What if you were in a position to give away billions of dollars to improve the world? What would you do with it? This is the problem facing Program Officers at the Open Philanthropy Project – people like Dr Nick Beckstead.
Following a PhD in philosophy, Nick works to figure out where money can do the most good. He’s been involved in major grants in a wide range of areas, including ending factory farming through technological innovation, safeguarding the world from advances in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and spreading rational compassion.
This episode is a tour through some of the toughest questions ‘effective altruists’ face when figuring out how to best improve the world, including:
Every year tens of billions of animals are raised in terrible conditions in factory farms before being killed for human consumption. Despite the enormous scale of suffering this causes, the issue is largely neglected, with only about $50 million dollars spent each year tackling the problem globally.
Over the last two years Lewis Bollard – Project Officer for Farm Animal Welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project – has conducted extensive research into the best ways to eliminate animal suffering in farms as soon as possible.
This has resulted in $30 million in grants, making the Open Philanthropy Project one of the largest funders in the area.
Our conversation covers almost every approach being taken, which ones work, how individuals can best contribute through their careers, as well as:
How young people can set themselves up to contribute to scientific research into meat alternatives
How genetic manipulation of chickens has caused them to suffer much more than their ancestors, but could also be used to make them better off
Why Lewis is skeptical of vegan advocacy
Open Phil’s grants to improve animal welfare in China, India and South America
Why Lewis thinks insect farming would be worse than the status quo, and whether we should look for ‘humane’ insecticides
Why Lewis doubts that much can be done to tackle factory farming through legal advocacy or electoral politics
Which species of farm animals is best to focus on first
50,000,000,000 animals are raised and slaughtered in factory farms globally each year. Most experience extreme levels of suffering over the course of their lives. But there are promising paths to improving the conditions of factory farmed animals and to reducing meat consumption.
In the profile we cover:
The main reasons for and against thinking that factory farming is a highly pressing problem.
How to use your career to work on ending factory farming.
Yesterday we put to rest the idea that 80,000 Hours, and effective altruists more generally, are only enthusiastic about ‘earning to give’. While some people should earn to give, we expect the right share is under 20%, and think that ‘earning to give’ is now more popular among the people who follow our advice than it ideally would be.
Today I want to put to rest another common misunderstanding about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours: that we are against systemic change.1
Despite being the most widespreadcritique of effective altruism, the idea is bizarre on its face. We are pragmatists at heart, and always looking for any ways to more effectively make the world a better place.
Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that they could!
So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.
What about in practice, though? Here are some systemic changes people who identify as effective altruists are working on today:
Most of the recent Open Philanthropy Project research and grants, on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development, are all clearly focussed on huge structural changes of various kinds.
The OpenBorders.info website also researches and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries.
A new startup called EA Policy, recommended for support by my colleagues at EA Ventures, is trialling making submissions to open policy forums held by the US government over this summer.
Our colleagues at the Global Priorities Project research the most important policy priorities for governments, and how they can establish better cost-benefit and decision-making processes.
One of GiveWell’s main goals from the beginning, perhaps it’s primary goal, has been to change the cultural norms within non-profits, and the standards by which they are judged by donors. They wanted to make it necessary for charities to be transparent with donors, and run projects that actually helped recipients. They have already significantly changed the conversation around charitable giving.
Giving What We Can representatives have met with people in the UK government about options for improving aid effectiveness. One of the first things I wrote when employed by Giving What We Can was about appropriate use of discounts rates by governments thinking about health services. Until recently one Giving What We Can member, who we know well, was working at the UK’s aid agency DfID.
Some 80,000 Hours alumni, most of whom unfortunately would rather remain anonymous, are going into politics, think-tanks, setting up a labour mobility organisations or businesses that facilitate remittance flows.
Several organisations focussed on existential risk (FHI, CSER and FLI jump to mind) take a big interest in government policies, especially those around the regulation of new technologies, or institutions that can improve inter-state cooperation and preclude conflict.
80,000 Hours alumni and effective altruist charities work on or donate to lobbying efforts on animal welfare, such as Humane Society US-FARM, or are activists working for dramatic society-wide changes in how humans view the moral importance of non-human animals.
It looks to me like it’s more accurate to say that effective altruists <3 systemic change.
The 80,000 Hours community is involved with many different causes – from scientific research to social justice – but there are four big (rather ambitious!) causes that have, so far, gathered the most support.
These are the four big challenges our community has set itself. They are all huge, but they also seem especially solvable, or especially neglected, and this means working within them offers the opportunity to make huge difference over the coming decades…
In this post, we apply this method to identify a list of causes that we think represent some particularly promising opportunities for having a social impact in your career (though there are many others we don’t cover!).
We’d like to emphasise that these are just informed guesses over which there’s disagreement. We don’t expect the results to be highly robust. However, you have to choose something to work on, so we think it’ll be useful to share our guesses to give you ideas and so we can get feedback on our reasoning – we’ve certainly had lots of requests to do so. In the future, we’d like more people to independently apply the methodology to a wider range of causes and do more research into the biggest uncertainties.
The following is intended to be a list of some of the most effective causes in general to work on, based on broad human values. Which cause is most effective for an individual to work on also depends on what resources they have (money, skills, experience), their comparative advantages and how motivated they are. This list is just intended as a starting point, which needs to be combined with individual considerations. An individual’s list may differ due also to differences in values. After we present the list, we go over some of the key assumptions we made and how these assumptions affect the rankings.
We intend to update the list significantly over time as more research is done into these issues. Fortunately, more and more cause prioritisation research is being done, so we’re optimistic our answers will become more solid over the next couple of years. This also means we think it’s highly important to stay flexible, build career capital, and keep your options open.
For-profit companies (including the meat, egg, and dairy industries) spend countless dollars each year on market research to figure out the best ways to persuade the public to consume their products. Vegetarian advocacy organizations have until recently spent virtually nothing to determine the best ways to persuade the public, despite the fact that their entire success as a movement depends on getting individual members of the public to change their dietary behavior. Until things began to change this past year, there had been virtually no research on the impact of various programs (i.e., no formal comparing of veg advocacy programs against one another to determine which are most cost-effective), and also no component testing of specific aspects of a program (for example, does video A or video B persuade more people to go vegetarian?).
Nick Cooney is the Founder and Director of The Humane League [Effective Animal Activism’s](http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/Top- charities) top recommended charity – and the Compassionate Communitites Manager at Farm Sanctuary. He’s also the author of [Change of Heart](http:// www.veganoutreach.org/advocacy/cooneyontitles.html), which is about how we can use an understanding of psychology to make social advocacy more effective (we recommend it!). As a member of 80,000 Hours, we asked him to share his thoughts on how to create impact with your career.
Brian Tomasik is a member of 80,000 Hours who has spent many years thinking and writing essays about how to most effectively reduce suffering in the world. Research Director Robert Wiblin sat down with Brian (metaphorically) to learn about his intellectual journey and at times unusual conclusions.
Among the goals of 80,000 hours is to provide resources to our community on the issues that matter most to us. As a result, we took the initiative to launch a new web-page dedicated to Effective Animal Activism: http://effectiveanimalactivism.org/, as a part of 80,000 hours, for our members to research, share, and act upon the most effective forms of giving our time or money to help animals.