Carl_Shulman comments on Quantifying the Impact of Economic Growth on Meat Consumption - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Carl_Shulman 23 December 2015 12:14:41AM *  13 points [-]

I think this whole line of analysis is usually misguided, for reasons I wrote about under a post about effects of poverty alleviation on existential risk (and recently again in a thread about overpopulation) and will now quote:

Say you have two interventions, A and B, and two outcome metrics, X and Y. You expect A will improve X by 100 units per dollar and B will improve Y by 100 units per dollar. However each intervention will have some smaller effect of uncertain sign on the other outcome metric. A will cause +1 or -1 units of Y, and B will cause +1 or -1 units of X.

It would be silly to decide for or against one of these interventions based on its second-order effect on the other outcome metric:

  • If you think either X or Y is much more important than the other metric, then you just pick based on the more important metric and neglect the other
  • If you think X and Y are of similar importance, again you focus on the primary effect of each intervention rather than the secondary one
  • If you are worried about A harming metric Y because you want to ensure you have expected positive impact on both X and Y, you can purchase offsets by putting 1% of your resources into B, or vice versa for B harming X

Cash transfers significantly relieve poverty of humans who are alive today, and are fairly efficient at doing that. They are far less efficient at helping or harming non-human animals today or increasing or reducing existential risk. Even if they have some negative effect here or there (more meat-eating, or habitat destruction, or carbon emissions) the cost of producing a comparable benefit to offset it in that dimension will be small compared to the cash transfer. E.g. an allocation of 90% GiveDirectly, and 10% to offset charities (carbon reduction, meat reduction, nuclear arms control, whatever) will wind up positive on multiple metrics.

If you have good reasons to give to poverty alleviation rather than existential risk reduction in the first place, then minor impacts on existential risk from your poverty charities are unlikely to reverse that conclusion (although you could make some smaller offsetting donations if you wanted to have a positive balance on as many moral theories as possible). It makes sense to ask how good those reasons really are and whether to switch, but not to worry too much about small second-order cross-cause effects.

ETA: As I discuss in a different comment, moral trade gives us good reasons to be reciprocally supportive with efforts to very efficiently serve different conceptions of the good with only comparatively small costs according to other conceptions.

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 23 December 2015 11:55:29PM *  4 points [-]

If we are considering this as a reason to spend money on other causes than poverty alleviation, then yes I agree. But this is probably more relevant for other kinds of decisions where the tradeoff between supporting different causes is less clear. Secondly, apparently some people do change their causes based on this issue, so even if they're not being rational at least it can help them sort out their priorities better.

Finally, if people want an across the board positive moral portfolio, those people who donate primarily to poverty alleviation may want to know how much to support animal advocacy in order to offset the animal harm, so quantifying it will help them figure it out better.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 23 December 2015 02:38:39PM 2 points [-]

Strongly agree with this Carl, great point.

I wonder if a way to steel man this type of analysis is to interpret it as an argument that you're focusing on the wrong metric?

Comment author: tomstocker 30 December 2015 06:39:15AM 0 points [-]

Yep, I think the best way is to see it as a different social welfare function people are optimising for. Even if they focus only on the bits that don't cross over on a Venn diagram..

Comment author: tomstocker 30 December 2015 07:00:20AM 1 point [-]

But its clear still seems that this social welfare function implicitly values the lives of low meat consuming beneficiaries of effective aid less than the original model.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 19 January 2016 10:58:11PM 1 point [-]

Honestly, Carl, this is one of the best pieces of feedback I've read on the EA Forum, and I thought that from last time I read the original comment. May I suggest you turn some version of this argument into it's own top-level article on the Forum?

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 23 December 2015 12:20:15PM 1 point [-]

I wonder what the bundle is here that brings you out ahead on everything - $1,000 to AMF and $20 to Animal Equity?