If Contractualism, Then AMF


This post is a part of Rethink Priorities’ Worldview Investigations Team’s CURVE Sequence: “Causes and Uncertainty: Rethinking Value in Expectation.” The aim of this sequence is twofold: first, to consider alternatives to expected value maximization for cause prioritization; second, to evaluate the claim that a commitment to expected value maximization robustly supports the conclusion that we ought to prioritize existential risk mitigation over all else. This post considers the implications of contractualism for cause prioritization.

Executive Summary

  • Contractualism says that morality is about what we can justify to those affected by our actions. It explains why we care about morality by way of our interest in justifying ourselves to reasonable others. Insofar as we care about the relevant kind of justification, we should be able to feel the pull of contractualism. And insofar as contractualism captures moral judgments that consequentialist moral theories don’t, we may be inclined to give some credence to the view.

  • Contractualism says: When your actions could benefit both an individual and a group, don’t compare the individual’s claim to aid to the group’s claim to aid, which assumes that you can aggregate claims across individuals. Instead, compare an individual’s claim to aid to the claim of every other relevant individual in the situation by pairwise comparison. If one individual’s claim to aid is a lot stronger than any other’s, then you should help them. (That being said, contractualism is also compatible with saying: When the group is large enough and each group member’s claim is nearly as strong as the individual’s, you should help the group.) Contractualism, therefore, offers an alternative way of thinking about what it means to help others as much as possible with the resources available.

  • Accordingly, contractualism recommends a different approach to cost-effectiveness analysis than the one that’s dominant in EA. The standard EA view is that we should maximize expected value. The contractualist view is that insofar as we should maximize, we should be maximizing something like “the relevant strength-weighted moral claims that are addressed per dollar spent,” where the strength of an individual’s claim is largely determined by the gain in expected value for that individual if the act is performed.

  • So, it may be true that some x-risk-oriented interventions can help us all avoid a premature death due to a global catastrophe; maybe they can help ensure that many future people come into existence. But how strong is any individual’s claim to your help to avoid an x-risk or to come into existence? Even if future people matter as much as present people (i.e., even if we assume that totalism is true), the answer is: Not strong at all, as you should discount it by the expected size of the benefit and you don’t aggregate benefits across persons. Since any given future person only has an infinitesimally small chance of coming into existence, they have an infinitesimally weak claim to aid. By contrast, you can help the world’s poorest people a lot and with high confidence. So, given contractualism, the claims of the world’s poorest people win.

  • Contractualism probably won’t justify prioritizing all the things that EAs do related to global poverty. Essentially, it looks like it most clearly supports GiveWell-Top-Charity-like interventions—e.g., the kind of work that the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) does—because of the high probability of significant impact.

1. Introduction

What, if anything, could justify shifting resources away from the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) and toward existential risk mitigation efforts (x-risk)?

One way to feel the force of this question is to imagine having to justify such a shift to a desperately poor person—someone who may well die, or whose child may well die, because of your decision to allocate resources elsewhere. What, if anything, could you say to such a person?

There might be an adequate answer. Even if so, it would be surprising if it were easy to make the case to someone in such dire circumstances. And insofar as you feel pressure to be able to give a satisfying case to such a person, you should feel the pull of contractualism—a moral theory that’s become increasingly popular over the last 40 years. The central contractualist thesis (at least as T. M. Scanlon (1998) understands it, which is the version of the position on which we’ll focus here) is that moral wrongness is a matter of unjustifiability to others (and moral rightness a matter of justifiability to others). This theory promises to explain why morality is motivating: we care about morality because we care about being able to justify ourselves to others.

The purpose of this post is to consider the question of cause prioritization from the perspective of a non-consequentialist moral theory. We argue that contractualism generally looks more favorably upon interventions targeting very poor presently-existing individuals over interventions directed at protecting future people even when the expected value (EV) of the other interventions would be higher. Finally, we briefly consider the kinds of interventions that, you might think, would be especially important given contractualism: namely, interventions aimed at redressing injustices and those aimed at responding to claims grounded in special relations between beneficiaries and the benefactor. In those cases, we argue that contractualism does not require prioritizing injustices or those to whom we stand in special relations over the needs of badly-off distant strangers.

To be clear: this document is not a detailed vindication of any particular class of philanthropic interventions. For example, although we think that contractualism supports a sunnier view of helping the global poor than funding x-risk projects, contractualism does not, for all our argument implies, entail that many EA-funded global poverty interventions are morally preferable to all other options (some of which are probably high-risk, high-reward longshots). In addition, contractualism doesn’t vindicate (say) global-poor–targeting interventions on the same grounds that many other theories would.[1] For example, while some would favor antimalarial bednet distribution because of the number of DALYs that such an intervention averts, if contractualism favors antimalarial bednet distribution, then this is for very different reasons (as will become clearer in the next couple of sections). Still, we might have thought that contractualism couldn’t provide any guidance at all when it comes to cause prioritization. If the arguments of this post are correct, that isn’t true.

2. Contractualism

The canonical statement of contemporary contractualism is Thomas Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other (1998).[2] We’ll mostly (though, as will emerge, not entirely) treat Scanlon’s version of contractualism as representative of the view—or, at any rate, the aspects of the view relevant to our discussion.

