Open Phil Should Allocate Most Neartermist Funding to Animal Welfare

Key Takeaways

  • The evidence that animal welfare dominates in neartermism is strong.

  • Open Philanthropy (OP) should scale up its animal welfare allocation over several years to approach a majority of OP’s neartermist grantmaking.

  • If OP disagrees, they should practice reasoning transparency by clarifying their views:

    • How much weight does OP’s theory of welfare place on pleasure and pain, as opposed to nonhedonic goods?

    • Precisely how much more does OP value one unit of a human’s welfare than one unit of another animal’s welfare, just because the former is a human? How does OP derive this tradeoff?

    • How would OP’s views have to change for OP to prioritize animal welfare in neartermism?


  • Rethink Priorities (RP)’s moral weight research endorses the claim that the best animal welfare interventions are orders of magnitude (1000x) more cost-effective than the best neartermist alternatives.

  • Avoiding this conclusion seems very difficult:

    • Rejecting hedonism (the view that only pleasure and pain have moral value) is not enough, because even if pleasure and pain are only 1% of what’s important, the conclusion still goes through.

    • Rejecting unitarianism (the view that the moral value of a being’s welfare is independent of the being’s species) is not enough. Even if just for being human, one accords one unit of human welfare 100x the value of one unit of another animal’s welfare, the conclusion still goes through.

    • Skepticism of formal philosophy is not enough, because the argument for animal welfare dominance can be made without invoking formal philosophy. By analogy, although formal philosophical arguments can be made for longtermism, they’re not required for longtermist cause prioritization.

  • Even if OP accepts RP’s conclusion, they may have other reasons why they don’t allocate most neartermist funding to animal welfare.

    • Though some of OP’s possible reasons may be fair, if anything, they’d seem to imply a relaxation of this essay’s conclusion rather than a dismissal.

    • It seems like these reasons would also broadly apply to AI x-risk within longtermism. However, OP didn’t seem put off by these reasons when they allocated a majority of longtermist funding to AI x-risk in 2017, 2019, and 2021.[1]

  • I request that OP clarify their views on whether or not animal welfare dominates in neartermism.

Thanks to Michael St. Jules for his comments.

The Evidence Endorses Prioritizing Animal Welfare in Neartermism

GiveWell estimates that its top charity (Against Malaria Foundation) can prevent the loss of one year of life for every $100 or so.

We’ve estimated that corporate campaigns can spare over 200 hens from cage confinement for each dollar spent. If we roughly imagine that each hen gains two years of 25%-improved life, this is equivalent to one hen-life-year for every $0.01 spent.

If you value chicken life-years equally to human life-years, this implies that corporate campaigns do about 10,000x as much good per dollar as top charities. … If one values humans 10-100x as much, this still implies that corporate campaigns are a far better use of funds (100-1,000x).

Holden Karnofsky, “Worldview Diversification” (2016)

“Worldview Diversification” (2016) describes OP’s approach to cause prioritization. At the time, OP’s research found that if the interests of animals are “at least 1-10% as important” as those of humans, then “animal welfare looks like an extraordinarily outstanding cause, potentially to the point of dominating other options”.[2] After the better part of a decade, the latest and most rigorous research funded by OP has endorsed a stronger claim: Any significant moral weight for animals implies that OP should prioritize animal welfare in neartermism. This sentence is operationalized in the paragraphs that follow.

In 2021, OP granted $315,500 to RP for moral weight research, which “may help us compare future opportunities within farm animal welfare, prioritize across causes, and update our assumptions informing our worldview diversification work” [emphasis mine].[3] RP assembled an interdisciplinary team of experts in philosophy, comparative psychology, animal welfare science, entomology, and veterinary research to review the literature’s latest evidence.[4] RP’s moral weights and analysis of cage-free campaigns suggest that the average cost-effectiveness of cage-free campaigns is on the order of 1000x that of GiveWell’s top charities.[5] Even if the campaigns’ marginal cost-effectiveness is 10x worse than the average, that would be 100x.

