abrahamrowe

Director of Operations at Rethink Priorities.

I previously co-founded and served as Executive Director at Wild Animal Initiative and one of its predecessor organizations, Utility Farm. I also ran corporate animal welfare campaigns for Mercy For Animals.

I run a monthly newsletter on invertebrate welfare. Archives are here: https://www.invertebratewelfare.org/newsletter

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abrahamrowe's Shortform

Following up with some thoughts I originally had in response to saulius' List of ways in which cost-effectiveness estimates can be misleading. Not sure if there has been other write ups of this effect.

If we incentivize charities' to act as cost-effectively as possible, and if they operate in coordination with other groups working on the same issue, it seems like we might expect in many cases what's best for an individual charities' cost-effectiveness to be bad for the overall cost-effectiveness of the space. This issue is compounded if multiple EA / highly cost-effective charities are operating in the same space.

The issue is something like, charities have relative strengths and weaknesses, and by coordinating to take advantage of those, individual charities might lose out on cost-effectiveness, but overall make  their work less effective.

I think this occasionally actively happens with animal welfare campaigns, where single donors are giving to several charities doing the same thing.

An example using chicken welfare campaigns in the animal welfare space:

Charity A has 100 good volunteers in City 1, where Company X is headquartered. To run a successful campaign against them would cost Charity A $1000, and Company A uses 10M chickens. Alternatively, Charity A  could run a campaign against Company Y in a different city where they have fewer volunteers for $1500 (more expensive because fewer volunteers).

Charity B has 5 good volunteers in City 1, but thinks they could secure a commitment from Company Y in City 2, where they have more volunteers, for $1000. Company B uses 1M chickens. Or, by spending more money, Charity B could secure a commitment from Company X for $1500.

Charities A and B are coordinating, and agree that Companies X and Y committing will put pressure on a major target (Company Z), and want to figure out how to effectively campaign.

They consider three strategies:

Strategy 1: They both campaign against both targets, at half the cost it would be for them to campaign on their own, and a charity evaluator views the campaign as split evenly between them, since they put in equal effort. The cost-effectiveness of both charities is: (5M + 0.5M Chickens / $500 + $750) = 4,400 chickens / dollar, and $2500 total has been spent.

Strategy 2: Charity A targets Company X, and Charity B targets Company Y. Charity A's cost-effectiveness is 10,000 chickens / dollar, and Charity B's is 1,000 chickens / dollar, with $2,000 total spent.

Strategy 3: Charity A targets Company Y, Charity B targets Company. Charity A: 667 chickens / dollar, Charity B: 6696 chickens / dollar. $3,000 total spent across all charities.

These charities want to be as effective as possible — clearly, the charities should choose Strategy 2, because the least money will be spent overall (and both charities will spend less for the same outcome).

But if a charity evaluator is fairly influential, and looking at each charity individually, Charity B might push hard for less ideal Strategies 1 or 3, because those make its cost-effectiveness look much better. Strategy 2 is clearly the right choice for Charity B to make, but if they do, an evaluation of their cost-effectiveness will look much worse.

I guess a simple way of putting this is - if multiple charities are working on the same issue, and have different strengths relevant at different times, it seems likely that often they will make decisions that might look bad for their own cost-effectiveness ratings, but were the best thing to do / right decision to make.

I can think of a few examples where charities made less effective decisions explicitly due to reasoning about their own cost-effectiveness, and not thinking about coordination, but I'm not sure how prevalent this actually is as an issue. It mainly makes me a little worried about apples-to-applies comparisons of the cost-effectiveness of charities who do the same thing, and are known to coordinate with each other.

AMA: We Work in Operations at EA-aligned organizations. Ask Us Anything.

We do work tests for all roles, operations or not. I think they are far and away the most valuable part of our hiring process.

The ones I have found the most useful for operations hiring:

  • Having people to work through hypothetical complicated financial problems like sending a candidate a list of rules for how transactions should be entered into a spreadsheet, then giving them a list of sample transaction with tons of mistakes and asking them to correct the mistakes, and then giving a list of new entries and seeing if they do it correctly.
  • Asking someone how the would resolve a hypothetical complicated situation involving HR compliance, financial compliance, etc. all bundled together.

