Rethink Priorities’ Worldview Investigations Team (WIT) exists to improve resource allocation within the effective altruism movement, focusing on tractable, high-impact questions that bear on philanthropic priorities. WIT builds on Rethink Priorities’ strengths as a multi-cause, stakeholder-driven, interdisciplinary research organization: it takes action-relevant philosophical, methodological, and strategic problems and turns them into manageable, modelable problems. Rethink Priorities is currently hiring multiple roles to build out the team:
- Worldview Investigations Philosophy Researcher
- Worldview Investigations Quantitative Researcher
- Worldview Investigations Programmer
These positions offer a significant opportunity for thoughtful and curious individuals to shift the priorities, research areas, and philanthropic spending strategies of major organizations through interdisciplinary work. WIT tackles problems like:
- How should we convert between the units employed in various cost-effectiveness analyses (welfare to DALYs-averted; DALYs-averted to basis points of existential risk averted, etc.)?
- What are the implications of moral uncertainty for work on different cause areas?
- What difference would various levels of risk- and ambiguity-aversion have on cause prioritization? Can those levels of risk- and/or ambiguity-aversion be justified?
The work involves getting up to speed with the literature in different fields, contacting experts, writing up reasoning in a manner that makes sense to experts and non-experts alike, and engaging with quantitative models.
The rest of this post sketches WIT’s history, strategy, and theory of change.
Worldview investigation has been part of Rethink Priorities from the beginning, as some of Rethink Priorities’ earliest work was on invertebrate sentience. Invertebrate animals are far more numerous than vertebrate animals, but the vast majority of animal-focused philanthropic resources go to vertebrates rather than invertebrates. If invertebrates aren’t sentient, then this is as it should be, given that sentience is necessary for moral status. However, if invertebrates are sentient, then it would be very surprising if the current resource allocation were optimal. So, this project involved sorting through the conceptual issues associated with assessing sentience, identifying observable proxies for sentience, and scouring the academic literature for evidence with respect to each proxy. In essence, this project developed a simple, transparent tool for making progress on fundamental questions about the distribution of consciousness. If the members of a species have a sufficient number of relevant traits, then they probably deserve more philanthropic attention than they’ve received previously.
Rethink Priorities’ work on invertebrate sentience led directly to its next worldview investigation project, as even if animals are equally sentient, they may not have equal capacity for welfare. For all we know, some animals may be able to realize much more welfare than others. Jason Schukraft took up this question in his five-post series about moral weight, again trying to sort out the conceptual issues and make empirical progress by finding relevant proxies for morally relevant differences. His influential work laid the foundation for the Moral Weight Project, which, again, created a simple, transparent tool for assessing differences in capacity for welfare. Moreover, it developed a way to implement those differences in cost-effectiveness analyses.
In addition to its work on animals, Rethink Priorities has done research on standard metrics for evaluating health interventions and estimating the burden of disease, the burden of depression, moral uncertainty’s implications for strong longtermism, and many other topics.
Building on these successes, Rethink Priorities formally launched WIT in January 2023. Bob Fischer—a Senior Research Manager who joined Rethink Priorities in 2021—leads the team.
Like Rethink Priorities more generally, WIT operates in two modes: first, as a consultancy; second, as an independent think tank with its own research agenda.
As a consultancy, WIT tackles commissioned work in response to requests from EA-aligned organizations. One example of this is a series of shallow investigations on worldview diversification, commissioned by a major funder to help improve their thinking about resource allocation across cause areas.
As an independent think tank, WIT looks for high-expected-value projects that fit with WIT’s comparative advantages. Given a strong track record on sentience, welfare assessment, and welfare comparisons, projects in these areas often seem particularly promising, but the main objective is always to find projects that will have the largest expected impact on resource allocation decisions.
In either mode, WIT is focused squarely on decision-making. WIT works backward from the choices that stakeholders face, rather than reasoning forward from first principles, to maximize the odds of providing action-relevant information. For this reason, WIT often works with the decision-making tools that stakeholders actually employ, trying to improve and refine them rather than propose alternatives that can’t be readily implemented.
One way to see this is by considering philosophical questions that are especially important for resource allocation:
- What matters?
- How should we measure what matters?
- How should we make tradeoffs among the things that matter?
- How should we deal with uncertainty at every level?
WIT tackles these questions, but not at this level of abstraction, where it’s tremendously difficult to make progress that commands consensus. Instead, WIT takes up narrower, action-relevant versions of these questions:
- Some EAs think that both empowerment and welfare are basic goods. Are there real-world cases where it’s plausible that promoting empowerment is in tension with promoting welfare? If so, then are there plausible valuations of these goods such that, when tradeoffs are required, we should sacrifice welfare to promote empowerment?
- How should we make tradeoffs between benefits to humans and benefits to animals? Can we quantify welfare-relevant differences between humans and animals in a way that makes this question tractable? If so, what would the results suggest for cause prioritization?
- Some EAs take a “worldview diversification” approach to moral uncertainty, where resources are siloed and the goal is to optimize resource allocation within worldviews rather than across them. Arguably, the “longtermist / neartermist human-only / neartermist animal-inclusive” paradigm is at least one worldview short: we should distinguish between the “longtermist human-only” and “longtermist animal-inclusive” worldviews. If we make this change, then can we model its implications for resource allocation?
WIT tries to make philosophical progress by empirical means, operationalizing philosophical debates and assessing where empirical information can advance them. It tries to make empirical progress with some philosophical engineering, developing conceptual tools that make problems tractable that weren’t previously. Finally, it tries to inform decisions even where philosophical and empirical progress seem intractable by providing sensitivity analyses for particular decisions.
Theory of Change
Again, WIT exists to improve resource allocation within the EA movement. Accordingly, WIT primarily produces work for the EA movement. For that reason, it tries to maximize accessibility, disseminating its work on the EA Forum, at EA events, and by giving executive summaries and presentations directly to stakeholders.
Because the EA community is informed by the work of academics, WIT values field building, publishing some work in academic venues to create conversations from which EAs can benefit. Moreover, because public policy can be influenced by the academic literature, WIT values placing key results in venues that policymakers take seriously. However, WIT only publishes in academic venues for instrumental reasons: the value isn’t in the publication per se, but in informing future decisions.
Rethink Priorities is a think tank dedicated to informing decisions made by high-impact organizations and funders across various cause areas. If you are interested in RP’s work, please visit our research database and subscribe to our newsletter.