In 2019, the mean EA leader endorsed allocating a majority of neartermist resources over the next 5 years to animal welfare.[6] Given the strength of the evidence that animal welfare dominates in neartermism by orders of magnitude, this allocation seems sensible for OP. In actuality, OP has allocated an average of 17% of its neartermist funding to animal welfare each year, with 83% going to other neartermist causes.[7] Since OP funded RP’s moral weight research specifically in order to “prioritize across causes, and update our assumptions informing our worldview diversification work”, one might have expected OP to update their allocations in response to RP’s evidence. However, OP’s plans for 2023 give no indication that this will happen.

The EA movement currently spends more on global health than on animal welfare and AI risk combined. It clearly isn’t even following near-termist ideas to their logical conclusion, let alone long-termist ones.

Scott Alexander

If you didn’t want animals to dominate, maybe you shouldn’t have been a utilitarian! … When people want to put the blame on these welfare range estimates, I think that’s just not taking seriously your own moral commitments.

Bob Fischer, EAG Bay Area 2023


Animal Welfare Does Not Dominate in Neartermism

OP may reject that animal welfare dominates in neartermism. If so, I’m unaware of any public clarification of OP’s beliefs on the topic. In the following sections, I attempt to deduce what views OP may hold in order for animal welfare to not dominate in neartermism, and show that such views would be highly peculiar and dubious. If OP doesn’t think animal welfare dominates, I ask them to publicly clarify their views, so that they can be constructively engaged with.

RP’s Project Assumptions are Incorrect

If OP rejects RP’s conclusions, they must reject some combination of RP’s project assumptions: utilitarianism, valence symmetry, hedonism, and unitarianism. I don’t think OP rejects utilitarianism or valence symmetry, so the following will focus upon OP’s possible objections to:

  1. Hedonism: The view that welfare derives only from happiness and suffering.

  2. Unitarianism: The view that the moral importance of welfare doesn’t depend upon species membership.

Crucially, rejecting hedonism is not enough to avoid animal welfare dominating in neartermism. As Bob Fischer points out, “Even if hedonic goods and bads (i.e., pleasures and pains) aren’t all of welfare, they’re a lot of it. So, probably, the choice of a theory of welfare will only have a modest (less than 10x [i.e. at least 10 % weight for hedonism]) impact on the differences we estimate between humans’ and nonhumans’ welfare ranges”.[8] One would need to endorse an overwhelmingly non-hedonic theory, and/​or an overwhelmingly hierarchical theory, such that the combined views discount three orders of magnitude of animal welfare impact. For example, OP could hold an overwhelmingly non-hedonic view where almost none (0.1%) of the human welfare range comes from pleasure and pain.

OP could also hold an overwhelmingly hierarchical view where just for being a human, one unit of a human’s welfare is considered vastly (1000x) more important than the same amount of welfare in another animal. OP could also hold a combination of less-overwhelming versions of the two, such as 1% of human welfare coming from pleasure/​pain and one unit of human welfare being 10x as important as one unit of animal welfare, so long as the combined views discount three orders of magnitude of animal welfare impact.

The following two sections will critique overwhelming non-hedonism and overwhelming hierarchicalism respectively. If the overwhelming views were significantly less overwhelming, my critique would be substantially the same. Therefore, I request that the reader consider the following critiques to also address whichever combination of less-overwhelming views OP may hold.

Endorsing Overwhelming Non-Hedonism

We [OP] think that most plausible arguments for hedonism end up being arguments for the dominance of farm animal welfare. … If we updated toward more weight on hedonism, we think the correct implication would be even more work on FAW, rather than work on human mental health.

Alexander Berger

Alexander has stated that “Hedonism doesn’t seem very compelling to me”.[9] Overwhelming non-hedonism, combined with the implicit premise that humans are vastly more capable of realizing non-hedonic goods than animals, may explain OP’s neartermist cause prioritization: Enabling humans to realize non-hedonic goods may be better than reducing extreme suffering for orders of magnitude more animals.

The implicit premise seems non-obvious. It’s plausible that both humans and other animals would have “not being tortured” pretty high in their preferences/​objective list.

