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Not everything that counts can be counted

[ by Charles Cameron — not Einstein but a fellow Cameron gave me my title ]

I’ll admit I was uneasy when I read about the “effective altruism” movement in Peter Singer‘s Boston Review piece, The Logic of Effective Altruism, but I didn’t quite see how to phrase my unease. Here’s Singer’s explanation of the concept:

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing 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. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.

That’s the gist, but there’s a lot of what I can only term “moral cost-effectiveness” in there, as though goodness were a problem in engineering.

Today I read Michael J. Lewis‘s Commentary piece, How Art Became Irrelevant, and think I found the “why” of my unease, in the writer’s description of the German idea (“ideal”) of an architectural Existenzminimum:

This was the notion that in the design of housing, one must first precisely calculate the absolute minimum of necessary space (the acceptable clearance between sink and stove, between bed and dresser, etc.), derive a floor plan from those calculations, and then build as many units as possible. One could not add a single inch of grace room, for once that inch was multiplied through a thousand apartments, a family would be deprived of a decent dwelling. So went the moral logic.


  • Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
  • The heart has reasons Reason knows not of.
  • 8 Responses to “Not everything that counts can be counted”

    1. Ornamental Peasant Says:

      With respect Charles you are extrapolating the period architectural concept of ‘Existenzminimum’ into a general aesthetic principal. In fact it began in particular circumstances, the members of the Neue Sachlichkeit, attempting to grapple seriously in a cost effective manner with the mandate of Article 155 of the Weimar Constitution of 1919 to provide a ‘healthy dwelling’ for all Germans in times of economic adversity. The buildings were severe and ‘functionalist’ however there were also mandated access to green space, transportation and the like. At the time the objections from the political right were that such apartments were too luxurious for ‘simple people.’ Perhaps the most famous example is the Deutscher Werkbund’s ’Weissenhof Estate’ of 1927, constructed in Stuttgart on the site plan and overall supervision of Mies van der Rohe as a showcase exhibition. The kitchens are legendary – they were themselves the subject of an exhibition at MoMA NY in 2010-11.
      (Dedicated site:
      http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/counter_space )
      There are many ironies, among them that the superficial characteristics of this movement were adapted into a shallow ‘style’ – the ‘International Style’ (deriving from the continental travel snapshots of Philip Johnson and a thin veneer of commentary by Henry Russell Hitchcock, published 1931, exhibited MoMA 1932 .) which became the symbol of American post world war II corporate triumphalism and an international shorthand for ‘modernity.’ And that the particular methods and schemes first designed for war wary German workers in a materially scarce environment to offer as much as possible for as little as possible, are now refined even further and employed by the leading American ‘mass luxe’ for profit builders like KB Homes, Pulte etc., beneath the stylistic veneer of choice, who offer analogous ‘portfolios’ of cradle to grave package, from children’s bedrooms to retirement communities.

    2. Grurray Says:

      ” it began in particular circumstances”
      The circumstances were political. Ask Adolph Loos

    3. Ornamental Peasant Says:

      Loos concept was of ‘appropriate’ ornament, distinguishing between organic and superfluous which, in my opinion, owes far more to the moralizing and rationalization of the Arts And Crafts Movement and could therefore be said to derive as much from Morrissian Socialism and, ultimately, the romantic “Christian corporatism” of Ruskin.
      Loos, and others, did not in any sense proscribe the use of luxurious material – indeed the aesthetics of Mies Barcelona Pavilion (1929) demand the spectacular use of extravagant materials – something he specialized in when designing for the well to do, be it for the Villa Tugenhart, (1930) or, later, the luxurious use of bronze in the frame of the Seagram Building (1958) and the extravagance with expensive Manhattan space in its plaza.
      The intellectual influences on ‘Existenzminimum’ were many, but I would see them as deriving ultimately from the forms of mathematical modeling and social calculation first expressed in detail by Alfred Marshall in ‘Principles of Economics’(1890) — particularly the sections of Book IV – Ch. IV s2 devoted to subsistence and his Notes 42 & 42 uneasy about long term attempts to forestall Malthusian demographic catastrophe.

    4. Grurray Says:

      Interesting. I had to look that one up. Minimalism was seen as necessary to provide moral restraint to check the natural human state of proliferation. Certainly seems plausible. I would add that Modernism also assigned a financial restraint. All that previous ornament did a great job of masking bad materials and flawed construction. There’s nowhere to hide mistakes in a Mies building, so it had better be made the right way with no shortcuts.

    5. Grurray Says:

      In the long list of influences, I wouldn’t want us to forget St. Thomas Aquinas
      “When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible.
      The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic QUIDDITAS, the WHATNESS of a thing.”

    6. T. Greer Says:

      “as though goodness were a problem in engineering.”


      The EA movement is utilitarian to its core. It leaves no room for ‘virtue ethics’ of any sort–they would rather see a rich man give aid to combating malaria in Africa for publicity reasons than have him humbly work in the community shelter because of feelings of compassion or charity. When utilitarianism is your main moral framework, this kind of quantitative ethics is inevitable.

    7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

      Given our current technological progress and the fact that the Earth’s resources are now more in reach than ever before in human history (with extraterrestrial bodies also soon becoming available), we should have little difficulty insuring abundance for everyone.
      But the problem is in defining “the good” re: altruism. In fact, the term is so fuzzy, any claims or commandments about it, and about “doing” it, beyond the basics, seem rather silly. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s pronouncement on mystical explanations: “Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.” The “good” that can be done unto others is similarly absurd, because it is so fuzzy.
      I am not at all a fan of utilitarian definitions of “the good,” although I do think that some such definitions have the benefit of not perpetrating deception via fuzzy, mystical conceptualiztion of “the good.”

    8. Purpleslog Says:

      Right on, CGW.

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