This collection of articles was first published on the website of Sentience Politics.
At first glance, farm animal advocacy seems to be the top priority for reducing the suffering of all sentient beings. However, a more detailed analysis suggests that there are several different contenders for ultimate priority: Besides farm animal advocacy, this includes (but is not limited to) wild animal suffering, digital sentience, and the ethical use of future technologies. Uncertainty about future developments and about the tractability of various causes makes it difficult for us to choose our priorities. In the light of this uncertainty, it pays to adapt an increasingly cause-neutral approach to activism, i.e. one that stays flexible, thereby benefitting many causes in expectation. The following paragraphs will outline what such a cause-neutral approach consists of and why there are significant benefits to endorsing it.
Identifying the best cause is crucial
Prioritization is of central importance to effective altruists because the effectiveness of different interventions – how much suffering they alleviate per unit of money/time invested – may differ by several orders of magnitude. For example, cause areas differ in the scope of what is at stake: The number of wild animals is e.g. many times larger than the number of farm animals – and the extent of future suffering might in turn be many times larger than ongoing wild animal suffering.
Thus, identifying the most important cause is crucial: Working on the top priority can be many times more effective than other work. Conversely, choosing a suboptimal cause can lead to the loss of a large share (perhaps over 90%) of the potential impact. Overall, this leads to a difficult situation: Focusing our efforts on the best cause is pivotal, but at the same time, there is a lot of uncertainty about what the best cause actually is. How can we best deal with this problem?
The importance of cause-neutrality
In order to address prioritization in an unbiased way, the principle of cause-neutrality is of central importance: We should evaluate a cause solely on the basis of its effectiveness, without any previous attachment or emotional connection to a particular cause. A lack of cause-neutrality may lead us to choose a suboptimal cause and thereby diminish our impact.
In particular, it is crucial that we remain able to update based on new evidence. For example, even if we believe that farm animal advocacy is the best cause area right now, we should still consider the possibility that future developments might change the picture. For instance, it is conceivable that new technologies will enable the reduction of wild animal suffering on a large scale;or that we observe worrying trends and evidence of digital sentience. In this case, it is of central importance that we recognize these new priorities and are able to competently address them – especially because the stakes might be astronomical.
Rationality and possible biases
Since our impact is to a large extent determined by the cause we work on, we should strive to be as rational as possible when evaluating the effectiveness of different causes. In particular, we should be concerned about cognitive biases that might influence us to choose a suboptimal cause – thereby diminishing our impact. Which potential biases might lead us astray?
Focusing on one particular cause can over time lead to a strong emotional attachment. Of course, feeling emotionally connected to one’s work is by no means bad per se, but it might compromise our ability to evaluate causes objectively. Given the uncertainty about the ultimate priorities and the resulting importance of cause-neutrality, the potential impairment of our judgment is a strong reason not to commit exclusively to a particular cause.
We should also be concerned about the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our current beliefs (confirmation bias). For example, it might be argued that farm animal advocacy is also best for wild animals and digital sentience because it favorably changes social norms and attitudes. While attitude change is indeed very important, we should be suspicious about such a surprising convergence: A priori, it is implausible that one particular strategy is best for farm animals, wild animals and digital sentience at the same time. If we direct our strategy towards one particular goal (e.g. reducing farm animal suffering), then it is generally unlikely that this strategy is accidentally also optimal for a different goal (e.g. reducing wild animal suffering).
Given that intelligent people have thought about cause prioritization for years and are still uncertain, we should retain some epistemic modesty and avoid being overconfident. In particular, it is alarming that missing crucial considerations is so easy. For example, many animal activists do not even spend time thinking about reducing wild animal suffering – although its scope far exceeds farm animal suffering. Thus, we should never be too certain that we have already identified the best cause.
These considerations suggest that we should not commit strongly to a particular cause at this point. Rather, we could try to pursue strategies that are effective regardless of which cause will turn out to be most important. Due to their indirect mode of action, meta strategies are particularly suited for a cause-neutral approach.
Cause-neutral movement building
Generally, movement-building is a promising meta strategy due to its potential leverage effect. However, in light of the above considerations, we should reconsider what type of movement we want to build. Cause-neutrality is important not only on an individual level, but also on the level of movement-building: Just as we might be biased and unable to update as individuals, a movement might be unable to recognize a shift in priorities or to address new cause areas. In particular, movements centered around one particular cause are usually quite inflexible. Given that our impact largely depends on successfully identifying the top priorities, this inflexibility constitutes a serious risk.