Even if the implicit premise is assumed, there’s substantial empirical evidence that overwhelmingly non-hedonic theories are dubious:

  • Extreme pain or discomfort reduces health-related quality of life by 41%.[10]

  • Nerve damage results in a loss of health-related quality of life between 39% for diabetes-caused nerve damage and 85% for failed back surgery syndrome.[11]

  • Suffering from cluster headaches is associated with greatly increased suicidality.[12]

  • Patients suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain would rather take a gamble with a ⅕ chance of dying and a ⅘ chance of being cured than continue living with their condition.[13]

Evidently, many people who experience severe suffering find it to outweigh many of the non-hedonic goods in life. If one endorses an overwhelmingly non-hedonic view, they’d have to argue persuasively that these people’s revealed preferences are deeply misguided.

Furthermore, if one accepts RP’s findings given hedonism but rejects prioritizing animals due to an overwhelmingly non-hedonic theory, they must endorse deeply unintuitive conclusions. To endorse human interventions over animal interventions, the human welfare range under the overwhelmingly non-hedonic view would have to be ~1000x the human welfare range under hedonism. Imagine a world with hundreds of people in extreme hedonic pain (e.g. drowning in lava) but one person with extreme non-hedonic good (e.g. love, knowledge, friendship). The overwhelming non-hedonist would consider this world net good.

An overwhelmingly non-hedonic view would also be out of step with much of the EA community. A poll of EAs found that most respondents would give up years of extreme good, whether from hedonic or non-hedonic sources, to avoid a day of extreme hedonic pain (drowning in lava). Nearly a third responded that “No amount of happiness could compensate”.

I experienced “disabling”-level pain for a couple of hours, by choice and with the freedom to stop whenever I want. This was a horrible experience that made everything else seem to not matter at all.

A single laying hen experiences hundreds of hours of this level of pain during their lifespan, which lasts perhaps a year and a half—and there are as many laying hens alive at any one time as there are humans. How would I feel if every single human were experiencing hundreds of hours of disabling pain?

A single broiler chicken experiences fifty hours of this level of pain during their lifespan, which lasts 4-6 weeks. There are 69 billion broilers slaughtered each year. That is so many hours of pain that if you divided those hours among humanity, each human would experience about 400 hours (2.5 weeks) of disabling pain every year. Can you imagine if instead of getting, say, your regular fortnight vacation from work or study, you experienced disabling-level pain for a whole 2.5 weeks? And if every human on the planet—me, you, my friends and family and colleagues and the people living in every single country—had that same experience every year? How hard would I work in order to avert suffering that urgent?

Every single one of those chickens are experiencing pain as awful and all-consuming as I did for tens or hundreds of hours, without choice or the freedom to stop. They are also experiencing often minutes of ‘excruciating’-level pain, which is an intensity that I literally cannot imagine. Billions upon billions of animals. The numbers would be even more immense if you consider farmed fish, or farmed shrimp, or farmed insects, or wild animals.

If there were a political regime or law responsible for this level of pain—which indeed there is—how hard would I work to overturn it? Surely that would tower well above my other priorities (equality, democracy, freedom, self-expression, and so on), which seem trivial and even borderline ridiculous in comparison.

Ren Springlea

Endorsing Overwhelming Hierarchicalism

I don’t know whether or not OP endorses overwhelming hierarchicalism. However, after overwhelming hedonism, I think overwhelming hierarchicalism is the next most likely crux for OP’s rejection of animal welfare dominating in neartermism.

Many properties of the human condition have been proposed as justifications for valuing one unit of human welfare vastly (1000x) more than one unit of another animal’s welfare. For every property I know of that’s been proposed, a case can be constructed where a person lacks that property, but we still have the intuition that we shouldn’t care much less about them than we do about other people:

  • Intelligence: The intelligence of human infants and adult chickens isn’t very different, but we should care for infants.

  • Capacity for future intelligence: Terminally ill children or people with severe mental disabilities may never be more intelligent than adult pigs, but we should care deeply for these people.

  • Species membership: If we learned that Danish people were actually an offshoot of a hominid which wasn’t homo sapiens, should we care for them 1000x less than we do other people?

  • Capacity for creativity, or speech, or dignity, etc: If a person is uncreative, or mute, or undignified, are they worth 1000x less?

I personally feel much more empathy for humans than for chickens, and a benefit of believing in overwhelming hierarchicalism would be that I could prioritize helping humans over chickens. It might also make eating meat permissible, which would make life much easier. However, the losses would be real. I’d feel like I’m compromising on my epistemics by adding an arbitrary line to my moral system which lets me ignore a possible atrocity of immense scale. I’d be doing this for the sake of the warm fuzzies I’d feel from helping humans, and convenience in eating meat. That’s untenable to a mind built the way mine is.

