This post was inspired by conversations with Brad West.
TLDR: In addition to making efforts to convert new members to EAs, we can also do good by equipping everyday people to do good by lowering information costs.
Being fairly new to the EA community, I have been refreshed by the wide variety of different perspectives on where we can make changes to most effectively make the world a better place.
I have noticed that a lot of effort has been expended on converting people outside of EA to join in. It makes a ton of sense for this. With each person that we influence to donate portions of their income to effective charities, or even change the trajectory of their career to incorporate impact into their decision making, we can potentially have a much bigger effect than through marginal benefits derived from optimizing our own behaviors further.
Everyday people generally want to do good for the world, but often there are heavy information costs to being able to do so. I think that providing and promoting information that lowers the information costs of everyday people to be able to do good might be potentially high value. This also may make people more receptive to adopting EA more broadly, as they can already see the value provided.
I propose three areas where we might be able to meet people where they are, but just arm them with a bit of information that makes it easier for them to do good.
Ethical Food Information other than Conversion to Veganism
I have found that most of the emphasis regarding farmed animal welfare has been in the space of converting people to become vegans. Unfortunately, it appears to be difficult to get people to dramatically change their diets in such a manner. I was very surprised to learn that, given the disparity in harm generated by consuming chickens as against cattle; the vast majority of suffering from consumption from an individual could be avoided by substituting poultry for beef. It strikes me as a much easier ask of everyday people to switch to beef, when possible, for chicken, yet this message is avoided.
Another surprising bit of information I learned was the existence of charities that are very cost effective at systematically addressing the evils of factory farming. Given that these effective charities are not adequately funded, it may be that providing people a means of reversing the harm they cause by eating meat could be very attractive to some people. This could be achieved by developing a questionnaire that establishes people’s dietary habits and calculates the harm caused by their consumption choices, calculates the cost to offset this harm by donation to a portfolio of effective charities that make systemic changes to farmed animal welfare. This, in conjunction with campaigns showing the torturous nature of factory farming, could inspire people to want to not be part of the problem, and provides them a monetary means that might be an easier ask than the lifestyle change veganism or vegetarianism might imply.
Information on Political Candidates
I recall listening to a few 80,000 Hours podcasts which emphasized that the utility of voting can be significantly higher than we might think. A tragedy is that for an individual voter, even though local and state elections can be quite important to the societies we live in, informing ourselves adequately to make good decisions is seldom rational, given the other potential uses of our time, and that the benefits of a good election decision are spread across millions. Consequently, voters often just do party line votes, even if deviation from this may often make sense based on candidate quality.
Providing high quality information about political races across the world could potentially be high leverage, given the collective action problem that is informed voting as described above. Simple, honest information could enable the general public to make local and state voting decisions that enable people around the world to make smart decisions where otherwise a collective action problem might have implied worse choices.
Ability to Do Better as Consumers or Other Economic Actors
I would be remiss if I did not mention the project that I am working on as Director of Social Media, the Consumer Power Initiative, where we are looking to promote the Profit for Good, or Guided Consumption model. Essentially, the idea here is to have firms in which equity is held by effective charities and then inform consumers, so they can channel the purchasing they were otherwise going to do anyway. Brad West describes the Profit for Good model here.
Of course, informing consumers broadly may be more effective in many ways, especially if there are consumption behaviors that are more theatrical without providing benefits and there are other consumption behavioral changes that would be of low cost at the consumer level that have lower negative externalities than the alternative or have positive externalities.
Given the fact that EAs are likely to remain an influential minority group for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to recognize the extent to which everyday people can be our allies, especially if adequately informed. Providing valuable information that empowers everyday people could also make them more receptive to our broader messages about why they should consider joining us in our mission to most effectively make the world a better place.
This is my personal opinion on the arguments made in the post.
Agree/Like the argument:
Disagree/ Unsure/ Would like clarity on:
I would love to hear what others think of this. Also, please let me know if there is something I misunderstand about the arguments in the post.
I think the distinction between everyday people and EAs may be a harmful one in the realm of politics. We're assuming that EAs automatically have the authority to decide which information is "honest", "unbiased", or "high-quality". Couldn't someone in EA not only be biased in a specific direction, but also better than non-EAs at rationalising their biases? It may be best to have a think tank within EA to ensure that there is a specific subset of people actually willing to comb through political science research, find truly objective information, and distill it into something most people are willing to engage with.
Unfortunately, climate concerns and animal welfare concerns are inversed for that substitution: https://foodimpacts.org/
Also, doesn't substituting poultry for beef mean replacing beef with poultry? (I always found the word "substitute" confusing when used in this way.)
I think something like "only a minority of people [specific researchers, billionaires, etc.] are highly influential, so we should spend a lot of energy influencing them" is a reasonable claim that implies we maybe shouldn't spend as much energy empowering everyday people. But I haven't seen any strong evidence either way about how easy it is to (say) convert 1,000 non-billionaires to donate as much as one billionaire.
I do think the above view has some optics problems, and that many people who 'aren't highly influential' obviously could become so if they e.g. changed careers.
As somebody strongly convinced by longtermist arguments, I do find it hard to 'onboard' new EAs without somebody asking "do you really think most people will sit and have a protracted philosophical discussion about longtermism?" at some point. I think there are two reasonable approaches to this:
I'm not currently convinced of either view, but would be interested to hear about other peoples' experiences.
If you haven't already seen them, you might find some of the posts tagged "task y" interesting to read.