Scanlon’s view has been the subject of an enormous amount of discussion[3]; philosophers disagree about how best to interpret it as well as about its implications for practical ethics. However, it’s safe to say that the heart of Scanlon’s view is the following thesis:

  • (C1) An act is wrong if and only if, and because, it is unjustifiable to others.[4]

Many moral theorists would agree that (as (C1) implies) the wrong acts are precisely those that are unjustifiable to others. But (C1) says that when an act is wrong, it’s wrong because it’s unjustifiable to others. (C1) is therefore incompatible with the (more commonplace) claim that when an act is wrong, it’s also unjustifiable to others as a consequence of whatever wrong-making property it has.[5]

Utilitarians, for instance, can accept that the wrong acts are precisely those that are unjustifiable to others, but they’ll say that wrong acts are wrong not because they are unjustifiable to others but because they fail to maximize expected value (EV). And there is nothing special about utilitarianism in this respect. Virtually all non-contractualist moral theorists will hold that wrongness is grounded not in unjustifiability to others but in some other property, which might itself also ground unjustifiability to others. Hence (C1)’s distinctiveness.

What makes an act unjustifiable to others? Scanlon formulates his answer to this question in a few ways, but here’s a simple formulation for present purposes:

  • (C2) An act is unjustifiable to others (under the circumstances) if and only if, and because, any principle that would permit its performance (under the circumstances) could be reasonably rejected by someone other than the agent.[6]

We’ll clarify the post-“because” clause of (C2) below. But first, note that as (C1) and (C2) suggest, Scanlon holds that wrongness (of your act), unjustifiability (of your act) to others, and reasonable rejectability (of any principle that would permit your act) are a package deal: they’re all present in a given situation or all absent from it. Scanlon takes the co-presence of these properties to be a source of contractualism’s attractiveness, for their co-presence allows contractualism to vindicate the importance of morality and the possibility of moral motivation. Scanlon regularly repeats that we have powerful reasons to want to stand in relations of justifiability to others, or in what he calls relations of “mutual recognition.”[7] If morally right conduct is the conduct that allows us to stand in such relations with others, then morality turns out to be important and our ability to be moved by moral considerations turns out to be unmysterious.

Let’s clarify the post-“because” clause of (C2) with one of Scanlon’s examples:

Transmitter Room. The World Cup final is currently being played. Jones, a technician in the room containing the equipment that is causing the game’s worldwide television broadcast, has inadvertently come into contact with some exposed wires that are causing him very painful electric shocks. He is unable to extricate himself from his situation, but you can help him by turning off the machine with the exposed wires. Unfortunately, if you do this, then the World Cup broadcast will be shut down, and it won’t be able to be restarted for 10 minutes.[8]

All contractualists of whom we’re aware (and many other non-consequentialists) share Scanlon’s view that you ought to help Jones, even though doing so would (we can assume[9]) yield a much worse state of affairs overall than allowing him to continue being shocked. Suppose this is correct. How does the contractualist secure this verdict?

The contractualist first imagines some principles that could be thought to bear on the present situation. Consider four examples:

  • (P1) Do whatever would make things go best.

  • (P2) Do whatever would help the most people.

  • (P3) Prevent people from suffering serious harms unless doing so would result in misfortunes to others.

  • (P4) Prevent serious harms to some even if in doing so you would expose many others to minor inconveniences.

The contractualist now asks whether someone other than you could reasonably reject any of these principles. Scanlon discusses at great length what it takes to be able reasonably to reject a principle, with two constraints on reasonable rejection being especially important here. First, you can reasonably reject a principle only for what Scanlon calls “personal reasons,” i.e., reasons “tied to the well-being, claims, or status of individuals in [some] particular situation” (219). As Scanlon emphasizes, this requirement rules out various forms of interpersonal aggregation.[10] It isn’t possible for, say, five people to “combine” their personal reasons for objecting to a given principle into a stronger super-reason for objecting to this principle.

Second, and relatedly, whether you can reasonably reject a principle is determined by (among other things) the sizes of the burdens that would befall different parties as a result of your acting on this principle vs. an alternative. In particular, A can’t reasonably reject some principle, P, merely on the grounds that your acting on P would impose some burden on A: after all, it could work out that your acting on any principle other than P would impose much greater burdens on someone else. By contrast and all else equal, B can reasonably reject some principle, P*, on the grounds that your acting on P* would impose burdens on B far greater than those that would be imposed on anyone other than B by your acting on some alternative principle.[11]

Now consider how the contractualist will assess (P1)–(P4). On the one hand, your acting on (P4) would impose a burden on each of the millions of viewers, namely the inconvenience of missing out on 10 minutes of the World Cup. On the other hand, your acting on any of (P1)–(P3) would impose on Jones a vastly greater burden, namely continued seriously painful electric shocks. It thus seems clear that Jones’s personal reason for objecting to each of (P1)–(P3) is far stronger than anyone’s personal reason for objecting to (P4). More generally, each of the millions of viewers seems to be such that whatever personal reason she might have for objecting to a principle that would license your saving Jones is far less strong than Jones’s personal reason for objecting to any principle that would license your not saving him. So, no viewer can reasonably reject (P4); nor, it seems, can anyone else. Furthermore, it seems that Jones can reasonably reject each of (P1)–(P3) and, indeed, it seems that Jones can reasonably reject any relevantly similar principle. Given contractualism, then, saving Jones is the uniquely permissible act available to you.