It’s Strongly Intuitive that Helping Humans > Helping Chickens

I agree! But many also find it strongly intuitive that saving a child drowning in front of them is better than donating 10k to AMF, and that atrocities happening right now are more important than whatever may occur billions of years from now. In both of these cases, strong arguments to the contrary have persuaded many EAs to revise their intuitions.

If the latest and most rigorous research points to cage-free campaigns being 1000x as good as AMF, should a strong intuition to the contrary discount that by three orders of magnitude?

Skepticism of Formal Philosophy

Though this section has invoked formal philosophy for the purpose of rigor, formal philosophy isn’t actually required to make the high-level argument for animal welfare dominating in neartermism:

  1. If you hurt a chicken, that probably hurts the chicken on the order of ⅓ as much as if you hurt a human similarly.

  2. Extreme suffering matters enough that reducing it can sometimes be prioritized over cultivating friendship, love, or other goods.

  3. Reducing an animal’s suffering isn’t overwhelmingly less important than reducing a human’s suffering.

  4. Therefore, if one’s $5000 can either (a) prevent serious suffering for 50,000 hens for 1 year[14] or (b) enable a single person to realize a lifetime of love and friendship, (a) seems orders of magnitude more cost-effective.

By analogy, one might be skeptical of many longtermists’ use of formal philosophy to justify rejecting temporal discounting, rejecting person-affecting views, and accepting the repugnant conclusion. However, the high-level case for longtermism doesn’t require formal philosophy: “I think the human race going extinct would be extra bad, even compared to many billions of deaths”.

Even if Animal Welfare Dominates, it Still Shouldn’t Receive a Majority of Neartermist Funding

Even if OP accepts that animal welfare dominates in neartermism, they may have other reasons for not allocating it a majority of neartermist funding.

Worldview Diversification Opposes Majority Allocations to Controversial Cause Areas

OP might state that on principle, worldview diversification shouldn’t allow a majority allocation to a controversial cause area. However, in 2017, 2019, and 2021, OP allocated a majority of longtermist funding to AI x-risk reduction.[15] While OP and I myself think AI x-risk is a major concern, thoughtful people within and outside the EA community disagree. Those who don’t think AI x-risk is a concern may consider nuclear war, pandemics, and/​or climate change to be the most pressing x-risks.[16] Those who think AI x-risk is a concern often regard it as ~10x more pressing than other x-risks. In 2017, 2019, and 2021, OP judged that the 10x importance of AI x-risk reduction, under the controversial view that AI x-risk is a concern, was high enough to warrant a majority of longtermist funding.

Similarly, thoughtful people within and outside the EA community disagree on whether animals merit moral consideration. If animals do, then the most impactful animal welfare interventions are likely ~1000x as cost-effective as the most impactful alternatives. Just as controversy regarding whether AI x-risk is a concern should not preclude OP allocating AI x-risk a majority of longtermist funding, controversy regarding whether animals merit moral concern should not preclude allocating animal welfare a majority of neartermist funding.

OP is Already a Massive Animal Welfare Funder

OP is the world’s largest funder in many extremely important and neglected cause areas. However, this should not preclude OP updating its prioritization between those cause areas if given sufficient evidence. For example, if a shocking technological breakthrough shortened TAI forecasts to 2025, even though OP is already the world’s largest funder of AI x-risk reduction, OP would be justified in increasing its allocation to that cause area.

Animal Welfare has Faster Diminishing Marginal Returns than Global Health

I agree that if OP prematurely allocated a majority of neartermist funding to animal welfare, then the marginal cost-effectiveness of OP’s animal welfare grants would drop substantially. Instead, I suggest that OP scale up animal welfare funding over several years to approach a majority of OP’s neartermist grantmaking.

To absorb such funding, many ambitious animal welfare megaprojects have been proposed. Even if these megaprojects would be an order of magnitude less cost-effective than corporate chicken campaigns, I’ve argued above that they’d likely be far more cost-effective than the best neartermist alternatives.

