All causes are EA causes

by IanDavidMoss25th Sep 201634 comments



I want to start by thanking everyone for the warm welcome in response to my first post introducing myself on the EA forum last week. In it, I wrote the following:

To be clear, I think cause neutrality is probably EA's greatest innovation, and I am not at all suggesting it be abandoned. But EA has tended to treat cause specificity as the enemy of cause neutrality in a battle to the death, whereas I see a future in which they coexist peacefully and indeed advance each other's goals…

And also:

I hope to share a more fleshed-out case for this idea in a future post.

Here is that case.

* * *

I claim that EA’s insistence upon cause neutrality for its adherents, while sensible up until now, will drastically limit the potential of the movement as it grows. More specifically, I claim that effective altruism will very likely achieve dramatically more good if it actively encourages the adoption of effective altruist principles within domains.

This claim is based on the following premises:

  • Emotional considerations play a large role in motivating decisions for most donors and do-gooders, and this is unlikely to change during our lifetimes.

  • Convincing donors and do-gooders to value impact within causes and geographies they care about is likely to be easier than convincing them to value both impact and causes or geographies they don’t currently care about.

  • Domain-specific effective altruism does not have to compete with or cannibalize cause-neutral effective altruism. It is a way to engage people who would otherwise reject or ignore EA.

  • Domain-specific effective altruism has the potential to increase the total good accomplished by the effective altruism movement via a number of mechanisms, including: 1) increasing the effectiveness of a greater number of donors and do-gooders; 2) mitigating the risk of EA having made poor choices in its initial portfolio of cause areas; 3) decreasing coordination challenges between cause areas, 4) building stronger bridges between effective altruism and institutional philanthropy, and 5) encouraging better allocation of resources in the most wasteful domains.

Let’s go through each of these in turn.


Most people don’t care about EA causes

A wide swath of research on donor motivation indicates that giving typically has much more to do with factors like having a connection to a specific cause, a feeling of obligation to “give back,” and cultivating social relationships rather than dispassionate explorations of the best opportunities to make a difference. According to a landmark 2010 donor segmentation study focusing on affluent individuals in the United States, only 4% of donors consider the effectiveness of an organization the key driver of a gift, and just 3% actually research organizations’ effectiveness in order to choose which one to support. The Hewlett Foundation decided to shut down a program intended to increase donors’ demand for information in large part because it saw these results, along with a subsequent evaluation of its efforts in this arena, as so discouraging.

Put simply, changing donor behavior is really hard. Effective altruism’s growth in recent years has been impressive, and the Open Philanthropy Project is likely to give away hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the not-too-distant future. But there’s little evidence to indicate that the overall dynamics of the donor marketplace have changed much in the decade since GiveWell has been around. Even if donations to EA-approved charities were to reach as much as $1 billion annually, that figure would represent less than one-third of one percent of total donations in the United States alone. We should not take Elon Musk’s favor as a sign of anything other than a good start down a long, long road.

Effective altruism has been very smart to target people while they’re still in college. At that point, the road ahead is wide open and everything seems possible. But the later in life one comes to these ideas, the more commitments, emotional and otherwise, one has to contend with and find a way to balance.

And when we extend the view to encompass the institutions that shape our lives and those around us – the mechanisms for impact most readily available to us – it is extremely rare to find powerful entities that not only operate on a truly global scope both geographically and topically, but do so in an integrated rather than siloed fashion. Unless effective altruism becomes the dominant social movement of our time, which (and I really can’t emphasize this enough) would place it among the extreme outliers of social movements across history, I very much doubt these dynamics are going to change.1


EA is leaving impact opportunities on the table

Motivating donors to care about impact is hard enough. It stands to reason that motivating them to care about impact outside of domains they already care about is even harder.

Consider my wife and me. When we combined our bank accounts several years ago right after we got married, I already knew that I would want a large portion of our philanthropy to go to GiveWell-recommended charities, to which I’d been giving for several years. What I didn’t anticipate was how my wife’s cultural background and spiritual beliefs would affect her view of charity. To her, charity begins locally – with the people whose lives we cross every day. To do nothing to acknowledge our privilege and our neighbors’ lack of it would not only be callous but dehumanizing. It was very important to her that, whatever other decisions we made, we reserve some of our money for those in our city who need it.

