Owen Cotton-Barratt

This post has two distinct parts. The first explores the meanings that have been attached to the term ‘cause’ within the effective altruism movement, and suggests my preferred usage. The second makes use of these distinctions to clarify the claims I made in a recent post on the long-term effects of animal welfare improvements.

On the meaning of ‘cause’

There are at least two distinct concepts which could reasonably be labelled a ‘cause’:

  1. An intervention area, i.e. a cluster of interventions which are related and share some characteristics. It is often the case that improving our understanding of some intervention in this area will improve our understanding of the whole area. We can view different-sized clusters as broader or narrower causes in this sense. GiveWell has promoted this meaning. Examples might include: interventions to improve health in developing countries; interventions giving out leaflets to change behaviour.
  2. A goal, something we might devote resources towards optimising. Some causes in this sense might be useful instrumental sub-goals for other causes. For example, “minimise existential risk” may be a useful instrumental goal for the cause “make the long-term future flourish”. When 80,000 Hours discussed reasons to select a cause, they didn’t explicitly use this meaning, but many of their arguments relate to it. A cause of this type may be very close to one of the first type, but defined by its goal rather than its methods: for example, maximising the number of quality-adjusted life-years lived in developing countries. Similarly, one could think of a cause a problem one can work towards solving.

These two characteristics often appear together, so we don’t always need to distinguish. But they can come apart: we can have a goal without a good idea of what intervention area will best support that goal. On the other hand, one intervention area could be worthwhile for multiple different goals, and it may not be apparent what goal an intervention is supposed to be targeting. Below I explain how these concepts can diverge substantially.

Which is the better usage? Or should we be using the word for both meanings? (Indeed there may be other possible meanings, such as defining a cause by its beneficiaries, but I think these are the two most natural.) I am not sure about this and would be interested in comments from others towards finding the most natural community norm. Key questions are whether we need to distinguish the concepts, and if we do then which is the more frequently the useful one to think of, and what other names fit them well.

My personal inclination is that when the meanings coincide of course we can use the one word, and that when they come apart it is better to use the second. This is because I think conversations about choosing a cause are generally concerned with the second, and because I think that “intervention area” is a good alternate term for the first meaning, while we lack such good alternatives for the second.

Conclusions about animals

In a recent post I discussed why the long-term effects of animal welfare improvements in themselves are probably small. A question we danced around in the comments is whether this meant that animal welfare was not the best cause. Some felt it did not, because of various plausible routes to impact from animal welfare interventions. I was unsure because the argument did appear to show this, but the rebuttals were also compelling.

My confusion at least was stemming, at least in part, from the term ‘cause’ being overloaded.

Now that I see that more clearly I can explain exactly what I am and am not claiming.

In that post, I contrasted human welfare improvements, which have many significant indirect and long-run effects, with animal welfare improvements, which appear not to. That is not to say that interventions which improve animal welfare do not have these large long-run effects, but that the long-run effects of such interventions are enacted via shifts in the views of humans rather than directly via the welfare improvement.

I believe that the appropriate conclusion is that “improve animal welfare” is extremely unlikely to be the best simple proxy for the goal “make the long-term future flourish”. In particular, it is likely dominated by the proxy “increase empathy”. So we can say with confidence that improving animal welfare is not the best cause in the second sense (whereas it may still be a good intervention area). In contrast, we do not have similarly strong reasons to think “improve human welfare” is definitely not the best approach.

Two things I am not claiming:

  • That improving human welfare is a better instrumental sub-goal for improving the long-term future than improving animal welfare.
  • That interventions which improve animal welfare are not among the best available, if they also have other effects.

If you are not persuaded that it’s worth optimising for the long-term rather than the short-term, the argument won’t be convincing. If you are, though, I think you should not adopt animal welfare as a cause in the second sense. I am not arguing against ‘increasing empathy’ as possibly the top goal we can target (although I plan to look more deeply into making comparisons between this and other goals), and it may be that ‘increase vegetarianism’ is a useful way to increase empathy. But we should keep an open mind, and if we adopt ‘increasing empathy’ as a goal we should look for the best ways to do this, whether or not they relate to animal welfare.

Posted in Essays.

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