Even so, it seems that OP’s Farm Animal Welfare program may currently be able to allocate millions more without an order of magnitude decrease in cost-effectiveness:

Although tens of millions of dollars feels like a lot of money, when you compare it to the scope of the problem it quickly feels like not that much money at all, so we are having to make tradeoffs. Every dollar we give to one project is a dollar we can’t give to another project, and so unfortunately we do have to decline to fund projects that probably could do a lot of good for animals in the world.

Amanda Hungerford, Program Officer for Farm Animal Welfare for OP (8:12-8:34).

Increasing Animal Welfare Funding would Reduce OP’s Influence on Philanthropists

Over time, we aspire to become the go-to experts on impact-focused giving; to become powerful advocates for this broad idea; and to have an influence on the way many philanthropists make choices. Broadly speaking, we think our odds of doing this would fall greatly if we were all-in on animal-focused causes. We would essentially be tying the success of our broad vision for impact-focused philanthropy to a concentrated bet on animal causes (and their idiosyncrasies) in particular. And we’d be giving up many of the practical benefits we listed previously for a more diversified approach. Briefly recapped, these are: (a) being able to provide tangibly useful information to a large set of donors; (b) developing staff capacity to work in many causes in case our best-guess worldview changes over time; (c) using lessons learned in some causes to improve our work in others; (d) presenting an accurate public-facing picture of our values; and (e) increasing the degree to which, over the long run, our expected impact matches our actual impact (which could be beneficial for our own, and others’, ability to evaluate how we’re doing).

Holden Karnofsky

Though this is unfortunate, it makes sense, and Holden should be trusted here. That said, there’s a world of difference between being “all-in on animal-focused causes” and allocating a majority of OP’s neartermist funding to animal welfare, while continuing to fund many other important neartermist cause areas. It doesn’t seem to me that the latter proposal runs nearly as much risk of alienating philanthropists. Some evidence of this is that OP is the world’s largest funder of AI x-risk reduction, another niche cause area which few philanthropists are concerned with. In spite of this, OP seems to have maintained its giving capacity. Given the overwhelming case for prioritizing animal welfare in neartermism, OP may be able to communicate its change in cause prioritization in a way which maintains the donor relationships which have done so much good for others.

Request for Reasoning Transparency from OP

Though I’ve endeavored to critique whichever views OP may plausibly hold that preclude prioritizing animal welfare in neartermism, I’m still deeply unsure about what OP’s views actually are. Here are several reasons why OP should clarify their views:

  • OP believes in reasoning transparency, but their reasoning has not been transparent.

  • OP’s prioritization seems out of step with the mean EA leader.[17] Clarifying OP’s view could kindle a conversation which could update OP or other EA leaders.

  • The only views I can currently think of where animal welfare wouldn’t be prioritized in neartermism (overwhelming non-hedonism or overwhelming hierarchicalism) seem rather dubious. If OP has strong arguments for those views, or OP reveals a plausible alternative view I hadn’t thought of, I and many others could be updated.

  • Historically, OP’s decisionmakers’ statements about the moral worth of animals haven’t been easy to reconcile. A cohesive statement of OP’s view would put this to rest.

    • For example, in 2017, Holden’s personal reflections “indicate against the idea that e.g. chickens merit moral concern”. In 2018, Holden stated that “there is presently no evidence base that could reasonably justify high confidence [that] nonhuman animals are not ‘conscious’ in a morally relevant way”. Did Holden’s view change? If so, for what reasons?

It’s also possible that OP lacks a formal theory for why animal welfare doesn’t dominate in neartermism. As Alexander Berger has said, “I’ve always recognized that my maximand is under-theorized”. If so, it would seem even more important for OP to clarify their view. If there’s a chance that 1 million dollars to corporate campaigns is actually worth 1 billion dollars to GiveWell-recommended charities, understanding one’s answers to the relevant philosophical questions seems very important.

Here are some specific questions I request that OP answer:

  • How much weight does OP’s theory of welfare place on pleasure and pain, as opposed to nonhedonic goods?

  • Precisely how much more does OP value one unit of a human’s welfare than one unit of another animal’s welfare, just because the former is a human? How does OP derive this tradeoff?

  • How would OP’s views have to change for OP to prioritize animal welfare in neartermism?


