Why do effective altruists support the causes we do?

Effective altruism is most associated with three causes: global poverty, alleviating animal suffering and preventing existential risks. (Sometimes ‘meta’ is added to this list, but that seems more accurately characterised as a way to work on the other causes—more on that later.) Why this focus, given that there are so many other causes important to effective altruism (from political change to combating climate change) and that we should expect to continue finding more?

I think the reason is that our current delineation of causes cuts along beneficiary lines: present humans, non-human animals, and future conscious beings. Some of the most significant insights of effective altruism in terms of finding more effective ways to help others have come from highlighting different beneficiary groups. Since the groups above seem to exhaust the space of beneficiaries (if what we care about is well-being), we can’t expect to get more effectiveness improvements in this way. In future, such improvements will have to come from finding new interventions, or intervention types. These are harder to find, and likely to lead to fewer orders of magnitude improvement. This post is on how the current ‘causes in EA’ seem to arise from distinguishing beneficiary groups. In a follow up I’ll discuss what the implications of that might be in terms of our likelihood of finding more effective causes.

‘Cause’ is a very fuzzy term. If you think of the different things that we tend to talk about as causes, they actually seem to fall in different categories. Take the causes ‘alleviating global poverty’ and ‘structural change’. These are sometimes described as alternatives to each other, yet structural change seems more naturally a way to achieve the alleviation of poverty. This is likewise true of the cause ‘meta’. This fuzziness increases all the more what could fall into the category of ‘causes we could be supporting’, and makes it all the more surprising that there would be three singled out.

Distinguishing groups of beneficiaries

The starting point of effective altruism is increasing well-being: not just of those close to and similar to us, but all over the world and into the future. EA activities therefore fall into three groups: helping people currently existing, helping non-human animals, and helping future conscious beings. This maps out the whole space of possible effective altruism activities. There are altruistic activities which fall outside this grouping – for example, working to improve biodiversity for its own sake. But these don’t improve anyone’s well-being, and so fall outside the scope of effective altruism.

There are other ways to group beneficiaries than the 3 categories above. You might distinguish simply between existing sentient beings and future sentient beings. Or you might draw finer distinctions, such as between non-human animals whose suffering is caused by humans and wild animals.

There are several reasons for using the three-fold distinction amongst beneficiaries:

  • The groups are systematically different in how much information we have about their cost-effectiveness: We have first-hand experience of how good it is to help other humans, while it’s more difficult to know how to compare helping humans to helping other animals. Interventions that help others in the present can typically be tested for how well they work, unlike interventions aimed at the future.

  • The kinds of things which will help the various groups will typically be somewhat more similar to each other than to those which help others of the groups.

  • These distinctions are typically drawn quite strongly in people’s minds, and they represent different ways in which humanity’s moral circle could do with being widened—to people spatially far away, to people temporally far away, and to species other than our own.

From beneficiaries to causes

The three fold distinction amongst beneficiaries lines up with the three causes,

still doesn’t explain why we’d focus on the particular causes I started with. What additional assumptions lead to those causes predominating?

Helping people who currently exist

‘Helping people who currently exist’ is a broader aim than ‘fighting extreme poverty’. There are a large number of things which might be expected to help humanity – from finding really successful treatments for depression to curing aging to combating anti-biotic resistance. However, people discussing effective altruism often seem to equate helping current humanity and eradicating extreme poverty. We often take two statements as given:

P1: It is typically most effective to help those who are worst off

P2: ‘Fighting extreme poverty’ should be understood in very broad terms.

Why accept P1?

