Do EAs underestimate opportunities to create many small benefits?

by Peter_Hurford25th Jan 201611 comments



Disclaimer: I originally wrote this for the EA Facebook group since it's a quick and unpolished thought, but I wanted to post it here instead because it got long, I think the discussion is better here, and I like the easy way to link to the post afterwards. Let me know if you think it is better suited for the EA Facebook group.


Right now, EAs focus primarily on global poverty, animal welfare, reducing existential risk, and meta activities to improve the first three . However, some EAs are interested in looking for more. What other important causes might we be overlooking?

One idea I've been recently thinking about is the opportunity to produce many small benefits may be very neglected and produce opportunities for a "fifth focus area".


EA has Many Small Benefits vs. One Large Benefit

I'm curious if people think EAs systematically underestimate the impact of creating a tiny benefit for a numerous amount of people rather than creating large benefits.

An example of creating a large benefit for a relatively small group of people is to give a $1K cash transfer to a single Kenyan. An example of creating a small benefit for a large group of people would be to improve the speed of the internet across the entire United States or to spend time improving an important open source project like Ruby on Rails. It's possible that reducing existential risk by a tiny amount could be considered making a small benefit for many people, though I don't really think of it as such.

Of course, it's also certainly possible to create large benefits for a large group of people, such as by ending factory farming.


Why might it be underestimated?

When you're at a crosswalk and a bus approaches, you can either wait for the bus to pass and then cross, or cross and make the bus wait for you. If you wait, you save one minute of time. If you make the bus wait, each person on that bus waits for one minute of time. If the bus has sixty people in it, that's an hour that was just spent waiting. That sounds like a lot when framed in those terms, but it's not something we ever think about when crossing the street. Is making the bus wait for you really that selfish?

Perhaps not. Perhaps there are still good reasons to cross the street instead of making the bus wait -- mainly, that's usually what the bus expects. However it addresses the most difficult part of utilitarianism -- understanding that giving +1 unit of utility to 10,000 people is more important than giving 9,000 units of utility to one person (see "Torture vs. Dust Specks"). The "many small benefits" approach is very unintuitive. Even EAs have biases and find this unintuitive, so I would expect many people (including myself) to underestimate opportunities to create many small benefits.

Furthermore, impacting many people a small amount doesn't fit well into the non-profit framework to deliver clear and understandable value to a clearly defined and understood population of people.

It is difficult to measure the impact of many small benefits. How much benefit does an hour of time spent developing Ruby on Rails provide to the Ruby on Rails project? How much value does Ruby on Rails provide programmers and people making technology companies? How much value do those technology companies provide people around the world? How does the sum of all that value compare to giving $100 (an hour of a typical programmer's salary) as a cash transfer to a Kenyan?

Lastly, the "many small benefits" approach seems to be the justification for a large amount of non-EA activities , such as those who think we should improve "arts and culture". EAs may pattern match these bad arguments for non-EA activities to people arguing for "many small benefits" from a EA perspective, and it could be hard to figure out which "many small benefits" approaches fit into the best opportunities to help the world.

Measurement difficulty and it not fitting into a traditional charity framework may be genuine reasons to favor the "large benefits" approach, but I don't think they're enough to make the "many small benefits" approach not worth thinking about. We should aim to study how some "many small benefits" approaches may impact the world overall more positively than our current EA activities.


What are some good examples of "many small benefits" that EAs could pursue?

Some examples I could think of that seem worth researching, say as part of the Open Philanthropy Project:

* Contributing to good open source projects could make it much easier to create and improve companies and/or save hundreds of thousands of hours in developer time. The entire security of the internet could be at stake and I'm not the only one who thinks open source may be uniquely neglected in our current for-profit and non-profit funding environment .

* Reducing the amount of traffic through better transportation infrastructure could save hundreds of thousands of hours in lost commuting time.

* Some changes to how VC funding works could improve the accuracy of VC capital, improving the allocation of trillions of dollars. Other high-leverage changes may be possible in other areas of finance as well.

...Of course, some of these may already receive significant funding and many of these may not, on further reflection, actually be worth it when compared to our existing focus areas. However, I think some of these are worth thinking about more when they could be important, tractable, and neglected.