Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Cause Prioritization

"Cause prioritization is the most effective use of altruistic resources."

People who want to improve the world are, like everybody else, extremely biased. A prime example is that we tend to work on whatever cause we have stumbled upon so far and to suppose, without deeper examination, that this cause is the most important one of all. This cannot be safely assumed, however.

Here’s what a typical path of “cause updating” might look like: We find out that thousands of people die every single day due to extreme poverty, and find that to be the most important cause to work on. Then we realize that humanity torments and kills billions of non-human beings every year, and that discrimination against these beings cannot be justified, which might then prompt us to focus on ending this moral catastrophe. Then we are told about the suffering of wild animals, its enormous scope, and why we ignore it, and then we might (also) work on that. Then we are convinced by arguments about the enormous importance of the far future, and then that becomes our main focus. Etcetera.

To be sure, such an evolutionary progression is a good thing. The question is just whether we can optimize it. Might we be able to undertake this process of updating in a more direct and systematic fashion? After all, having undergone a continual process of updating that has made us realize that we were wrong about, and perhaps even completely unaware of, the most pressing causes in the past, it seems reasonable to assume that we are likely still wrong in significant ways today. We should be open to the possibility that the cause we are working on presently is in fact not the most important one we could be working on.

Cause prioritization is the direct and systematic attempt to become more qualified about which causes we should prioritize the most. And the importance of such a deliberate effort should be apparent: Working on the cause(s) where we can have the best impact is obviously of great importance — it means that we can potentially help many more sentient beings — and in order to find that cause, or set of causes, deliberately seeking for it does seem significantly more efficient than expecting to stumble upon it by chance without looking. Defying the seductive pull of optimizing specific tasks that further a given cause, cause prioritization goes a step meta and asks: given our values, what causes are most important to focus on in the first place?

I hope to explore this question in future essays. I wish to provide a rough framework for how we can think about cause prioritization, and based on this, I will try to point to important causes and questions that I think we should focus on and explore further.