We just explained what a contractualist would say about Transmitter Room in line with Scanlon’s own presentation of his ideas. But in what follows, we put talk of “principles” and “reasonable rejection” to the side. It will simplify matters, and do no damage to the relevant features of contractualism, to formulate our discussion primarily in terms of claims to assistance. For example, in Transmitter Room, each viewer, V, has (as we’ll put it) a claim to your allowing the broadcast to continue in virtue of the burden that would befall V as a result of your saving Jones instead; Jones has a far stronger claim to your saving him in virtue of the far more serious burden that would (continue to) befall him as a result of your allowing the broadcast to continue instead; and, given contractualism, you should satisfy a strong claim to your assistance over any number of individually far weaker claims.[12]

We’ve said enough to turn to contractualism’s implications for philanthropic interventions. Additional details about the theory, and about specific versions of it, will emerge along the way.

3. Welfare-Oriented Interventions

In Transmitter Room, it’s natural to say that the (sizes of the) claims to assistance of the various parties are grounded in welfare considerations. This section considers some philanthropic interventions naturally characterized as welfare-oriented: interventions aimed at improving the welfare of the present global poor (hereafter, “the global poor” and various x-risk interventions. What we said above about Transmitter Room will illuminate what the contractualist should say about these interventions.

3.1. Global-Poor–Oriented and X-risk Interventions

Suppose you’re in a position to do either but not both of these things:

  • Make a substantial donation to some charity helping the global poor (by, say, funding the manufacture and distribution of a large number of anti-malarial bednets);


  • Make a substantial donation to some organization that will yield a tiny reduction of the probability of some extinction event (e.g., the destruction of humanity via a large asteroid’s collision with the earth).

We’ll present a three-step argument that, given contractualism, if you ought to do anything, you ought to donate to the global poor vs. try to mitigate x-risk, other relevant things equal.[13] The central plank of our argument is that, given contractualism, several people have moral claims to your donating to the global poor that are much stronger than even the strongest moral claims had by any individual to your trying to mitigate x-risk. After that, we’ll argue that our argument also supports the conclusion that, given contractualism, you ought to pursue interventions like AMF over suffering-risk-mitigating (s-risk-mitigating) interventions. We’ll conclude that contractualism supports interventions like AMF over x-risk interventions quite generally.

Step 1

First, we argue that contractualism recommends preventing:

  • small numbers of grave harms that are certain to occur without your intervention and certain not to occur with your intervention


  • even far larger numbers of comparatively tiny such harms.

In defense of this step, let’s return to Transmitter Room and note two things about the case.

First, Transmitter Room involves no uncertainty about what will happen following each of your available actions. If you turn off the power, then Jones will stop being shocked and the viewers will be deprived of 10 minutes of the game; if you don’t, then Jones will continue to be shocked and the viewers won’t be deprived of any of the game.

Second, Transmitter Room plausibly counts as a case in which, in preventing one person from suffering serious harm, you would cause several others to suffer comparatively tiny harms. It isn’t a straightforward case of choosing whether to prevent one person from suffering a serious harm or to prevent many others from suffering comparatively tiny ones. But, if anything, it seems harder to justify your conduct to others when, in preventing one from suffering serious harm, you cause several others to suffer comparatively tiny harms than when you merely prevent serious harm from befalling one over preventing comparatively tiny harms from befalling many others.

So, if (as we argued in Section 1) contractualism yields the verdict that you ought to aid Jones in Transmitter Room, then, if anything, it more strongly supports the verdict that you ought to prevent small numbers of grave harms over even far larger numbers of comparatively tiny harms. This completes Step 1 of our argument.

One point before we proceed. Call a harm that is certain to occur without your intervention and certain not to occur with your intervention an “otherwise certain harm.” We don’t assume that contractualism recommends preventing a serious otherwise certain harm over any number of arbitrarily slightly individually smaller otherwise certain harms. For example, a contractualist can hold that you ought to prevent 1 million people from undergoing electric shocks slightly less painful than the ones Jones is suffering rather than preventing just one person from suffering electric shocks just like the ones Jones is suffering. Our argument is compatible with such a “limited aggregationist” form of contractualism (and with its denial).

Admittedly, some contractualists (and other non-consequentialists) reject all forms of aggregation, limited and unlimited. And, as indicated already, Scanlon himself insists that his theory is non-aggregationist, at least insofar as it forbids combining different individuals’ claims into super-claims of groups. However, Scanlon also rather famously argues that, sometimes, contractualism implies that the numbers count. For example, consider a case where you can prevent one person from dying or two others from dying but cannot aid all three. Suppose each person has a claim to your assistance of equal strength. Scanlon argues that you ought to save the two, by arguing that if you were to “just save” the one, or were to give the two groups equal chances to be saved, then the additional party on the side of the two would have a justified complaint against you, on the grounds that you would thereby act as though the case were a one-versus-one case, and so act in a way that is inappropriately responsive to his presence. The idea, then, is that contractualists ought to count numbers in at least some cases without aggregating interests or claims.[14]

Suppose that this argument, or something relevantly like it, succeeds. Now consider the following case:

Death/​Paraplegia. You can prevent Nora from dying or n other people from getting permanent paraplegia, but you can’t save everyone.