The least helpful:

  • Asking people to write something (especially if the role involves communications) - folks interviewing often just don't seem to know your organization well enough to communicate about it well prior to working at the org., and it's really hard to compare these against each other besides on the basis of grammar, etc.
AMA: We Work in Operations at EA-aligned organizations. Ask Us Anything.

I think yes up to a certain point.

  • I'm fairly surprised that organizations had trouble filling operations roles in 2018 or so, as in recent hiring rounds, we've had large numbers of non-EA but otherwise very qualified candidates.
  • I'm a little uncertain of how important it is for operations staff to be highly value-aligned, but I think my view is that it is not that important, especially in lower-level roles. This makes me think the pool of quality candidates is quite a bit larger than it might otherwise seem - there are lots of people with for-profit or non-profit operations experience that is directly relevant to 90% of what I do day-to-day.
  • I think ultimately it is better to have a value-aligned staff member than not, but we had a lot of really great candidates for recent ops roles, and that's probably partially due to us offering competitive compensation and advertising widely, and not just in EA.
Insects raised for food and feed — global scale, practices, and policy

Hi! Thanks for the questions.

On the chitin, I haven't found anything cited that confirms this. A handful of farmers reported this to me, and industry guides often recommend mixing exoskeletons into foods, etc. I think a possibility is that crickets do this for nutrients besides chitin, but that is just the most well known part of exoskeletons, so people mention it.

On breeding: it's going to vary depending on species and intention. If you're growing your colony, you'll need a larger breeding stock, but if you are keeping it the same size, you can use a smaller one. It's not obvious to me how large they are on various farms, and I'm not certain how to approach estimating it. I think some farms likely just pull adults into breeding programs instead of slaughtering them (at least for crickets), while other farms keep separate breeding colonies (e.g. black soldier flies and mealworms are slaughtered as larvae, so some larvae need to be allowed to grow instead of being killed). My guess is that the lives of animals raised to breed would be better than those killed, but I wouldn't put much stake in that. There are some good pictures of BSF breeding facilities and descriptions of the process in Bullock et al but I don't think the source is authoritative.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

One thing that is easy to forget is that we are already dramatically intervening in natural ecosystems without paying attention to the impact on animals. E.g. any city, road, mine, etc. is a pretty massive intervention. Or just using any conventionally grown foods probably impacts tons of insects via pesticides. Or contributing to climate change. At a minimum, ensuring those things are done in a way that is kinder way for animals seems like a goal that anyone could be on board with (assuming it is an effective use of charitable money, etc.).

I do also think that most things like you describe are already broadly done without animal welfare in mind. For example, we could probably come up with less harmful deer population management strategies than hunting, and we've already attempted to wipe out species (e.g. screwworms, probably mosquitos at some point in the future).

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

I think there were a few other philosophy papers that were sort of EA aligned I think, but yeah, basically just those 2. So maybe it was the default by default.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

Is there an accessible summary anywhere of the research underlying this shift in viewpoint?

I don't think there has been a summary, but that sounds like a good thing to write. But to quickly summarize things that are probably most informing this:

  1. I'm less confident in negative utilitarianism. I was never that confident in it, and feel much less so now. I don't think this is due to novel research, but just my views changing upon reflecting on my own life. I still broadly probably have an asymmetric view of welfare, but am more sympathetic to weighing positive experiences to some degree (or maybe have just become a moral particularist). I also think if I am less confident in my ethics (which them changing over time indicates I ought to be), then taking reversible actions robust under a variety of moral frameworks that seem plausibly good seems like a better approach.
  2. I feel a lot less confident that I know how long most animals' subjective experiences last, in part due to research like Jason Schukraft on the subjective experience of time. I think the best argument that most animal lives are net-negative is something like "most animals die really young before they accumulate any positive welfare, so the painfulness of their death outweighs basically everything else." This seems less true if their experiences are subjectively longer than they appear. I also have realized that I have a possibly bad intuition that 30 years of good experiences + 10 years of suffering is better than 3 minutes of good experiences and 1 minute of suffering, partially informing this.
  3. I think learning more about specific animals has made me a lot less confident that we can broadly say things like "r-selectors mostly have bad lives." 

