Comment author: scottweathers 22 March 2016 03:05:30PM 4 points [-]

This is really excellent work, Joey! It seems like replicating your research / providing feedback on interventions is fairly high in expected value terms. If there are any EAs that have helpful knowledge on this, I'd encourage them to do so.

Comment author: zackrobinson 17 March 2016 08:35:01PM *  4 points [-]

Hi Scott. I've had one paper published in philosophy, and I've had several others accepted to conferences. I'm certainly not as credentialed as Will, but I might be able to give some tips. My guess is that many of these are not particularly unique to philosophy. First, it's always good to reference other relevant philosophical work. We all know what hedonistic utilitarianism is, but if you're going to write a paper about the implications of effective altruism for a hedonistic utilitarian, you should still clearly define the concept and cite major works on the topic. Second, clear writing is always preferred over convoluted writing. Sometimes people think philosophers want to sound smart and intentionally use complicated language, but the reverse is true. Sure, philosophy sometimes does legitimately require an understanding of technical terms, but good philosophical writing aims to be as clear as possible. Third, a good format to follow is abstract, introduction, argument, conclusion. Abstracts are extremely useful because they allow people to get the gist of your argument very quickly. Fourth, it is often better to make a genuine contribution to a narrow problem than to not really contribute anything to a broad topic. Finally, a good practice is probably to just read some published philosophy work. That is the best way to get an idea of the writing quality and organizational nature of publishable papers. I believe Will has some of his papers posted on his site. I've read some of his work, and I think it's a good example of clear writing. That's probably a good place to start.

Most CFPs request papers that have been prepared for blind review as well, so be sure to do that.

Comment author: scottweathers 22 March 2016 02:13:24PM 0 points [-]

Thanks, Zack!

Comment author: scottweathers 17 March 2016 05:46:32PM 2 points [-]

Thanks, Will!

I have several ideas in mind but wouldn't feel confident submitting right now, because I don't know the norms of philosophy publication. I'd love to have someone who's written for philosophy journals (preferably an EA) provide a guide to EAs who might want to submit articles. Is there anyone who might be able to address these kinds of questions?

Comment author: scottweathers 06 March 2016 11:18:42PM 17 points [-]

Again, I love this, Gleb!

1) I wrote a response piece in openDemocracy defending EA that got 218 shares on Facebook. I also reached out to Lisa, who wrote the original article, and we had a good chat - definitely friendly and I think the debate helped both of us advance our goals/interests.

2) I finally published an article on the EA forum covering the "meat eater problem" that I've been trying to publish for ages. This represents a ton of hard work and thinking that I've done over the last several months. I intend to follow it up with another blog post on many of the questions that I still don't have answers to.

3) The Reach Every Mother and Child Act, the bill I'm working on, just reached 100 co-sponsors! This is a major achievement - many of the co-sponsors were added on after I met with representatives' staffers.

4) I was accepted into global health masters programs at Harvard and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine! I haven't decided which program to do yet, but that's probably what I'll be doing next year :)

Comment author: scottweathers 03 March 2016 02:37:36PM 4 points [-]

This is an excellent article, Joey. Every single non-profit could learn a ton about transparency, measurement, and estimating impact from the approach you've taken. I'm impressed by Charity Science's impact, but far more impressed by your approach to figuring out the marginal value your organization adds. I'm going to send this article to organizations in the future.

Full disclosure, I'm an advisor to Charity Entrepreneurship's project and have been very impressed by the approach they're taking on that project as well.

Comment author: Gleb_T  (EA Profile) 01 March 2016 10:03:48PM 0 points [-]

Really interesting article, thanks for writing it! I'm especially intrigued by the concept of the possible + net utility of certain forms of factory farming, as this is an idea I have not encountered before, and have updated based on it.

It’s also plausible that interventions that raise incomes, like deworming, have a lower impact on meat consumption because they don’t raise the overall number of humans that would be eating meat over their entire lifetime.