We find it plausible that if Scanlon’s argument for saving the greater number succeeds, then, for some n, you ought to save the n. Here’s our thinking: First, imagine a version of Death/​Paraplegia in which n = 1. In this case, you ought to save Nora outright. Now imagine a version in which n = 2. In this case, if you were to save Nora, then, plausibly, the additional person on the side of the many has a complaint, for you would thereby treat the case as though the additional person weren’t even there. (Recall that we’re supposing that Scanlon’s argument described above succeeds.) So, you ought to do something appropriately responsive to the additional person’s presence. Perhaps this will take the form of flipping a coin to determine whether to save Nora or the many; perhaps it will take the form of running a lottery heavily weighted on Nora’s side—the details won’t matter here. What matters is that whatever such an act would be, it would presumably be “closer” to saving the n than what it was permissible to do when n = 1 (namely, saving Nora outright).

But now imagine iterating this process over and over, increasing the size of n by 1 each time. Eventually, we think, you’ll get to a point where outright saving the n is the only acceptable thing to do. This suggests that Scanlonian contractualism can accommodate some aggregation of lesser bads, at least if Scanlon’s argument for saving the greater number is successful. We note, though, that this “iteration” argument doesn’t commit you to full aggregation of the sort that’s incompatible with (say) the intuitive verdict in Transmitter Room. If you can prevent Nora’s death or n papercuts (each had by a different person), then no matter how big n is, each papercut plausibly counts as an irrelevant utility, (cf. Kamm 1998) in virtue of how much less significant it is than Nora’s death, and so ought to be ignored for purposes of determining which group to save.

Step 2

We now argue that, given contractualism, what goes morally for grave otherwise certain harms and comparatively tiny otherwise certain harms, on the one hand, also goes morally for probabilities of harms and comparatively tiny probabilities of harms of roughly equal magnitudes, on the other.

We first make an assumption about contractualism: The most plausible version of contractualism is (some version of) ex ante contractualism, hereafter “EAC.”[15] According to EAC, the strength of a person’s claim to your doing some act is grounded at least partly in the difference between the EV for this person of your doing this act and the EV for this person of your not doing this act.[16] EAC helps to explain why, in Transmitter Room, Jones has a much stronger claim to your assisting him than does any other person to your assisting her instead, and thus also why aiding Jones is the only way of acting available to you that would be justifiable to others: For all X, where X ranges over all people other than Jones, (EVJones(assisting Jones) - EVJones(not assisting Jones)) >> (EVX(assisting X) - EVX(not assisting X)).

EAC also helps to justify, from a contractualist perspective, certain attractive interventions in which very small risks of serious harms are imposed on large groups of people, even when doing so foreseeably causes some such harms. For example, as Frick (2015) points out, EAC seems well-placed to vindicate mass vaccination programs in which very small independent risks of very serious harms are imposed on many people who receive the vaccines, with the all-but-certain consequence that some people will suffer these very serious harms: It’s often in the ex ante interest of each would-be vaccinated person to get the vaccine in question, even though it’s obviously not in the ex post interest of anyone who ends up getting seriously harmed by such a vaccine to get one. Such vaccination programs can thus plausibly be taken to be justifiable to all affected individuals ex ante even if they end up causing serious harms to some. (As Frick also notes, ex post contractualists have a comparatively difficult time accommodating such interventions; given ex post contractualism, it seems that those who end up harmed by such interventions have legitimate complaints.)

Given EAC, it seems that just as some very serious otherwise certain harms morally outweigh any number of comparatively tiny otherwise certain harms, individual probabilities of harms morally outweigh any number of individual comparatively tiny probabilities of harms (faced by different individuals) of roughly equal magnitude. Consider this case:

Different Probabilities. Amy has probability .5 of dying within the next hour. 200 other people each have probability .01 of dying within the next hour. Death would be no worse or less bad for anyone among these 201 people than for anyone else among these 201 people. You can reduce Amy’s probability of dying within the next hour to 0 or do the same for the 200, but you can’t do this for all 201 people.

Given EAC, Amy’s claim to your eliminating her probability of dying within the next hour probably morally outweighs the competing claims. This is because, given EAC, Amy’s .5 probability of death probably relates morally to each .01 probability of death possessed by the 200 as Jones’s electric shocks relate morally to the 10 minutes of frustration that the World Cup final viewers would experience if you were to aid Jones. Amy’s claim trumps each claim with which it competes, just as Jones’s claim trumps each claim with which it competes. These considerations suggest a general lesson: Given EAC, you ought to make reductions in some people’s probabilities of suffering harms rather than making comparatively tiny reductions in even far more people’s probabilities of suffering harms of roughly equal magnitude. This completes Step 2 of our argument.

Just as the contractualist doesn’t need to hold that one otherwise certain harm lexically morally outweighs any number of even arbitrarily slightly less serious otherwise certain harms, the contractualist doesn’t need to hold (and our argument doesn’t require) that, for any 0 < n < n+ ≤ 1, one instance of probability n+ of a harm of a given magnitude lexically morally outweighs any number of instances of probability n of harm of roughly equal magnitude. The contractualist can allow (and our argument is compatible with its being the case) that you ought to eliminate the probabilities of death possessed by 1,000 people who each have .49 probabilities of death rather than eliminate the .5 probability of death possessed by one other person.