In any marriage you pick your battles, and this was not going to be one I was going to win. But in fairness, my wife was not the only one who had special preferences for our giving. As I’ve written before, my professional life has been spent entirely in arts and culture – hardly a priority for EAs. For the past nine years, I’ve operated a website devoted to finding the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them. To abandon the arts in my charitable budget would have felt like a massive denial of a core element of my background and identity. If someone as motivated and passionate about the arts as me wouldn’t make them a giving priority, then who would?

In the end, we allocated our charitable giving roughly this way: 50% to GiveWell-recommended charities, 25% to combating homelessness in Washington DC, and 25% to the arts. That allocation has remained fairly consistent in the years since.

My wife and I are ideal targets for EA in many ways. We are both highly educated professionals who work in the nonprofit sector. Not only that, I had both familiarity and a donation history with GiveWell at the time when we began giving as a family. And yet, even with all of those advantages, effective altruism – in its current form – has nothing to say about fully half of our donation budget. Had there been a GiveWell-like resource for either of the domains that occupied that half, we certainly would have taken advantage of it. But there is not, so we do the best we can with the limited capacity for research that we have.

How many more people like us are out there? I’d bet it’s a lot more than the number of people who are willing to commit their entire donation budgets to GiveWell (or GWWC, or TLYCS)-recommended charities. Especially considering that even some of GiveWell’s own employees don’t commit their entire donation budgets to GiveWell-recommended charities.


Embracing domain-specific doesn’t mean abandoning cause-neutral

Crucial to my argument is the idea that cause-neutral effective altruism can coexist with domain-specific EA, rather than be threatened by it.

I believe the notion that domain-specific EA poses a threat is rooted in a misunderstanding of EAs’ agency in the world. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill tells the story of James Orbinksi, head of a Red Cross hospital inundated with injured victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to illustrate the necessity of doing the most good. MacAskill writes:

With so many casualties coming in, Orbinski knew he could not save everyone, and that meant he had to make tough choices: whom did he save, and whom did he leave to die? Not all could be helped, so he prioritized and engaged in triage. If it were not for that cold, calculating, yet utterly necessary allocation of 1s, 2s, and 3s, how many more lives would have been lost?

This analogy situates Orbinski as the effective altruist within his hospital, faced with tradeoffs about how to do the most good. However, there is one crucial difference between Orbinski and actual effective altruists: Orbinski was the boss. He had the authority to set up the triage system that MacAskill so enthusiastically praises, and could trust that his staff would carry it out. A more accurate analogy to the real world would be to imagine our effective altruist as one out of fifty employees in a leaderless hospital. Patients coming into the ER are being treated largely on the basis of which ones are loudest or friendliest rather than their actual condition. The effective altruist has ideas for a triage system that could save more lives, but there is no one she can talk to who has the authority to put that system in place. Most of her fellow employees don’t even know she’s there, and the few she comes into contact with think she’s a little crazy. She is confident she can get one of her colleagues to adopt the triage system, maybe in a best-case scenario two or even three. She knows, however, that a much larger number will refuse to treat patients that they don’t already know, no matter what she says to them.

Our effective altruist faces a dilemma. She knows the triage system can save lives. She also knows most of her colleagues will only treat patients they already know, and she has no authority to compel them otherwise. If she wants to accomplish the most good she can, the clearest strategy available to her is to encourage those colleagues to apply the triage system among the patients that they already know. That will result in more lives saved. And as an added bonus, it does much more to raise the awareness and status of the triage system across the entire population of hospital employees. Potentially, this opens the door to a more serious conversation down the road about treating all patients according to need.

In making this request of her reluctant colleagues, there is nothing stopping our effective altruist from first asking them to apply the triage system to everyone. But the difference is that, if they say no, she has a backup plan that has a much better chance of actually working.


All causes are EA causes

The effective altruism movement will have to grow roughly two to three orders of magnitude in size2 before it captures even the scant 3-4% of donors who engage in EA-aligned behaviors now. But what about everyone else? Which is better, having donors and do-gooders seeking to make the most possible impact within domains they care about (but that may not have the highest potential for impact overall), or donors and do-gooders not only sticking to lower-potential domains, but not making a difference in them either?

This is not the same thing as simply letting people define effectiveness or good in their own terms (the so-called “thin” version of effective altruism). One of the greatest benefits of domain-specific effective altruism is that it can provide an epistemic bridge between individual domains and the global perspective that EAs care so much about. For example, Createquity, the publication I mentioned earlier that researches the most important issues in the arts, makes an explicit connection between the arts and a broader conception of collective good or overall wellbeing – the same thing that most EAs are trying to maximize through their efforts. Thus, any success Createquity has in identifying promising issues and motivating productive action on them will make the arts field more efficient from a global effective altruist perspective.