I'm a bit concerned with this argument. There's research showing that people in developing countries eat more meat as their income increases. So if the goal is to optimize for lower meat consumption, it is beneficial to keep people's incomes lower.

Now, I am not saying that we should keep people's incomes lower. In fact, I'm a strong supporter of GiveDirectly and other organizations that increase people's incomes in developing countries. However, we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that the consequence of increasing people's incomes is an increase in meat consumption, and we have to count that as a variable in the cost-benefit analysis.

Let’s work more in India

While in a way that makes sense, we have to remember that in India, beef and pork meat are rarely eaten for religious reasons (Hindus don't eat beef, Muslims don't eat pork). So chicken meat is going to be eaten more there. This is a concern that we need to include in our calculations.

EA could probably stand to give a much higher proportion of its money to animal charities

As someone concerned with movement-building from the perspective of how the EA movement looks to outsiders, we should consider the costs and benefits from a PR perspective of this move. I'm not saying it's a bad or good move, just raising it as an issue to consider.

Overall, very good article, upvoted!

Comment author: scottweathers 02 March 2016 09:25:04PM 0 points [-]

Thanks, Gleb! I definitely struggle with the PR aspect of this - it's certainly a weird topic but one that I think matters a lot.

Definitely think that we should include increased meat consumption in our cost-effectiveness analysis for interventions that increase income. My guess is that this amount is much smaller than for interventions that save lives, like bed nets, but that's certainly an open question.

I agree with Brian's remarks on chicken consumption in India - it didn't seem the case when I looked at the data.

Comment author: zackrobinson 02 March 2016 07:23:50AM *  1 point [-]
  1. This problem generalizes to other areas as well: increasing human populations almost certainly mean increased environmental strain, for example. I don't want to digress into that too much, but I will say that I think you brought up a good response to this sort of critique: we shouldn't assume too much about future causal chains. There is a great deal of awareness at the moment of both factory farming and climate change, and it is entirely possible that the effects of one additional human will be far lower than current states would project them to be.

  2. Off the top of my head, I believe there are about 8-10 billion factory farmed animals consumed every year in the US -- roughly 35 per person. Most of these are chickens, and I think we can say they lead net-negative lives (I simply do not believe non-breeder chickens are at a 4). There is no doubt that increasing the size of the US population would substantially increase the number of factory farmed animals, and an increase of 35 factory farmed animals per human is far from trivial. However, the good news is that the vast majority of lives extended by EAs are not in the US, and thus the increase in meat consumption their longer lives will produce is likely going to be sourced from animals with lives that are probably worth living.

  3. I absolutely agree regarding animal charities. The potential is quite large simply due to the number of animals involved in factory farming and the quite poor conditions many of them live in. There are probably a relatively small number of humans who are actually living net negative lives. There are undoubtedly billions of animals who are living such lives. This alone should probably be a very important consideration for EAs.

Overall, great article!

Comment author: scottweathers 02 March 2016 09:20:51PM 0 points [-]

Thanks, Zach! Point 3 seems especially important to me and something that I may highlight more in future articles.

I wanted to dive more into point 1 about environmental stress, but it's so difficult! I genuinely don't know whether eating beef is unethical or not - Compassion by the Pound's welfare numbers are pretty positive for cows but their climate impact is much larger than chickens/pigs. I think it's fairly clear that veal is bad, but hamburgers? It's one question I'd like to see someone dive into.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 01 March 2016 08:33:26AM *  5 points [-]

Compassion by the pound

If you're going to make an argument like this you should specify how you weight different animals, including wild ones, and include welfare estimates for wild animals. I have some discussion in this post.

For example, health interventions that save lives, like bed nets, may lower human fertility in the long run, resulting in lower meat consumption.

This is not obvious. See David Roodman's write-up. Using the criteria expressed elsewhere in the post (total QALY-counting without a specified weighting scheme, direct effects and indirect effects on meat consumption but ignoring longer-term flow-through effects), this would be an argument for health interventions being bad, along Repugnant Conclusion lines.