Step 3

In this final step of our argument, we’ll defend these two claims:

  1. If you donate to the global poor, then you’ll thereby cause several people to undergo reductions in their probabilities of suffering a serious harm (death from malaria, say), whereas

  2. If you try to mitigate x-risk, then you’ll thereby cause a much larger number of people to undergo comparatively tiny reductions in their probabilities of suffering a harm of roughly equal magnitude (death from asteroid collision with the earth, say).[17]

Claim (1) would be obvious, or close to it, if trying to help the global poor were a matter of handing 1,000 bednets to 1,000 needy persons standing in front of you who will otherwise certainly die of malaria if not given the bednets and who will certainly live for many more happy years if given the bednets. And some philanthropic acts may indeed be nearly this direct in character (e.g., cash transfers). But donating to support AMF-like interventions ordinarily doesn’t take such a form. For most philanthropists, it’s more like randomly selecting n people in some region of the world each to receive a bednet.[18] This means that the pool of potential beneficiaries of such an intervention is very large, even if the number of actual beneficiaries is comparatively small and the individual reduction in the probability of harm that’s secured for each of the potential beneficiaries isn’t very large. Nevertheless, the diffuse and uncertain character of your act shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that donating to help the global poor decreases the probability of suffering a serious harm for each person in the pool of potential beneficiaries (even if these probability reductions are fairly small). This conclusion is enough to establish (1).

How about (2)? Restricting our attention to people, there are two groups of potential beneficiaries here: currently existing people and non-existent people. The currently existing people are the simple case. Here, it’s straightforwardly true that you’ll benefit a much larger number of people via trying to mitigate x-risk, as every currently existing person enjoys a reduction in their probability of suffering a significant harm (death). However, the beneficiaries of AMF-like interventions face the same harm. Moreover, the probability of providing any benefit to every currently existing person is very low by comparison. So, (2) is true for currently existing people.

What about non-existent people? Here, the case for (2) seems even stronger. Suppose we think of non-existent people as non-existent objects—things that, in some sense, haven’t acquired the property of existence. (This might be an inaccurate way to think of them, but it might nevertheless be an innocent way for present purposes.) Once we think of non-existent people this way, we should allow that there are very, very many non-existent, merely possible people, and that many (perhaps, strictly speaking, all) of them will undergo an expected decrease in risk of personal disaster as a result of your trying to mitigate x-risk. However, it seems inescapable that the biggest expected risk reductions that you’ll secure for any of these individuals will be much smaller than the biggest risk reductions that you’ll secure for at least some individuals by donating to help the global poor.[19]

There are two main considerations that recommend this conclusion.

First, the probability, relative to your current evidence, that any given non-existent individual will exist is extremely small. The simple argument for this: If men produce 2 trillion sperm in their lifetimes and women have some 350,000 eggs, the odds of any particular individual coming into existence even fixing the parents are minuscule.[20]

Second, by hypothesis, your intervention yields a very small reduction of the probability of a disaster of the sort targeted by your intervention (asteroid collision with the earth, say). These considerations support the conclusion that, in trying to mitigate x-risk, you don’t confer on any individual a risk reduction of serious harm that is more than tiny compared to at least some of the risk reductions of roughly equally serious harms that you confer on individuals in donating to support AMF-like interventions. Hence, whether we focus on currently existing or non-existent people, (2) looks plausible.

Someone might object as follows:

All this depends on the risk of extinction and the amount of that risk that we can reduce. Sure, the probability of an extinction-causing asteroid strike may be very low; sure, we may not be able to do much to reduce the probability of at least some such asteroids hitting Earth. However, many people think that other risks are much higher—e.g., risks due to misaligned AI—and our ability to mitigate those risks much greater. So, while global poverty work may beat x-risk work for non-existent individuals, given the low probability that any one of them comes into existence, global poverty work doesn’t obviously beat x-risk work for currently existing individuals.

This objection is fair: the argument indeed turns on the relative magnitudes of both the risks of serious harm (death) and the expected risk reductions. However, it’s important to recognize two points. First, apart from AI-related threats, the standard view is that the risk of extinction is quite low in absolute terms (Ord famously estimates the threat of an extinction-causing asteroid strike at 11,000,000 and the highest non-AI anthropogenic threat at 130.) Moreover, it’s common to assume that efforts to reduce the risk of extinction might reduce it by one basis point—i.e., 110,000. So, multiplying through, we are talking about quite low probabilities. Of course, the probability that any particular poor child will die due to malaria may be very low as well, but the probability of making a difference is quite high. So, on a per-individual basis, which is what matters given contractualism, donating to AMF-like interventions looks good.

Second, and turning our attention to AI-related extinction events, we should just concede: if the probability of extinction is high enough and the difference you can make large enough, then yes, that sort of x-risk work clearly beats global poverty work even given contractualism. However, there are some key caveats here.

To start, the probability of extinction needs to be high enough to affect currently existing humans. Otherwise, the point we made about the low probability of any particular non-existent individual’s coming into existence will be decisive.

Next, and again, reducing risk by one basis point will result in a significant discount of the ostensible benefit (preventing death).

Finally, there is massive disagreement about the odds of there being an AI-related extinction event in the next several decades, with many estimates being quite low indeed (as demonstrated by Open Philanthropy’s recent AI Worldview Contest). So, some people may have views about the level of risk and their prospects for mitigating it such that, even given contractualism, x-risk work beats global poverty work. However, we doubt that most do. So, we submit that most people should think that (A) if you donate to AMF-like interventions, then you’ll thereby cause several people to undergo reductions in their probabilities of suffering a serious harm, whereas (B) if you try to mitigate x-risk, then you’ll thereby cause a much larger number of people to under comparatively tiny reductions in their probabilities of suffering a harm of roughly equal magnitude.