We can address this concern by building a more cause-neutral movement, one which aims to effectively reduce suffering without an explicit commitment to any particular cause. The flexibility of a cause-neutral movement is a decisive advantage: If the priorities change to something radically different (like wild animals, digital sentience or influencing artificial intelligence) at some point, then a cause-neutral movement is able to engage in these issues as well. As we do not know the long-term priorities yet, building a flexible, more cause-neutral movement is superior to building a narrow movement. Due to the leverage effect of movement-building efforts, getting more people interested in long-term and cause-neutral suffering reduction is strategically very valuable.
An entirely cause-neutral movement might be too abstract and therefore unattractive. In practice, movement-building efforts go along with more direct work that demonstrates what the movement is about. We can be cause-neutral by covering a broad spectrum of topics that might be important for reducing the most suffering in the long run, while at the same time explicitly advancing novel ideas like cause-neutrality and effective altruism.
Besides cause-neutral movement-building, we also need to achieve clarity about our priorities by investigating the effectiveness of different interventions. Thus, conducting research on how to best reduce suffering is another important meta strategy. The fact that the stakes are potentially astronomical, and that comparatively little research has gone into these questions, implies that the value of information of research can be huge – a single crucial insight can significantly enhance the effectiveness of our work.
One could argue that the different cause areas are connected by the underlying speciesist attitudes and the lack of moral concern for the suffering of nonhuman beings. Thus, a long-term improvement of social attitudes and norms might be more important than short-term successes – especially because of the large number of future individuals. Even so, we should state more precisely what we mean by attitude change.
Given the importance of wild animal suffering and potential future suffering, it is crucial that social attitudes change in a targeted way that enables us to address the more advanced issues as well. This is by no means clear: For example, the conventional animal rights message focuses very strongly on human-caused animal suffering and thereby excludes wild animal suffering. Even if we succeed in spreading this message, it is not clear whether this benefits wild animals (or digital sentience) at all.
Thus, it is vital to think carefully about which values we want to advance. The goal should be an attitude change that leads to increased moral concern for the suffering of all sentient beings. The decisive advantage is that this implicitly includes concern for wild animal suffering and digital sentience. For this reason, promoting antispeciesism and general concern for animal suffering might be more effective than promoting concern for farm animal welfare – the latter is limited to a small subset of sentient beings, while the former benefits all sentient beings.
The long-term trajectory of social norms and attitudes is complex and frequently linked to technological developments. For example, one might think that cultured meat only changes behaviour and does not contribute to a change in underlying attitudes. However, this is short-sighted: Cultured meat removes the necessity to rationalize meat consumption and thereby makes it psychologically easier to care about nonhuman animals. In this way, cultured meat indirectly changes attitudes as well.
The above consideration suggests that even if we agree that promoting particular values is important, it will remain difficult to figure out the best ways to achieve this. Even within a particular cause area, prioritization – figuring out the most effective intervention to achieve a given goal – remains tricky but highly important.
Which strategies successfully change social attitudes and norms?
It might be argued that we need to reach as many people as possible, which means that we should use a straightforward, emotional message instead of focusing on (complicated) rational arguments. However, this approach neglects that societal elites and leading intellectuals have vastly more influence on social attitudes. Intellectual elites tend to be more receptive to rational arguments, and more likely turned off by emotional appeals. Thus, a rational approach still looks promising, as it has a better chance at convincing particularly influential individuals.
How effective a given strategy is at changing attitudes is an empirical question, which means that we should decide based on the research of leading experts instead of merely following our intuitions. As a result of his research on social change, Steven Pinker argues that targeting societal elites with rational arguments is much more important than targeting the masses with emotional appeals. In light of this insight, it might be a serious strategic mistake that the animal movement focuses almost exclusively on emotional appeals – and neglects rational arguments.
Since our impact is largely determined by the cause we work on, it is crucial that we are as rational as possible when evaluating different causes. Cause-neutrality is of central importance as it ensures that we remain able to update based on new evidence. Instead of committing to a particular cause, we should strive to reduce as much suffering as possible regardless of the cause. We can handle the uncertainty about the ultimate priorities by pursuing suitable meta-strategies such as cause-neutral movement building.
While the ideas of effective altruism may seem calculating and abstract, we should never forget that the suffering of millions of sentient beings is real. In order to alleviate as much suffering as possible, it is crucial that we combine our empathy with rational thinking.