[Epistemic status: Sudden insight + some reflection]

[Novelty status: I Googled some stuff on cause neutrality, and didn’t see this category of concerns mentioned]

Trying to live an optimized, impactful life can be quite a burden. There is no time for fun when there is world-saving to do. You can't learn math unless it helps your career. And you must sacrifice the charitable causes you most care about for the ones that have the most impact.

What a relief when, last week, I realized how it may be possible to support personal pet causes while living an optimized life.

Cause-neutrality is one of the cornerstones of EA thought. It goes like this: Bob took a trip to a village in Indonesia and was really struck by the poverty there. He wants to dedicate his life to helping people in this village because it can do a lot of good. Boo Bob!

For you see, this is just one of many impoverished villages around the world, and probably neither the one suffering most nor the one where he can have the biggest impact cheaply. He should instead go to the List of Suffering Villages™ and pick the one where he can do the most good. And that’s assuming it’s not better for him to just become an investment banker and donate all his money.

But to make this decision, first the village must be on the list.

We live in a world where every village has a Wikipedia entry. But in other areas, there are a large number of local problems where the resources needed to raise awareness about the problem are a substantial fraction of the resources needed to solve it. In these cases, working on it immediately can be more effective than trying to get it properly prioritized and allocated to the most efficient person.

For comparison, consider personal productivity. The philosophy of Getting Things Done is all about moving tasks into a centralized system so you can do them at an optimal time. But, there’s an exception: if something takes less than two minutes, you should do it now.

In altruism, this looks like: If you see someone bleeding on a deserted street, you call 911 instead of weighing its impact it against all the phone calls to Congress you should be making. But it also applies in cases where the cost/benefit ratio is less extreme.

This is most evident in obscure political causes. Suppose you’re a skilled professional whose time is worth $100/hour. One day, you realize that your local town council can produce 10 million utilons by adopting policy X. You think you can convince them to adopt this policy by spending 500 hours running a campaign. But, an experienced campaign manager whose time is worth $80/hour could do it in 250 hours. If you do it: $50,000 for 10 million utilons. If he does it: $20,000 for 10 million utilons. Profit!

But what if you need to spend 50 hours finding and interviewing candidates for the campaign manager, and another 100 hours explaining the problem to him and introducing him to important people in your town? Now you’re up to $35,000 for the campaign manager. And what if there’s a 100% chance of success if you do it yourself, versus only a 70% chance if you try to hire someone else (who, of course, may not be as good as his resume claims)? Now you’re looking at 200 utilons/$ in expectation whether you do it yourself or hire someone. If you’re at all risk-averse, then…..this is how it can make sense for a professional engineer to wind up running a political campaign.

So, the problems of cause-neutrality are the same as the problems of delegating any other task. Risk, transaction costs, and management can eat up all the efficiency gains.

This idea means you should weaken the recommendations of cause-neutrality to: spend resources on your pet causes in an amount inversely proportional to how well-known the cause is. If you have a burning hatred of cancer because it killed your parents, you should probably still give your money to malaria organizations rather than cancer researchers. But if there’s an epidemic of salmonella in a small town you’re visiting and you happen to be a famous doctor, it can still be effective to spend time helping salmonella patients rather than trying to bring in nurses so you can go do famous-doctor-y things.


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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:38 PM

The inveresly proportional thing is a bad move. Sorting through potential charitable causes is itself charitable work and it's just crazy inefficient to do that by everyone voting on what tugs at their heartstrings but by paying someone smart to consider all the various pet causes and evaluate them. Worse, the causes that are least well known are often unknown for very good reason but will now get special attention.

The reason you are right about cases like the doctor example is that when you are actually in a location that then gets hit you *are* leveraging your superior knowledge of how to get things done there or even just understanding what's happened. Thought, truthfully, the real reason it makes sense is the easier psychological motivation.

Note that your whole delegation argument rests on the idea that you have (and know you have) some kind of superior knowledge (or virtue) about what needs to get done and you're just searching for the best way to get it done. The reason it made sense to stay involved in the local campaign was because you had the special advantage of being the person who knew the right way to improve the city so you could offer something more than any other equally virtuous person you might hand the money to instead..

In contrast, in the village case you *don't* have any special knowledge. If we just assigned everyone randomly to someone else who got to spend their charitable givings on the causes they favored (absent fraud) we would expect the world to be no better or worse. Just picking *any* reputable (easy to find online) EA charity or cause or even person and send them all your money won't make things worse and by amassing money from many people they avoid all the transaction costs of everyone trying to do the calculations.

I think you hit the kernel of the argument in the first paragraph: If you have an obscure pet cause, then chances are it's because you do have some special knowledge about the problem. The person visiting a random village might not, but the locals do, and hence this is a reason why local charity can be effective, particularly if you live in a remote area where the problems are not quantified (and are hence probably not reading this).