This completes Step 3 of our argument.[21] Together, steps 1–3 yield the verdict that, given contractualism, you ought to do (Poor) over (Extinction), other relevant things equal. And we can generalize beyond this conclusion: A contractualist perspective will generally encourage philanthropic interventions reducing present people’s probabilities of suffering great harms over interventions reducing even far more numerous not-yet-existent people’s much smaller probabilities of suffering comparably sized harms.

3.2. S-risk Interventions?

So far, we’ve made a contractualist case for helping the global poor over x-risk work. But some suffering risk (s-risk) interventions might try to reduce the threat of harms that would be far worse than even the worst harms faced by the global poor. For example, death due to malaria is very bad, but it would be far worse to spend decades or centuries being tortured by sadistic misaligned AI. Presumably, some interventions targeting s-risks are at least partly aimed at reducing risks of relevantly similar outcomes.[22] Moreover, it’s arguable that, given contractualism, A can have a stronger claim to your assistance than B does in virtue of the fact that you’re in a position to make a small reduction in A’s probability of suffering a horrendous harm and you’re in a position to make a much larger reduction in B’s probability of suffering a great but not horrendous harm. For example, it’s plausible that, given contractualism, if you can reduce A’s probability of being kept alive and tortured for 50 years and then killed from .0002 to .0001 or you can reduce B’s probability of dying now from .2 to .1, then A has a stronger claim to your assistance than B.[23] If this is correct, then it might be that some s-risk interventions that make tiny differences to people’s probabilities of suffering the harms that they target are preferable, given contractualism, to some interventions targeting the global poor that make much larger differences to people’s probabilities of suffering the harms that they target.

This complication doesn’t undermine our argument that EAC supports trying to help the global poor over mitigating x-risk. Rather, the present complication brings out that some future-oriented interventions might be relevantly dissimilar from attempts to mitigate x-risk. In so doing, it raises the question of whether it might be appropriate, given contractualism, to finance interventions targeting some extremely remote s-risks, in particular risks of horrendous individual sufferings, over interventions aiding the present global poor.

Again, everything will come down to the probabilities. We grant that, given contractualism, a person facing a small risk of a fate far worse than death could have a stronger claim to your assistance than another person facing a far greater risk of (“mere”) death. However, the probability of these kinds of s-risks may be very low. After all, the relevant probability here isn’t just the probability of misaligned AI, but the probability of a very specific kind of misalignment, a considerable amount of power, the AI being able to create suffering that’s orders of magnitude worse than death (to offset the low probability of the situation in the first place), etc.

On top of all that, it’s important to consider that when the probability of negative utility gets sufficiently low, contractualists may well have an independent reason to dismiss it as irrelevant utility, as mentioned earlier. After all, it would be very surprising if contractualists were willing to accept expected value theory, where any decrease in probability can be offset by a corresponding increase in the (dis)value of the option in question. In brief, this is because the point of discounting possible harms by their probabilities is not to satisfy the axioms of a particular decision theory; instead, it’s to capture what counts as reasonable within a (perhaps somewhat idealized) community, as the ultimate goal here is some kind of justifiability to others. Just imagine someone trying to justify his decision not to spare a child from contracting malaria to that very child by saying that he thought was more important to make a marginal difference to the already-extraordinarily-low probability of some future people’s suffering intensely due to malicious AI. Even if the per-individual EV of the s-risk effort is higher, the justification seems quite strained.

We conclude that contractualism generally favors interventions targeting the global poor over x-risk and s-risk interventions.

In the rest of this post, we extend our discussion to justice-oriented interventions.

4. Injustice-targeting and Special-relations-based Interventions

We’ve argued that contractualism recommends interventions like AMF over x-risk interventions. But someone might worry that, in fact, contractualism recommends neither type of intervention, instead preferring interventions targeting injustices and interventions based on special relations. The thought goes: because contractualism prizes fairness and justifiability to others, it will strongly prefer interventions that address unfairness and are sensitive to special duties to the near and dear. What should the contractualist say here?

Consider, to take just one prominent example of an injustice-focused intervention, the much-discussed possibility of providing reparations for slavery to present-day African-Americans with ancestors who were slaves in the antebellum U.S. South. The present question, applied to reparations, is whether EAC implies that (American) philanthropists ought to fund efforts to lobby the US Government to pay reparations over, say, funding efforts to help the global poor. If EAC is committed to the priority of justice-based claims over welfare-based claims, then, perhaps, philanthropists would be wrong to prioritize the latter over the former.

There are several assumptions baked into this suggestion, but let’s focus on the basic question of whether EAC invariably requires the priority of justice-based claims over welfare-based claims, as that will suffice for our purposes. With that in mind, consider this case:

Window/​Agony. Bill recently threw a rock through Ann’s window out of pure malice. Bill now has the ability either to fix Ann’s window or to prevent Carl, a total stranger, from suffering an extremely slow and agonizing death, but he cannot do both of these things.

Obviously, Bill has wronged Ann (in a particularly direct and objectionable manner), and Ann has a claim of corrective justice against Bill that he fix her window (among other things). Nevertheless, we find it plausible that Bill ought to save Carl. Our core thought is straightforward: Carl’s plight is so much more serious than Ann’s that Bill ought to help him rather than satisfy Ann’s (entirely valid) claim of corrective justice against him. (Given the circumstances, we also find it plausible that it would be immoral for Ann to press her claim against Bill.) This suggests that claims of corrective justice do not necessarily trump purely welfare-grounded claims. We need to consider the strengths of the claims on both sides. The case of American slavery is interesting precisely because it seems to ground such strong justice-based claims. However, even in this case, it isn’t clear the strength of the claim of any current would-be beneficiary of reparations is strong than, say, the claim of a child who would die from malaria without aid. And if that’s right, then the mere existence of justice-based claims doesn’t immediately show that philanthropists ought to act in any particular way.