A more practically sound approach, to me, seems to be to consider where the distribution of donations in the Effective Altruist movement generally falls and allocate funding as “bets” according to how much an organization could use money at the margins and its expected value. Under this line of thinking, I believe we may be under-prioritizing animal organizations, far future research, and meta-organizations like Giving What We Can.

This could work smoothly in an expected value framework for interventions with strong diminishing returns over the range of money EA can move, and would be recommended by relevant moral uncertainty or moral pluralism (this is relevant for many Open Philanthropy activities), although the cutoffs for each intervention will depend on relative weightings/credences/shares of influence.

However, it doesn't work in the same way for interventions with near-constant returns over larger ranges. For instance, scaled-up cash transfers could absorb hundreds of billions of dollars per year with fairly steady marginal returns.

Comment author: scottweathers 02 March 2016 09:13:28PM *  2 points [-]

Yep, I think the discussion around how much we value different animal lives is pretty central to this. I think it deserves a post on its own - perhaps that's the next thing I'll write!

I think you're right in theory about interventions with constant returns, but I'm not sure many interventions actually behave this way. To take GiveDirectly, I see one of the most large (potential) benefits being that developing countries may begin cash transfer systems after seeing GiveDirectly's success. To that end, $50 million looks very different from $150 to $300 in how quickly countries will hear about their successes, how much media attention GiveDirectly receives, etc. It's probably very impossible to predict where these cut-offs are - I'm just trying to highlight that optimizing our donations is of course what we should aim for, but pretty hard when many of the benefits come from policy changes from a diverse set of actors.

Good points, Carl!

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 29 February 2016 11:02:36PM *  7 points [-]

From the outset, I'm not sure how prevalent and unified a response there could be, because different EAs have different starting beliefs. Some of them agree that meat consumption is a serious issue and some do not, and this will necessarily change the way they look at the problem. I guess you could refine it and say that we need an "EAs-who-donate-to-poverty-alleviation" response, and maybe this is what you really mean, but if you constrain it like that then they don't necessarily need a response because, by prioritizing donations to poverty over donations to animal causes, they've already demonstrated that they don't care about animals as much, and if they did care about animals enough to be worried about this then they really ought to have been donating to animal welfare charities in the first place. For this reason, everything that I'm about to write regarding the relationship between wealth and meat consumption is 90% a mental exercise (and 10% a concern about how much to cooperate and support other people's altruism). But more on that later.

The argument presented in Compassion by the Pound leads me to think, at the very least, that certain systems of animal agriculture might offer net-positive lives for the animals within them, albeit nowhere near what they deserve, and that outreach strategies that reduce demand for meat might not necessarily be net-positive. If we assume that the author’s welfare numbers are correct for a brief moment, it is entirely possible that reducing demand for meat would actually prevent some animals from being alive when they would’ve benefited from more enjoyment than suffering overall.

On average, it seems that animals' lives on farms are negative. Chickens seem to exist in the greatest numbers, so their welfare dominates. Sure, there is a probability that animal lives are better than this author believes. But there is an equal probability that animal lives are even worse than this author believes. So we should just stick with the point estimate, which is negative.

Regarding shaky ethical assumptions: it seems a lot more plausible, across multiple ethical theories, that it's wrong to create animals with dubious well-being in order to kill them. That it would be good to farm animals with uninteresting but net-pleasant lives is only something that a subset of utilitarians (and perhaps a few others) would endorse. I believe it's plausible and quite likely right, but it does seem to require more controversial ethical assumptions.

For example, health interventions that save lives, like bed nets, may lower human fertility in the long run, resulting in lower meat consumption.

Well, they'll reduce population growth, which will slow the rate of increase in meat consumption. But this just means that naive estimates of future increases in meat consumption are going to be slight underestimates rather than significant underestimates.

In this case, for saving lives in the developing world to be ethically bad, you would need to prove that over the next several generations, 1) people in countries with GiveWell-supported charities will be eating some high percentage of factory farmed meat, 2) factory farmed meat will produce net negative utility for animals, and that the moral weight of the harm to animals is greater than the humans saved in the first place.