Would you say this is a general shift in opinion in the WAW field as a whole?

When I started working in wild animal welfare, basically no one with a bio/ecology background worked in the space. Now many do. Probably many of those people accurately believe that most things we wrote / argued historically were dramatic oversimplifications (because they definitely were). I'm not sure if opinion is shifting, but there is a lot more actual expertise now, and I'd guess that many of those new experts have more accurate views of animals' lives, which I believe ought to incline one to be a least a bit skeptical of some claims made early in the space.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

Animal Charity Evaluators is the 6th, which did some surveying and research work in the space. I guess that counts. My phrasing was ambiguous. There have been 6, I co-founded 2 (UF and WAI), worked at another (Rethink Priorities).

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

I think that Toward Welfare Biology was, until maybe 2016 or so, the default thing people pointed to (along with Brian Tomasik's website), as the introductory text to wild animal welfare. I saw it referenced a lot, especially when I started working in the space.

Why Research into Wild Animal Suffering Concerns me

I co-founded 2 of and have worked at another of the 6 organizations that have worked on wild animal welfare with an EA lens. I've been writing or thinking about these things since around 2014. Here are a handful of thoughts related to this:

  • I think almost none of the people working in the space professionally are full on negative utilitarians. Probably many are very focused on reducing suffering (myself included), but pretty much everyone really likes animals - that's why they work on making their lives better!
  • In 2018, I helped organize the first wild animal welfare summit for the space. We unanimously agreed that this perspective was an unproductive one, and I don't think any group working in the space today (Wild Animal Initiative, Animal Ethics, Rethink Priorities) holds a view that is this strong. So I think in general, the space has been moving away from anything like what you're discussing.
  • Speaking from personal experience, I was much more sympathetic to this sort of view when I first got involved. Wild animal suffering is really overwhelming, especially if you care about animals. For me, it was extremely sad to learn how horrible lives are for many animals (especially those who die young). But, the research I've done and read has both made me a lot less sympathetic to a totalizing view of wild animals of this sort (e.g. I think many more wild animals than I previously thought live good lives), and less sympathetic to taking such a radical action. I think that this problem seems really hard at first, so it's easy to point to an intervention that provides conclusive results. But, research has generally made me think that we are both wrong about how bad many (though definitely not most) animal lives are, and how tractable these problems are. I think there are much more promising avenues for reducing wild animal suffering available.
  • People on the internet talk about reducing populations as being the project of wild animal welfare. My impression is that most or all of those folks don't actually work on wild animal welfare. And the groups working in the space aren't really engaged in the online conversation, probably in part because of disagreement with this view.
  • I hope that there are no negative utilitarians who hold 0 doubts about their ethics. I guess if I were a full negative utilitarian, or something, I probably wouldn't be 100% confident in that belief. And given that irreversibility of the intervention you describe, if I wasn't 100% confident, I'd be really hesitant to do anything like that. Instead, improving welfare is acceptable under a variety of frameworks, including negative utilitarianism, so it seems like we'd probably be inclined to just improve animal's lives.

Overall, I think this concern is pretty unwarranted, though understandable given the online discussion. Everyone I know who works on wild animal welfare cares about animals a lot, and the space has been burdened by these concerns despite them not really referring to views held by folks who lead the space.

Also, one note:

[they will] conclude that the majority of animals on Earth would be better off dead

I think it's pretty important to differentiate between people thinking animals would be better off dead (a view held by no one I know), and thinking that some animals who will live will have better lives if we reduce juvenile mortality via reduced fertility, and through the latter, that we would prevent a lot of very bad, extremely short lives. We already try to non-lethally reduce populations of many wild animals via fertility control (e.g. mosquitos, screwworms, horses, cats). These projects are mainstream (outside of EA), widely accepted as good, and for some of them, done for the explicit benefit of the animals who are impacted. 

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