Welfare and injustice aren’t the only possible contributors to claim strength. For example, some find it plausible that our fellow citizens have special claims to our assistance grounded in our co-citizenship. More generally, special relations between a needy party and the potential benefactor are often taken to amplify the strength of the needy party’s claim to assistance. What should the contractualist say about interventions sensitive to such relations?

Considering all possible special relations that give rise to special claim-strengths would obviously be impossible in the present context, but we think that we can defend some general claims about this topic without getting too far into the weeds. In short, you don’t need to dismiss the validity of such contributors to claim strength to be skeptical that they yield plausible contractualism-friendly justifications for philanthropic interventions targeting much-better-off individuals who satisfy the relevant conditions over much-worse-off individuals who don’t, or ones securing much smaller EV increases for individuals who satisfy the relevant conditions over ones securing much larger EV increases for individuals who don’t.[24]

For example, even if co-citizenship is a claim-strength enhancer, we doubt that a plausible contractualist case can be made for aiding homeless people in your own affluent nation over far worse-off people on the other side of the planet.[25] Welfare considerations, taken on their own, are not everything, given most versions of contractualism, but they are extremely important. And so we suspect that, given contractualism, interventions like AMF will generally fare better than interventions sensitive to special relations like co-citizenship targeting much better-off people and yielding much smaller EV increases. By contrast, interventions targeting (say) homeless people in your own nation might well secure significantly larger EV increases for worse-off people than x-risk or injustice-targeting interventions, and so might well fare better than such interventions, by the lights of contractualism.

5. Conclusion

Many EAs may be more sympathetic to some form of consequentialism than they are to Scanlon’s contractualism. Still, they might put some credence in a view of this kind. And if they do, then it’s worth considering the implications of contractualism for cause prioritization. As we’ve argued, we get quite a different picture than the one that stems from a general commitment to maximizing EV. Indeed, if contractualism is true, then there are many cases in which it would be wrong to maximize EV. Instead, insofar as contractualism supports maximization, it tells us to maximize something like “the relevant strength-weighted moral claims that are addressed per dollar spent”—where, as we’ve seen, the strength adjustment involves discounting the claim by the probability of being able to help the individual in question. Since those probabilities are very low for any particular future individual, and since contractualism rejects the view that a sufficient number of extremely weak claims can sum to outweigh a very strong claim, the view generally favors reliably helping the global poor (whose claims are often very strong) over many other options.


The post was written by Bob Fischer and an anonymous collaborator. Thanks to the members of WIT and Emma Curran for helpful feedback. The post is a project of Rethink Priorities, a global priority think-and-do tank, aiming to do good at scale. We research and implement pressing opportunities to make the world better. We act upon these opportunities by developing and implementing strategies, projects, and solutions to key issues. We do this work in close partnership with foundations and impact-focused non-profits or other entities. If you’re interested in Rethink Priorities’ work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can explore our completed public work here.

  1. ^

    That being said, it’s perfectly compatible with contractualism to prioritize interventions that will help many people per dollar over those that don’t. This is because there are so many people who are roughly on a par in terms of being badly off. And all else equal, if you can help more very badly off people, then contractualism says you should, as there probably isn’t any principle that someone couldn’t reasonably reject that would justify assisting n very-badly-off strangers when you could just as easily help n+1 very-badly-off strangers. What, after all, would you say to the +1?

  2. ^

    Contractualism is distinct from contractarianism, a moral and political theory whose central historical advocate is Thomas Hobbes (1651) and whose chief contemporary proponent is David Gauthier (1986).

  3. ^

    Including on episode 6 of season 1 of the TV series The Good Place, entitled “What We Owe to Each Other.”

  4. ^

    This isn’t a direct quote, but it’s close enough. See, e.g., Scanlon (1998: 189). A qualification: Scanlon says that contractualism isn’t a comprehensive theory of moral wrongness. Rather, according to Scanlon, contractualism is “meant to characterize…only that part of the moral sphere that is marked out by certain specific ideas of right and wrong, or ‘what we owe to others’” (178). (Parenthetical page number citations are to Scanlon (1998).) So, it might be clearer to formulate (C1) as the claim that an act is wrong by the lights of the dimension of morality concerned with what we owe to others if and only if, and because, it is unjustifiable to others. However, we’ll omit such qualifications as they aren’t relevant to philanthropic decision-making. If we owe it to others to favor GHW-like interventions over x-risk interventions, then that’s enough for practical purposes.

  5. ^

    In fact Scanlon can be interpreted as endorsing an even tighter connection between unjustifiability to others and wrongness than the one that we have attributed to him, for he can be read as holding that wrongness is identical to unjustifiability to others. Many people in fact read him this way; indeed, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about his view attributes this view to him without defense or citation; see Ashford and Mulgan (2018: Section 1).

  6. ^

    Like (C1), (C2) is not a direct quotation, but see Scanlon (1998: 153, 189, 195).

  7. ^

    See for example Scanlon (1998: Chapter 4, Sections 3–5).

  8. ^

    This case is adapted from Scanlon (1998: 235).