When I started as an EA, I found other EAs’ obsession with animal welfare rather strange. How could these people advocate for helping chickens over children in extreme poverty? I changed my mind for a few reasons.

The foremost reason was my realization that my love for another being shouldn’t be conditional on any property of the other being. My life is pretty different from the life of an African child in extreme poverty. We likely have different cultural values, and I’d likely disagree with many of the decisions they’ll make over their lives. But those differences aren’t important—each and every one of them is a special person whose feelings matter just the same.

The second reason was understanding the seriousness of the suffering at stake. When I think about the horrors animals experience in factory farms, it makes me feel horrible.

When a quarter million birds are stuffed into a single shed, unable even to flap their wings, when more than a million pigs inhabit a single farm, never once stepping into the light of day, when every year tens of millions of creatures go to their death without knowing the least measure of human kindness, it is time to question old assumptions, to ask what we are doing and what spirit drives us on.

Matthew Scully, “Dominion”

Thirdly, I’ve been asked whether the prospect of helping millions of beings cheapens the value of helping a single being. If I can save hundreds of African children over the course of my life, does each individual child matter proportionally less? Absolutely not. If helping a single being is worth so much, how much more is helping billions of beings worth? I can’t make a difference for billions of beings, but you can.

We aspire to radical empathy: working hard to extend empathy to everyone it should be extended to, even when it’s unusual or seems strange to do so. As such, one theme of our work is trying to help populations that many people don’t feel are worth helping at all.

Holden Karnofsky

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^

    Open Philanthropy. “Rethink Priorities — Moral Patienthood and Moral Weight Research”. https://​​​​grants/​​rethink-priorities-moral-patienthood-and-moral-weight-research/​​

  4. ^

    “Our team was composed of three philosophers, two comparative psychologists (one with expertise in birds; another with expertise in cephalopods), two fish welfare researchers, two entomologists, an animal welfare scientist, and a veterinarian.” Fischer, Bob (2022). “The Welfare Range Table”. https://​​​​s/​​y5n47MfgrKvTLE3pw/​​p/​​tnSg6o7crcHFLc395

  5. ^

    Grilo, Vasco (2023). “Prioritising animal welfare over global health and development?”. https://​​​​posts/​​vBcT7i7AkNJ6u9BcQ/​​prioritising-animal-welfare-over-global-health-and

  6. ^

    Gertler, Aaron (2019). “EA Leaders Forum: Survey on EA priorities (data and analysis)”. https://​​​​posts/​​TpoeJ9A2G5Sipxfit/​​ea-leaders-forum-survey-on-ea-priorities-data-and-analysis

    For the question “What (rough) percentage of resources should the EA community devote to the following areas over the next five years”, the mean EA leader answered 10.7% for global health and 9.3% + 3.5% = 12.8% for farm and wild animal welfare respectively. No other neartermist cause areas were listed.

  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^

    Rob Wiblin, Kieran Harris (2021). “Alexander Berger on improving global health and wellbeing in clear and direct ways”.

  10. ^

    Rencz et al (2020). “Parallel Valuation of the EQ-5D-3L and EQ-5D-5L by Time Trade-Off in Hungary”. https://​​​​science/​​article/​​pii/​​S1098301520321173

  11. ^

    Doth et al (2010). “The burden of neuropathic pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis of health utilities”. https://​​​​science/​​article/​​abs/​​pii/​​S0304395910001260

  12. ^

    Lee et al (2019). “Increased suicidality in patients with cluster headache”. https://​​​​31018651/​​

  13. ^

    Goossens et al (1999). “Patient utilities in chronic musculoskeletal pain: how useful is the standard gamble method?”. https://​​​​science/​​article/​​abs/​​pii/​​S0304395998002322

  14. ^

    Simcikas, Saulius (2019). “Corporate campaigns affect 9 to 120 years of chicken life per dollar spent”. https://​​​​posts/​​L5EZjjXKdNgcm253H/​​corporate-campaigns-affect-9-to-120-years-of-chicken-life

  15. ^
  16. ^

    Toby Ord’s x-risk table from The Precipice has AI 3x greater than pandemics, 100x greater than nuclear war, and 100x greater than climate change.

  17. ^