I don't think these are very contentious, or at least no more contentious than some of the countervailing ideas you are presenting.

In my quick analysis of the issue ( I had a source saying that much (probably most) of new animal agriculture in the developing world is intensive ( I estimated 17 days of animal suffering, including 14 days of poultry suffering, for an increase of $1,000 in average per-capita GDP.

I think we should put reasonable probability (ex. at least 10-20%) that we’ll develop widespread meat alternatives and/or have a high number of successful farm animal welfare campaigns that influence meat consumption in the developing world.

Well, the fact that EAs might find a solution isn't necessarily what should change our evaluation, right? The probability that anyone or anything will find a solution to meat consumption in the developing world is what should move us, because that's what really drives a reduction in expected increases in meat consumption.

So I'd guess that 10% is an astonishingly optimistic figure for thinking that EAs will even substantially reduce the meat consumption of an entire continent, but the probability that some kind of meat replacement will become very popular in Africa for any reason might come somewhere close to that. Note, however, that meat consumption is very important for improving the health of developing communities in Africa, and they will have a significant social demand for it (there are one or two sources on this which I can dig up if you want). Still, any big change in this issue will take a long time to spread, so even if something like this does happen, there is all the marginal meat consumption in the near and medium term future.

Honestly, this is what looks to me as a very contentious causal chain. That doesn't make it wrong, but to be fair we'll just have to add back comparable contentious causal chains which also point in favor of worrying about the meat eater problem. I think we should also consider the possibility that increased meat production in Africa will facilitate a large new industry with significant economies of scale, enabling a decrease in prices which will outprice meat alternatives and further entrench meat in African culture.

Fellow Effective Altruists might also argue that we should simply give to wherever has the highest expected utility, rather than stretch our donations across causes or organizations. In theory, I agree with this approach. However, I struggle to see how we can measure the impact of our donations against one another to the degree required to make this judgment with any degree of confidence, especially in light of uncertainties like the meat eater problem and far future concerns. For example, would you be able to say with greater than 80-90% confidence that a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation has greater expected value than to the Humane League or Future of Humanity Institute?

This is sort of the whole idea behind effective altruism anyway... Yes, it's difficult, but if you think that animals are important enough that an additional couple weeks of suffering on farms matters in comparison to a $1,000 increase in annual income, then you should be donating to animal charities in the first place. If you compare the $3,000 it takes to save a life from malaria to the amount of advocacy and reform you can push for $3,000, it turns out that the animal-welfare opportunity cost of saving people is much greater than the animal-welfare direct cost of saving people. This comes from my own highly pessimistic, watered-down mental adjustments of the old vegan outreach ad calculations, but you can do it with other methods of animal charity and probably get similar results. So I think there is very little room in rational decision space for this concern to change where someone donates to - maybe if you care just a little bit about animals in comparison to humans, and are really unsure about the tradeoff, then the meat eater problem will tip the scales in favor of animal welfare donations.

Carl Shulman also objected to this argument along similar lines:

The good thing about bringing up this issue, which is the reason I would like to thank you for this post, is that it seems to help people sort out their beliefs and come closer to the realization that if they care about this then they should have been donating to animal welfare all along.

What I don't want, of course, is for EAs to feel inclined to care less about the meat eater problem and animal charities simply because they've already been donating to poverty alleviation. This would be an understandable and predictable form of cognitive bias. So, check yourselves for bias, everyone!

Comment author: scottweathers 01 March 2016 12:05:45PM 3 points [-]

Thanks, Kbog! Responding to a few claims:

I agree we won't ever have a single response, but that's not my intention. I just think this is an important enough problem that far more EAs should be taking it seriously and considering it as they donate/work (the EA response).

On chickens - yes, most chicken lives currently are probably very net-negative. However, the authors' numbers say cage-free and market (non-breeder) chickens raised for meat live net-positive lives. If you disagree with the authors' numbers, that's a totally fair argument and I'd love to hear it. However, given the huge movement towards cage-free just in the past year and the numbers above, we may have many chickens living net-positive lives in the immediate future. This seems important to me as we discuss predictions about the next 50-100 years.

