A cause can be too neglected

Effec­tive Altru­ism move­ment of­ten uses a scale-ne­glect­ed­ness-tractabil­ity frame­work. As a re­sult of that frame­work, when I dis­cov­ered is­sues like bait­fish, fish stock­ing, and ro­dents fed to pet snakes, I thought that it is an ad­van­tage that they are al­most max­i­mally ne­glected (seem­ingly no one is work­ing on them). Now I think that it’s also a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause there are set-up costs as­so­ci­ated with start­ing work on a new cause. For ex­am­ple:

  • You first have to bridge the knowl­edge gap. There are no shoulders of gi­ants you can stand on, you have to build up knowl­edge from scratch.

  • Then you prob­a­bly need to start a new or­ga­ni­za­tion where all em­ploy­ees will be be­gin­ners. No one will know what they are do­ing be­cause no one has worked on this is­sue be­fore. It takes a while to build ex­per­tise, es­pe­cially when there are no men­tors.

  • If you need sup­port, you usu­ally have to some­how make peo­ple care about a prob­lem they’ve never heard be­fore. And it could be a prob­lem which only a few types of minds are pas­sion­ate about be­cause it was ne­glected all this time (e.g. in­sect suffer­ing).

graph

Now let’s imag­ine that some­one did a cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mate and con­cluded that some well-known in­ter­ven­tion (e.g. suicide hotline) was very cost-effec­tive. We wouldn’t have any of the prob­lems out­lined above:

  • Many peo­ple already know how to effec­tively do the in­ter­ven­tion and can teach oth­ers.

  • We could sim­ply fund ex­ist­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions that do the in­ter­ven­tion.

  • If we found new or­ga­ni­za­tions, it might be eas­ier to fundraise from non-EA sources. If you talk about a widely known cause or in­ter­ven­tion, it’s eas­ier to make peo­ple un­der­stand what you are do­ing and prob­a­bly eas­ier to get fund­ing.

Note that we can still use EA-style think­ing to make in­ter­ven­tions more cost-effec­tive. E.g. fund suicide hotlines in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries be­cause they have lower op­er­at­ing costs.

Conclusions

We don’t want to cre­ate too many new causes with high set-up costs. We should con­sider find­ing and filling gaps within ex­ist­ing causes in­stead. How­ever, I’m not writ­ing this to dis­cour­age peo­ple from work­ing on new causes and in­ter­ven­tions. This is only a minor ar­gu­ment against do­ing it, and it can be out­weighed by the value of in­for­ma­tion gained about how promis­ing the new cause is.

Fur­ther­more, this post shows that if we don’t see any way to im­me­di­ately make a di­rect im­pact when tack­ling a new is­sue (e.g. bait­fish), it doesn’t fol­low that the cause is not promis­ing. We should con­sider how much im­pact could be made af­ter set-up costs are paid and more re­sources are in­vested.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my em­ployer.