Should other fields adopt a similar approach, they would similarly move toward greater efficiency in delivering impact. And that potentially is no small thing. To see why, consider a simple math problem. Which does more to reduce carbon emissions: replacing a 7-mpg truck with a 10-mpg truck, or replacing a 30-mpg compact car with a zero-emission Tesla Model S? The winner here is the gas guzzler, because the even-worse gas guzzler it’s replacing was so wasteful. Fostering and cultivating domain-specific effective altruism could actually achieve more aggregate impact than encouraging investment in only the most promising domains, if the ratio between potential domain-specific EAs and potential cause-neutral EAs is large enough.

Domain-specific effective altruism has other potential benefits as well. For one thing, it opens up the potential for greater dialogue with the professional establishment in institutional philanthropy, which has invested heavily in the past 20 years in in-house evaluation and learning capabilities. There are numerous foundations that care deeply about the effective altruist values of critical thinking and empathy, but have committed to top-level restrictions on their giving, sometimes subject to unbreakable legal covenants. That might be one reason why there are indications that EA has yet to gain widespread influence or recognition even among this ostensibly friendly audience. Yet some high-profile foundations that fund in multiple cause areas, such as Ford and Irvine, are starting to experiment with an integrated, cross-team approach that would benefit immensely from epistemic bridges between domains. What’s more, these institutional funders are in a position to play a crucial role in creating the research that forms the evidence base for effective altruist interventions, so it behooves everyone to be speaking the same language.

Finally, embracing domain-specific effective altruism diversifies the portfolio of potential impact for effective altruism. Even within the EA movement currently, there are disagreements about the highest-potential causes to champion. Indeed, one could argue that domain-specific effective altruist organizations already exist. Take, for example, Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), both of which are considered effective altruist organizations by the Centre for Effective Altruism. Animal welfare and the development of “friendly” artificial intelligence are both considered causes of interest for the EA movement. But how should they be evaluated against each other? And more to the point, if it were conclusively determined that friendly AI was the optimal cause to focus on, would ACE and other animal welfare EA charities shut down to avoid diverting attention and resources away from friendly AI? Or vice versa?

The reality, as most EAs will admit, is that virtually all estimates of the expected impact of various interventions are rife with uncertainty. Small adjustments to core assumptions or the emergence of new information can change those calculations dramatically. Even a risk-friendly investor would be considered insane to bank her entire asset base with a single company or industry, and if anything, the information available in the social realm is far less plentiful and precise than is the case in business. Particularly as the EA movement seeks to grow in influence, the idea of risk mitigation is going to become increasingly applicable.

* * *

Maybe you're not convinced by what I've written so far because you think cause neutrality is so central to EA identity that no true EA leader would ever countenance any distraction from it. Well, don't just take my word for it. Two years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing GiveWell co-founder Elie Hassenfeld for Createquity about the relationship between effective altruism and the arts. And this is what Elie said when I asked him if there was anything contradictory about trying to combine the two:

While I think people will reach different conclusions about which causes they are excited to work on, there is nothing that seems particularly problematic to me about someone saying, "the way in which I think that I can best contribute to the world is via the arts and, therefore, I’m going to try and maximize in some broad sense the impact that I have in that domain."

Effective altruism is a truly transformative idea that has the potential to improve billions of lives – but the movement’s rhetoric and ideology is currently limiting that potential in very significant ways. The few, wonderful people who are prepared to embrace any cause in the name of global empathy should be treasured and cultivated. But solely relying on them to change the world is very likely a losing strategy. If effective altruists can come up with ways to additionally engage those who want to maximize their impact but are not prepared to abandon causes and geographies they care about deeply, that could be the difference between EA ending up as a footnote to history or the world-changing social force it seeks to be.



1. Arguably, a dramatic, imminent, and undeniable threat to human existence could unify human beings behind the cause of defeating the common enemy and thereby motivate vast social and structural change in a short period of time. Some might believe that certain existential threats, such as the development of unfriendly artificial general intelligence, may both fit these criteria and happen within most of our lifetimes. I personally think this is unlikely.

2. Based on inputs of 250m adults in the US, 69% of Americans donating to charity, and a generous estimate of 10,000 US participants in the EA community. Rates for other countries assumed to be roughly analogous.