The effective altruism movement has people who support many different causes. Some think we can do the most good by alleviating poverty in the developing world; some think it’s best to focus on animal suffering; others again think we should focus on helping future generations; and some argue that the best route to any of these is to invest in the development of the EA movement itself.
Given that we agree on so many principles, this much disagreement might seem surprising. And it raises a key question: what should we do about it?
Are some causes better than others?
Some differences of opinion over which cause to support may come down to a difference in values. For example, some people think we should give similar weight to the welfare of future generations as we give to our own, and others think we should not.
But more disagreements arise from differences of opinion about matters of fact. These are often very uncertain matters, such as which of two interventions will most improve the world in the long run. They can also include differences of opinion about how we should weigh proven against speculative interventions, an ultimately empirical but unresolved question.
Suppose Alice and Bob agree on their values, but Alice thinks the best way to fulfil their values is to try to avoid extinction, whereas Bob thinks it’s better to help people in poverty today. Since they agree on values, there is a correct answer about which cause provides the most value for marginal resources -- and this is unlikely to change with the resources of two people. In this sense some causes are better than others.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that they should both support the same cause. Some individual choices may come down to the availability of specialist knowledge or opportunities. But it is suggestive. At least some of the difference in opinions about the best cause likely comes down to ignorance, stubbornness, or bias.
Should we try to persuade others to switch causes?
So setting aside value differences and specialisation, one cause is probably best at the margin. For those who believe they support that cause (presumably most people), this seems to present a strong argument for trying to persuade others towards supporting it too. It could provide a substantial increase in the value from their altruistic efforts.
There is value from the act of trying to persuade others as well as from success. Having a dialogue about the virtues of different options fosters truth-seeking and the idea that we may not be correct in our current views.
However, there are also reasons not to push too hard to persuade others. The simplest is epistemic modesty. If other smart, well-meaning, and well-informed people are reaching different conclusions from us, we shouldn’t be too confident that we’re the ones who are right.
Even when do think we’re right, in some circumstances we can achieve more collectively by cooperating with people with whom we have disagreements of fact. We should preserve good relations with each other. In general, it’s worthwhile for effective altruists to be nice. Trying too hard to persuade others risks an acrimonious atmosphere which would be detrimental to the reputation of the whole movement, and its ability to collaborate and grow.
And while a single cause is probably best at the margin, there’s value for the movement as a whole in supporting a diverse portfolio of causes. Diminishing marginal returns will hardly matter for already-large causes like global health, but could have an effect for smaller ones such as movement growth. By spreading out, we can learn more and learn faster, and are less liable to fall into confirmation bias. By visibly supporting several causes, we also gain a way to enter discussions with people whose prior judgements lean towards some particular causes. It helps to demonstrate our openness to ideas and evidence, where if we all rallied around a single thing early in the growth of the movement we might more easily be pigeon-holed as the people who care about that thing.
A better understanding of which causes help most is really useful. So we need to continue to discuss this, sharing insights and information. But cause prioritisation isn’t a competition between the people supporting different causes where there will be winners and losers. Rather it’s a shared endeavour to uncover important truths about the world, where progress means we win collectively.
So I’ll discuss the merits of different causes with people, and I’ll try gently to persuade them of what seems best to me. But I won’t judge or think poorly of others simply because they don’t share my beliefs. I’ll take suggestions they make seriously, and be just as happy to be persuaded that I’m wrong.Acknowledgements: thanks to Ryan Carey, Jess Whittlestone, and Rob Wiblin for comments and suggestions on drafts of this essay.