but it’s still much more inspiring than the equally cliché cubicle farm (right, source).

There’s no need to belabor the idea that quality of life is important and that it depends in no small part on aesthetics. But it’s worth pointing out that while my previous answer — attracting strangers — framed aesthetics as a tool to be used, this answer is, in a sense, more fundamental. It shows that beauty is a basic need of believers that must be met. If it isn’t, then your believers will lose motivation and leave the movement or, worse, stay and slowly become depressed and suicidal.

This sounds dramatic, but it isn’t far-fetched. The most famous proponent of utilitarianism himself, John Stuart Mill, suffered from depression as a young man when he realized that accomplishing his goal of a just society wouldn’t make him happy. From his autobiography:

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”

At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

What saved Mill? You guessed it: poetry and the arts.

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life. . . . [His] miscellaneous poems . . . proved to be the precise thing for my mental wants at that particular juncture.

Effective Altruism is based on the same philosophy, and as a result its adherents are at risk of falling in the same trap. As paraphrased from Twitter, there are many people who, in trying to “maximize utility,” just end up feeling “fucking miserable.”

This is not a trivial problem! It’s easy to say that an effective altruist should care about their own happiness and surround themselves with art, if that helps them maximize impact. But it’s tricky to do in practice, when you are used to calculating the impact of every dollar (or hour) that you spend. Sure, you could buy this nice painting for your living room, or spend some time learning to play music, but couldn’t you buy some malaria nets to save lives in Africa instead? Or work more at your high-paying job so that you can throw more money at the malaria nets?

At the core of Effective Altruism is the idea that we should “shut up and multiply,” which means ignoring our intuitions in favor of cold, dispassionate calculations of what is good. Since aesthetics are a key source of intuition on moral goodness, a utilitarian may be tempted to do away with them entirely — and thereby make themselves miserable.

To be fair, the tension between cold calculation and moral intuition has been central to Effective Altruism since its inception. The entire movement can be said to exist in reaction to most models of charity, which maximize the good feelings of philanthropists rather than their actual impact. It would be counterproductive to suggest that effective altruists give that up. But it seems plausible that their reaction has gone slightly too far.

Aesthetics provide an elegant solution to course-correct. They can add a layer of inspiration and emotional appeal to the sense of purpose that drives the movement, but which may not be sufficient on its own. And they don’t even require a huge investment of resources: commissioning some art would probably be just a rounding error in the big philanthropy budgets. So it may even be a good way to “maximize impact.”

More generally, this is a lesson that political parties should learn, too. With rare exceptions, political aesthetics are markedly poor, perhaps because parties try to appeal to everyone and end up with bland visual identities. As a result, there is very little joy that comes from being in them. I suspect that this is a major reason that people are dissatisfied with traditional political blocks.

Of course, it’s not easy to develop good and uncontroversial aesthetics, especially when you aim for broad appeal. But it’s something worth trying. Most religions show that it’s an achievable goal. (Incidentally, the lack of inspiring aesthetics may be why New Atheism has mostly failed as a movement, while religions are still doing just fine.)

The third and last reason that aesthetics are important for success is that they help determine what success even is.

A philosophical question: What is the point of art? Certainly a part of the answer is that art creates pictures, sounds, and stories that are pleasant to the senses. A more sophisticated thinker might add that art has a spiritual dimension: it is good for the soul as much as for the body. But even deeper than that, I think that art is a worthwhile endeavor because it forces us to pay attention to what is most important.

In other words, art is the main mechanism by which humans create visions of what they want. Our true desires are typically hidden by the fog of daily life and bodily needs, and we need to be challenged by a novel, a movie, or a painting in order to understand what these desires are. The process may be aspirational: a beautiful photograph of a landscape may make us realize that we have a yearning for nature. It may also be cautionary: dystopian fiction is about defining what kind of future we don’t want.

When a movement spends time and energy defining its aesthetics, it also, simultaneously, defines its values. It’s not the only way to define one’s values. But it often leads to different results than the other ways, like pure reason or religious revelation.

Consider the current state of Effective Altruism’s aesthetics, insofar as it has any. Its logo is a lightbulb with a heart in it. Its main website is clean, with teal as a dominant color, a graph as the first image, and not a whole lot of art. When I asked people online what they thought Effective Altruism’s aesthetics were, the answers revolved around spreadsheets, precision, math, and basic clothing.

A screenshot from as of May 2022, evidently seeking to attract people who like colorful graphs.

To the extent that a vision of the future can be extrapolated from this, it seems to be a future of pure optimization, in which we do not waste our resources on flashy clothes or leisure time — or one in which we have replaced humans with robots who don’t suffer and are easy to make happy by incrementing a variable, thereby “maximizing utility.” I’m not claiming that these visions are what effective altruists actually want, but it’s hard to deny that they’re what their aesthetics suggest.

