Finding more effective causes

In a previous post, I described how the causes we talk most about in effective altruism seem to arise from splitting by beneficiary. Keeping that in mind can give us some insight into how easy it is likely to be for us to find more effective causes than those we currently focus on, and give some idea of how we might do that.

How did we come to focus on the causes we do?

Here are two toy models for how effective altruism might have thus far looked for the most effective causes

Model 1:

From all the ways of helping others we can find, we hone in on those which seem most effective. We then investigate them in more detail to work out which seem most promising to work on. Some of the interventions effective altruism focuses on are quite surprising, so we shouldn’t think of this as looking at a series of interventions that are already described: we’re precisely looking for ones that haven’t been. On a model like this, the effectiveness of the interventions we’ll find in the future is quite a mystery, and it seems likely that for some time to come most of our efforts should go into trying to find the new, more effective causes.

Model 2:

We systematically expand our circle of caring to groups people tend to neglect, and doing so has highlights novel ways to help others. People tend to care about those close by and similar to them. Over history, the circle of those we care about has gradually widened - for example in coming to understand racism as an evil. You might think that what effective altruism has tried to do is continue this progression - persuading people that they should help not just those in their country, but also on the other side of the world; not just those of their own species but all sentient creatures; not just people currently existing but any people whose lives we can affect. Then in each of those cases it tried to find the most effective way to help that group.

It seems unlikely that either of these models accurately represent how effective altruism has come to focus on the causes it does. But some of the biggest insights of effective altruism do seem to have come from expanding our circle of caring. The importance of preventing events which could severely affect those in the future for the worse, after all, follows naturally after the realisation that the wellbeing of those in the future matters as much as that of current people.


How can we find more effective causes in the future?

We likely won’t find find more effective causes in future by expanding the circle, because the three groups seem to exhaust the space of beneficiaries. (That might not be the case - it might be that there are other beneficiaries we should care about such as self-replicating code; or that beneficiaries aren’t all that matters, for example that biodiversity also has intrinsic value.) Here are two other ways we could find more effective causes:


1. New beneficiary groups

Finding subgroups of these three beneficiary groups, or finding groups that cut across these groups, may highlight new effective ways of helping others. (H/t Daniel Dewey for this point). ‘People currently in extreme poverty’ is an example of a sub-group (of ‘current people’) while ‘people prone to depression’ is an example of a group that cuts across current and future people. Identifying such a group might be useful because a it is neglected compared to others. Eg typically animal welfare activists do not work on the suffering of wild animals, so identifying that sub-group as worth helping was novel. Or identifying such a group might be useful because there there is some particular way to help that group, which is highlighted by identifying the group. Eg specifically considering the category ‘animals in factory farms’.

In some cases, identifying these groups highlights more effective interventions within a cause, such as concentrating on ending factory farming within the cause of animal rights. In other cases, it may suggest a new cause as being effective, as might be the case with trying to find a cure to depression (I’m not clear here whether the cause would be ‘medical research’, ‘improving mental health across the world’ or what).


2. New methods

            Alternatively, we might be to find new methods to help our three main beneficiary groups. That might lead to new causes for us to focus on. For example - perhaps it is possible to breed animals with a higher happiness set point, and we should be trying to forward that research rather than only working to alleviate suffering among animals. In other cases it might suggest more effective interventions within causes we already focus on. Eg developing a cheaper way to purify water, or a more effective way to raise money to fight poverty.


The grid below shows these distinctions. Classifying like this might help us find new interventions by given us particular categories to investigate.



New beneficiary class

New method

New cause

E.g. curing depression

E.g. Research into animals’ happiness

Within existing cause

E.g. wild animal suffering

E.g. cheaper way to purify water


What are our chances of finding a more effective cause?

            The fact that expanding the circle of caring yielded such gains in effectiveness, and that it probably won’t yield more, makes it somewhat unlikely that we will be able to find another cause which eclipses the ones we currently focus on. On the other hand, finding new groupings of beneficiaries and new methods for helping beneficiary groups both seem promising ways to find more effective causes.