Re: shaky ethical assumptions: I agree that this is controversial and a view not held by many people. I'd love to hear arguments about why this ethical view is not correct!

Thanks for your link, I meant to put it in my post but forgot.

I was using a broader "we" as in "humanity will develop meat alternatives," not that any particular Effective Altruist will do it. I don't much care who does it.

Comment author: Vidur_Kapur  (EA Profile) 29 February 2016 10:45:50PM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for the post. I'm somewhat less confident in the meat-eater problem being a problem as a result of it, maybe for different reasons though. I still think that it is overall a problem, however. I'll just put my initial thoughts below.

It’s also plausible that interventions that raise incomes, like deworming, have a lower impact on meat consumption because they don’t raise the overall number of humans that would be eating meat over their entire lifetime.

The effect of raising income itself will still tend to increase meat consumption, though. There was another helpful post recently on the forum which attempted to quantify the effect of economic growth on meat consumption. Although, it's plausible that interventions that raise incomes and contribute to increased education, such as deworming, could not only not raise the number of humans eating meat, but could also reduce the number of humans who would have otherwise existed, if education and particularly female education does lead to lower fertility, though I don't think that this lowering of fertility would outweigh the increased amount of meat being eaten.

Also, while life-saving interventions may have no effect on or even lower fertility in the long-run, there's also some evidence that interventions against malaria, for instance, may raise incomes too, which would lead to more meat being eaten. But, then again, more education as a result of lack of disruption due to malaria prevention could lead to lower fertility in the long run.

I’m less sure of other systems of animal agriculture where welfare standards are higher

Though, factory-farming is the dominant method of animal agriculture in the UK too, and likely in Europe as a whole. I'm also not convinced that animal welfare standards in developing countries will be significantly better even today, and I think that the hypothesis that factory-farming is only going to grow as incomes and populations grow is strong.

Even if I’m wrong about the meat eater problem, we can improve the chances we’ll solve it with investments in animal organizations today

I agree with this, and I also agree with the conclusion that EA should be directing more resources towards animal advocacy, because it does appear to be quite human-centred despite the commitment to impartiality. The possibility that lab-grown meat could ensure that the meat-eater problem is not as big of a problem in the future is also an interesting one, and hopefully one which will be realised.

Again, I would agree that this makes the meat-eater problem somewhat less of a concern, but it also means that potential short-term increases in fertility, which are plausible as a result of global health interventions as the report you cite states, are more important than long-run decreases in fertility - decreasing fertility in the long run is less likely to matter as more people in the long-run will impact less, in expectation, on meat-eating due to the ever increasing probability of lab-grown meat becoming widely or near-fully adopted.

I also liked the idea of "working more in India" as a compromise solution.

However, I'd still disagree that we should split our donations - I would endorse the view that we should maximise expected utility and favour your option 1 of donating solely to animal charities (or future animal suffering), and I wouldn't say that this relies on implausible causal chains either. While I have downshifted my confidence in the meat-eater problem being a thing, I still think that it's more likely to be a thing than not. And, I would say that the amount of suffering inflicted upon non-human animals as a result of meat-eating is greater than the amount of human suffering we could alleviate. So, if we're sufficiently worried about the meat-eater problem, chances are that our donations would align best with our values if we donated solely to animal charities, and vice-versa.

Comment author: scottweathers 01 March 2016 11:53:05AM *  1 point [-]

Thanks, Vidur! I didn't make it totally clear, but I don't think that individuals should split their donations. The main argument that I'm trying to make is that the distribution of our donations across the EA movement are heavily human-centered, and that's a mistake based on expected value. I didn't want to dive too deep into this but that's the claim I was trying to make.

Broadly speaking, I'd like to see a much higher proportion of our dollars go to animal organizations. I could see this being fixed from a decent sized group of people moving their donations over or a major organization like OPP fixing it.

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