We want to reduce as much suffering as possible, regardless of who is experiencing that suffering. But we cannot realistically help everyone, so how do we choose who to help? In emergencies where hospitals do not have enough resources to help everyone, doctors use a system of triage to allocate their limited resources in a way that maximizes the good they can do for their patients, without giving special regard to particular individuals on account of who arrived first, personal feelings about a patient, or other factors independent of patients’ medical needs.
Cause prioritization is a kind of triage that we can use to match our limited resources to the problems where they will reduce the most suffering. While it is easy to develop personal attachments to a particular cause, we will prioritize our resource allocation best if we adopt an attitude of cause-neutrality and, like the doctors, make our altruistic decisions strictly on the basis of how much suffering we expect them to eliminate.
Variation among causes
Cause areas can differ dramatically in scale. There are many more farmed animals than humans in poverty, many more wild animals than farmed animals, and the number of individuals suffering in the future could be far greater still — humanity could exist for many thousands more years, and could even expand beyond Earth. Partly because of this variation in scale, the effectiveness of different interventions to reduce suffering can vary by several orders of magnitude. For example, the same resources required by a shelter to rescue 2 or 3 animals could instead spare over 11,000 animals from factory farms. Different causes and interventions also vary significantly in how tractable and neglected they are, two other important factors we need to consider when assessing what to do with our time and money. This variation means that choosing what cause or causes to prioritize can make a massive difference in the amount of suffering we can expect to affect.
Adapting to new evidence
Future social, political, and technological developments may have significant effects on which cause needs our resources the most. As activists explore more interventions across different cause areas, we will also gain an improved understanding of how tractable those interventions are.
Taking a cause-neutral approach enables us to update our views based on new evidence — evidence that could have significant implications for how we can most effectively reduce suffering. For example, we think farmed animal advocacy is a very promising cause right now, but we remain open to the possibility that something else may eclipse its priority. For instance, if technologies emerge that enable us to help wild animals on a large scale, ensuring their application may become a better use of our resources. If there is more we can do to reduce suffering, we need to be open to learning about it and willing to redirect our efforts towards it.
Overcoming our biases
In choosing what cause to work on now, we should keep in mind how some cognitive biases may influence us. Focusing on one particular cause can lead to a strong emotional attachment over time, and while feeling emotionally connected to our work helps us perform better, becoming too attached may compromise our ability to evaluate other causes objectively.
We should also recognize our tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our current beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. If we are currently enthusiastic about a particular strategy of behavioral change — say, leafleting to encourage people to go vegan — we may get excited when we hear other people say the intervention changed their behavior, taking that as evidence of the intervention’s success and ignoring the people who were unaffected, the base rate at which people were changing that behavior anyways, or the greater success of other interventions.
We also have a more general bias towards maintaining our status quo. An activist working on a human-focused cause, who is surrounded by friends and family who eat animals, may think that their own work is so important that they should not bother with even the minor transitional cost of an impactful behavioral change, like adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. Or someone who works in the Silicon Valley and loves science fiction may be too readily convinced that artificial intelligence can solve all the world’s (or universe’s) problems. We should be suspicious of such apparent good fortune that enables us to stay our present course in the face of new considerations.
Epistemic modesty is also valuable, especially given how alarmingly easy it is to miss crucial considerations. For instance, someone may direct their resources only where they can see the impact they are making, even if they could reduce far more suffering by helping individuals they have not considered — like those who have not been born yet but whose suffering could be substantially impacted by actions taken today. Similarly, an animal advocate may not think about how animals suffer in nature, or someone who wants to colonize space may not consider the wild animal suffering that terraforming other planets could cause. If these particular considerations seem obvious to you now, keep in mind that at one point, they didn’t. There may be more important considerations that we still aren’t seeing.
How to reduce suffering while maintaining a cause-neutral approach
Cause-neutral movement building
Just as individuals may be biased and unable to update their views, an entire movement may find it difficult to re-prioritize based on new evidence. Movements focused on too narrow a cause or set of interventions may fall short of their potential because their capital is too specialized and inflexible. This flexibility is why Sentience Politics advocates for a cause-neutral movement for the reduction of suffering in all sentient beings.
By working on a spectrum of promising causes and interventions, we can grow support for those movements, cultivate a more cause-neutral attitude in the activists we work alongside, attract press, gain influence, and maintain enough neutrality to refocus our own efforts as our priorities change.
How much suffering an intervention reduces is an empirical question, so we need to continue investigating specific interventions. The stakes are astronomical, and little research has gone into these questions. This research has been and may continue to be immensely valuable. A single crucial insight can dramatically increase the effectiveness of our work, such as the realization that affecting the far future could be a serious moral priority.
Currently, wild animal suffering and the diverse possible forms of astronomical suffering that could happen in the future are strong candidates for causes to prioritize, but before we can make progress on these advanced issues, society needs to care much more about them. Developing technologies we can use to intervene will not make a difference if we are unwilling to use them. But once we decide that promoting particular values is important, we still need to find the best ways to do so, which is a complex and difficult problem.
Spreading messages advocating for animals — for example, through undercover investigations, leafleting, or political advocacy — could be a good place to start. While animal advocacy messages currently focus mostly on human-caused animal suffering, these messages could be broadened to encompass all suffering animals and emphasize antispeciesism. Even though farmed animals are a massive group and society is only just beginning to consider their suffering, in the interest of expanding our moral circle to embrace them as well as wild animals and other existing and future sentient nonhuman beings, explicitly promoting antispeciesism and a general concern for animal suffering — with concrete goals like ending animal farming — may be a more effective use of our resources than strictly promoting concern for farmed animals.
One might assume that plant and cultured meat substitutes can only change behavior and will have no effect on attitudes. However, if we are not eating animals, we have less of a need to rationalize eating them, so cultured and plant-based meat substitutes make it psychologically easier for us to care about them. Then again, some technological changes are more likely to happen without us than the social change they assist, so our own resources may help more elsewhere.
While we currently count widening society’s moral circle among our priorities in the interest of multiple large scale causes, it is vital that we think about prioritization even among the strategies that can help us achieve that goal.
Cause-neutrality helps us eliminate the most suffering we can by ensuring that we are able to update our views when we encounter new evidence. We can manage uncertainty about what causes and interventions we should prioritize by pursuing cause-neutral movement building, prioritization research, and broad attitude change. While these ideas may seem calculating and abstract, the suffering of sentient beings is both real and enormous. In order to eliminate as much of it as possible, we have to think critically about our altruistic efforts.
To learn about more advanced considerations, visit our sister project, the Foundational Research Institute.
- The Case Against Speciesism
- Altruism, Numbers, and Factory Farms
- Effective Strategies
- The Relevance of Wild Animal Suffering
- The Importance of the Far Future
- The Benefits of Cause-Neutrality