There are different ways to define ‘poverty’, but as it is most usually used in effective altruism, it refers to something like global extreme poverty – living on less than US(2005)$1.25 purchasing power parity adjusted. Diminishing marginal returns means we should expect people who are poorer to be more cost-effective to help. Typically, the worse off someone is, the more likely it is that there are cheap things that can be done to help them (for example, providing deworming tablets). Once the low hanging fruit have been plucked, things that can be done to help them will be more expensive for the amount they help (for example, long-term chemotherapy treatments for cancer). People in extreme poverty are even more likely to benefit from very cost-effective interventions because the countries they live in typically lack basic infrastructure. All else equal, earning a similar amount (purchasing power parity adjusted) would be worse in, say, Sierra Leone than the UK, because in the UK you would be able to take advantage of the NHS and other such services.

What do we mean by P2?

In some circles, ‘alleviating extreme poverty’ is understood in very specific terms – encompassing charitable interventions which increase people’s income to more than $1.25 dollars/​day. When discussing effective altruism, something much more general is meant – essentially helping those in extreme poverty as much as we can. That might be by charitable interventions which increase their income (like direct cash transfers). It might be by pushing policy changes such as trade liberalisation. It might be commercial ventures such as improving cell phone coverage (for example, mobile phones are very useful for farmers in order to check the prices at different local markets and work out where they should sell their crops). Combining this understanding of what alleviating poverty means with the premise that helping people who are worse off is usually more cost-effective than helping those who are better off leads to the conclusion that alleviating poverty is typically going to be the most effective way to help humanity in the present.

Helping non-human animals

The second cause is sometimes phrased ‘alleviating animal suffering’ and sometimes as ‘animal rights’. I assume that these are used largely interchangeably: that protecting the rights of animals focuses on protecting their right not to be harmed. These concepts are already fairly broad, but it is not quite as broad as ‘increasing the well-being of non-human animals’. If helping non-human animals as much as we can is to entail working on the cause of reducing non-human animal suffering Premise 3 must be true:

P3: The most effective way to help animals will typically be to decrease their suffering, rather than increase their enjoyment.

There may be some interventions currently being implemented which increase the enjoyment of animals, and even more plausibly there might research being done into ways to increase animal’s well-being set-point. But it still seems very plausible that it is currently more effective to decrease the suffering of animals in the world.

Helping future sentient beings

‘Mitigating existential risks’, as with the other two causes, is somewhat broader than it initially sounds. You might classify the risks into three categories:

Extinction risks: events which would wipe out all conscious future beings.

Eternal loss: events which cause the loss of most of the future value of the universe but without wiping out conscious beings – for example, an event which wipes out most humans and puts us back to the level of technology before the industrial revolution.

Unrealised eternal gains: failure to take advantage of huge opportunities for value in the future – for example, staying on Earth if we could have colonised the galaxy (if we thought that doing so was a good thing).

You might wonder whether mitigating existential risks really captures everything that can be done to help future creatures. The most important distinction to draw amongst ways of helping the future is between irrevocable future alterations and non-irrevocable alterations. That is to say – changes which persist in the world, versus changes which lead to a world which only temporarily differs from the alternative. For example, perhaps if we increase investment to fighting malaria, we can eradicate malaria in 2030. It seems plausible to me that as we’re currently going, we will eradicate malaria, but not until later on – perhaps 2070. This is a non-irrevocable change in the world: our work meant that the world was malaria free for 40 extra years. On the other side, a pandemic which killed all humans would be something that we could not recover from, and therefore be entirely irrevocable. ‘X-risks’ is intended to capture changes in the world that are largely or entirely irrevocable. Mitigating x-risks would be the best way to help future sentient creatures if P4 were true:

P4: We should focus on irrevocable rather than revocable future changes.

Why accept P4?

All else equal, the longer the change you made in the world persists for, the bigger the value change you’ve caused. Our highest leverage opportunities, therefore, are going to come from changes that are entirely irrevocable. Therefore, we should expect preventing irrevocable future changes for the worse to be the highest impact way we have of helping the future.

This reasoning seems to make it a bit more explicable why effective altruism is often said to concentrate on just three causes. It can also give us some insight into the likelihood of our finding even more effective causes.