  9. ^

    “We can assume” because many contractualists will deny that it is worse overall for the millions to suffer their inconveniences than for Jones to suffer his electric shocks, either on the grounds that nothing is just plain worse than anything else or on other grounds. But this isn’t part of contractualism: it’s a separate claim that some non-consequentialists find plausible on independent grounds. In any case, we can safely ignore this debate here.

  10. ^

    See Scanlon (1998: 229).

  11. ^

    See Scanlon (1982: 111; 1998: 229–230).

  12. ^

    This talk of “claims” is a commonplace in contractualist and contractualism-adjacent moral theory; see for example Voorhoeve (2014) for a representative discussion. Corresponding talk of “complaints” (against a person grounded in his failing to assist one or against a principle) is also common. See Scanlon (1998: 229ff) for relevant discussion.

  13. ^

    We’ll bracket the “if you ought to do anything” clause in what follows, but we include it here to flag that there’s some room for debate about whether contractualism implies that you have any obligations at all regarding your philanthropic activities. However, on the assumption that you do have some obligations, we think they’re structured as we describe here.

  14. ^

    This “tiebreaker” argument (as it has come to be called) has been the object of a great deal of discussion, much of it critical. See, e.g., Otsuka (2000).

  15. ^

    This is a point of departure on our part from Scanlon, for Scanlon endorses not EAC but ex post contractualism. See Frick (2015) for discussion. It has been argued that ex post contractualism also recommends aiding present needy individuals over x-risk mitigation; see Curran (forthcoming). So, apart from any principled reasons to prefer EAC to ex post contractualism, it’s valuable to show that we get the same practical result either way.

  16. ^

    There are almost certainly additional factors that contribute to the strength of a person’s claim, given EAC, but the EV difference factor is the one most important to our present purposes.

  17. ^

    We don’t mean that it would be roughly equally bad overall for a death due to asteroid collision with the earth to occur as for a death due to malaria to occur. The former would be overall vastly worse than the latter, given that it would also involve the deaths of an enormous number of other morally significant individuals, human and non-human alike, the extinction of humanity, and other such horrendous outcomes. We mean only that a person’s death due to asteroid collision with the earth taken on its own and a person’s death due to malaria taken on its own are roughly equally serious.

  18. ^

    Our thinking here is that when you support AMF-like interventions, there are many potential beneficiaries, but it’s also virtually certain that there will be several actual beneficiaries. This seems to make the act relevantly like randomly selecting some people from a large group each to receive a bednet. We could avoid this complexity by focusing on different poverty-focused interventions, like direct cash transfers, where the impact on an individual doesn’t depend on that individual counterfactually suffering some specific harm and the likelihood of some benefit or other is higher. But the argument is stronger if it works even for AMF, so we focus on it here.

  19. ^

    We emphasize that contractualism, as we understand it, doesn’t utterly ignore the claims of future people. It merely holds that the strengths of their claims are appropriately sensitive to the sorts of probability considerations just mentioned.

  20. ^

    Someone might object that we don’t owe our justifications de re to each non-existent person; instead, we owe them de dicto to “future people,” whoever they happen be (see, e.g., Hare 2007). Given as much, the probability of benefitting future people is much higher. However, this isn’t a plausible move for contractualists to make. The appeal of contractualism is partially based on its ability to explain why we care about morality at all: namely, in terms of the value we place on mutual recognition and acting in ways that are justifiable to others. However, there’s a psychological constraint here: most people don’t care about justifying themselves to people who might live in the far future. So, if we go for the de dicto interpretation of contractualism, we end up with a view that creates the very problem that contractualism was supposed to solve: that is, we end up with a moral view where the rightness and wrongness of actions is based on a property ((un)justifiability to others) that is too far from our actual concerns. So, contractualists should stick with the de re interpretation of their view.

  21. ^

    Our Meinongian treatment of not-yet-existent individuals is actually helpful to x-risk interventions, as many philosophers (including many contractualists) deny that future people have claims to our assistance at all, whereas treating these individuals as somehow real makes it more plausible that they have claims to our assistance.

  22. ^

    Not all risks that might be classified as “s-risks” are risks even partly of large individual sufferings. For example, a risk of creating several googolplexes of insects throughout the cosmos, each of whom would have an on-balance hedonically slightly negative life, will qualify as an s-risk on some classifications, but this is not a risk even partly of large individual sufferings. Presumably, though, misaligned AI could generate the relevant kinds of situations.

  23. ^

    Consider a version of EAC on which the sole determinant of the strength of a person’s claim is the difference between (a) the claimant’s EV of the claim’s being satisfied and (b) the claimant’s EV of the claim’s not being satisfied. That view will clearly yield this verdict, given suitable plausible assumptions about the personal badness of 50 years of torture. But there are other plausible versions of EAC that will yield this verdict too. For example, versions of EAC that include prioritarian assumptions—e.g., that the lowness of the EV for a given person of your not assisting him makes a difference in its own right to the strength of his claim to your intervention—will have the same upshot. (Many proponents of EAC accept views like this; accordingly, many proponents of EAC don’t treat positive and negative utility symmetrically, morally speaking.)

  24. ^

    Note that our present point is not the (widely accepted) claim that a given amount of money donated to an aid agency targeting the global poor will tend to do more overall good than the same amount of money donated to an agency targeting the worst off people in your own affluent country. (This study has some relevant figures.)

  25. ^

    Though if you are co-citizens with homeless people who are not much better off than the worst-off aidable global poor, then this will complicate matters.