Our chance of finding a far more effective intervention depends in part on what overall class of beneficiaries we’re looking at and how neglected they tend to be. E.g. Animals tend to get less attention than humans – that plausibly explains why the suffering of wild animals has not previously been thought to be of moral importance. Any group that includes currently existing people in rich countries, on the other hand, is comparatively likely to have had quite a bit of work put into it. Where there hasn’t been, that will often be for reasons which make it rather intractable. E.g. there may be a strong lobby against an intervention, or it may require an untenable level of cooperation among diverse bodies. There seem to be some cases for which doesn’t hold though: you might think that human enhancements (as opposed to treatments of health problems), e.g. trying to slow ageing, have been neglected for the most part simply due to a perception that we don’t need them.

Relatedly, although effective altruism may have been useful in the past in highlighting particularly effective interventions within crowded areas, that does not mean it will in future. Past work by effective altruism in such areas has built on decades of research - whether by bodies like the WHO and the World Bank or by academia. Much of the value-add has been looking at the big picture of the interventions they’ve researched, and picking out the most effective ones. There might be interventions they entirely overlooked, but it’s more likely that improvements will come simply from some interventions being a bit better than they looked. This means the initial gains will have been far faster than subsequent ones.

With neglected areas like the far future, the story seems different. Because there has been little research done by others it’s more plausible that there are interventions we’ve never yet considered. I don’t know how to think about their likely value compared to those that we have. E.g. risks from AI seem quite major, potentially somewhat close in the future (~100 years?) and potentially tractable (e.g. by talking to the people doing the research), so it seems a high bar to surpass. But that’s not to say that we can’t: particularly if we could (say) find some way to improve society such that it was more robust to all possible disasters.


Two points to bear in mind:

  • To the extent that effective altruism focuses on three causes, those causes are very broad. Donating to AMF and SCI currently seem to be the most effective ways to alleviate poverty, but it’s entirely possible that in future we will find very different ways to do so, whether working to liberalise trade regulations or investing in start-ups creating technology to help the poorest (think of Sendwave).
  • Our current causes cut by beneficiary, rather than by method of helping. This is important to remember, because it can make it appear as if some interventions are being neglected, when actually they are encompassed by the causes we focus on - as advocating for institutional change may be the best way to alleviate extreme poverty.

Comments (3)

Comment author: tomstocker 11 January 2016 07:40:35PM 0 points [-]

Nice post, thanks. This is fun.

Class of people: modern slaves Intervention: advocacy to bring about a decent evidence base, good law and effective policing in the countries most ameanable to change with the largest such populations. Class of people: chickens Intervention: experiments to find out what you can do to a factory farming environment to promote relaxation and prosocial behaviour (sounds, lights, temperature etc) among barn chickens

Comment author: Gleb_T  (EA Profile) 02 January 2016 10:02:06PM 0 points [-]

Really nice follow-up, Michelle!

I think the focused approach you suggested in terms of getting more in-depth into specific methods and beneficiaries is quite helpful. However, I would enrich this approach through the concept of goal factoring, namely achieving a number of goals at once.

For example, it may be the case that inventing a new, effective, and cheap treatment for depression may address several beneficiaries: 1) those with depression now in rich and poor countries; 2) those in the future with depression in rich and poor countries; 3) if the pill has the same positive benefit for animals, then it would address animal suffering as well.

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 03 January 2016 07:40:46PM 0 points [-]

Great post. I think that self-harm and mental health/depression in poor countries is extremely neglected and could prove to be a gold-mine in averting DALYs cost-effectively. There needs to be more RCTs on potential interventions in these areas. Also, poor socialization is a very neglected issue, be it of the romantic or the friendship kind. Loneliness is one of the biggest sources of sorrow in the world yet is perplexingly not even considered a social problem. Measures to correct Asia's horrendous gender imbalance could do wonders for people to find love. For profit companies could sustainably provide people with better opportunities for friendship.