In fact, scratch that: if you haven’t put in any work to make sure that your aesthetics suggest the future you want, maybe you don’t truly want it. Maybe (some) effective altruists would actually be okay with a fully “optimized” world, in which all living beings are wireheaded to a system that feeds them a chemically-induced bliss.

Is that the world that effective altruists would like to see come true? Probably not, for most of them. But without art to show us otherwise, how can we be sure? If you’re an effective altruist who does not want this, how can you steer the movement away from what would otherwise appear to be its logical conclusion?

Success is not a good thing if you succeed at something that is morally abhorrent. So it is fortunate that aesthetics, in addition to helping movements succeed by attracting people and improving the lives of its followers, can also contribute to figuring out the right kind of success. In this way, it helps solve a problem analogous to the alignment problem in artificial intelligence: making sure that the values of a powerful non-human thing — a movement or an AI — are aligned with those of humanity.

Of course, aesthetics are not a guarantee of morality. The Nazis are a shining counterexample, with their elegant swastika symbol, their stylish uniforms, a taste for grandiose architecture, and ethics that were about as wrong as ethics can get. But then again, they liked to display skulls on their caps. Which led a fictional Nazi, in a classic British comedy skit, to wonder: are the Nazis the baddies?

’“I mean, what do skulls make you think of? Death. Cannibals. Beheading. Pirates.” “Pirates are fun!” “I didn’t say we weren’t fun, but fun or not, pirates are still the baddies.”’

So perhaps aesthetics are not a fully symmetric weapon after all. They can help reveal the moral worth of an ideology. They can show directly that a movement wants to bring goodness to the world, since art and beauty are good. Effective altruists and political campaigners may worry that aesthetics distract them from their goals, but that’s something only someone who’s afraid of firing the weapon would say — either because their goals are unclear, or because their goals are wrong.

Suppose you agree that aesthetics are important, and you want to provide your movement with some. What should you do? What kind of art should you aim for?

Any precise answer depends on the specifics, of course. For Effective Altruism, there are some interesting suggestions. Solarpunk is one. It is, with its focus on both nature and technology, one of the most common aspirational aesthetics, yet one that is, for some reason, almost never embodied by any real movement.

A widely circulated piece of solarpunk art, by Imperial Boy.

Another idea that I saw floating around an effective altruist discussion group is this modern sculpture from the Grady Hospital in Atlanta, to emphasize that death is bad and should be fought:

Keeping Away Death by Julian Hoke Harris. Compare with the Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, a great piece of storytelling about vanquishing death, by effective altruist philosopher Nick Bostrom.

As a sign that Effective Altruism is not completely devoid of aesthetics, this poster for a recent event in Boston is also quite nice:

Seen here.

All of these are aspirational in very different ways. The solarpunk aesthetic in fact doesn’t please all effective altruists: some think that it carries with it the errors of environmentalism, which shuns industry even though industry has been the most efficient way we have found to increase welfare. Fair enough! Such debates are the whole process of trying to define your values through your aesthetics. As we saw, it’s not necessarily easy to reach consensus on these questions.

But let me conclude with a suggestion for an aesthetic that is, at the moment, underutilized. You see where I’m going with this: classicism.

Classical antiquity provides the foundation to Western culture — and, through Western influence, to the world’s. As such, it is an aesthetic choice that manages to be both fairly neutral and compelling, while also drawing from a rich artistic and architectural tradition. Yet for whatever reason, classicism is less in vogue now than it has been for most of Western history. So it doesn’t take a lot of effort to remix it into something original. Of course, classicism is more on the elite side of the aesthetic spectrum, since it assumes quite a bit of background knowledge on history and literature, but as we discussed, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And then again, there exist low-brow artistic movements that incorporate classical aesthetics, like vaporwave. (source)

I shall make no comment as to whether Effective Altruism or any particular ideology should adopt the visual style of the Greco-Roman world. But I do predict that those who do are likely to find themselves more successful than others in the next few decades. Classical aesthetics have occupied the pinnacle of Western art many times in the past few millennia. They will again. And then the only question is: through which movement?

Further reading

  • LARPing Up the Wrong Tree, my last essay for The Classical Futurist, can serve as a counterweight to this piece. It is about the dangers of making your movement solely about aesthetics.

  • A call from 2019 on the EA forums to use art to convey Effective Altruism.

  • Also from the EA forums, a very recent and widely read piece on current challenges in community building. Not directly related to aesthetics, but aesthetics could be a part of the answer.

  • The results of a solarpunk art contest from last year.

  • The effective altruist philosopher Peter Singer on the ethical cost of high-price art (2014).