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Humans have successfully developed laws and social institutions that allow us to gradually improve our welfare over time. These include wealth redistribution among families, close friends and countries coupled with self-ownership and free exchange among billions of humans through markets. Other apparent keys are the incentive to innovate and the ability to accumulate new knowledge in journals and communities of experts.

Unfortunately animals don’t fit into this system. Animals are not able to use property, language, technology, trade and so on to achieve high states of wellbeing on their own. This is not going to change. The lot of animals is therefore up to humans; they will never be able to save themselves from poverty as we are doing for ourselves.

Currently, with a few exceptions, humans do not treat animals as worthy of concern. Farm animals through most of the world have few or no protections and are often treated very badly in order to minimise the resources humans need to sacrifice to raise them. Even the minority of people who care about the welfare of farm animals are generally unconcerned with the suffering of wild animals, no matter how bad life may be for them. Animals we have personal relationships with, like pets, get the best deal, but they are only a small share of all the animals that exist.

What might we hope that humans will do for animals?

One option would be increased regulation of the treatment animals in the same way that we now regulate the upbringing of children. While parents have a great deal of freedom in how they treat their children, they do not have free reign. They don’t ‘own’ children in the way that people currently own animals – rather they are considered to be ‘stewards’ of children. Greater wealth and education in the future might lead people to be willing to make the sacrifices to treat animals this way, just as increased wealth has made many parts of the world willing to dedicate a lot of resources to ensuring children are not mistreated.

A second approach, obvious only to an economist, would be for the government or another group to set financial incentives for treating animals well. People and businesses would be allowed to treat animals badly but they would have to pay a price if they wanted to do so, just as your employer would have to pay you to make you tolerate things you didn’t enjoy. Animal owners could also be rewarded for treating animals well. This would leave it up to the market to determine how animals should be treated once the appropriate incentives had been provided – incentives reflecting the importance society placed on the welfare of animals. One way of looking at this would be as the animal welfare equivalent of a ‘carbon tax’, where the suffering of animals was a social ill like pollution. An alternative perspective would be that the regulator was standing in as a negotiator on behalf of the animals who were themselves unable to negotiate ‘work’ contracts with their owners. These pseudo-contracts would replace the current system of slavery.

A third approach would be to take animals out of the picture altogether. If humans are able to continuously improve their lot in life with technology while non-human animals are not, then eventually human welfare will far exceed animal welfare. At that point it may just be best for humans to replace animals altogether. There are already plans to make farm animals obsolete by growing artificial meat in labs rather than on farms. Humans are also progressively displacing animals from the wilderness by clearing land for human settlement and farming. Humans might find that eventually the only animals they want to keep around are pets, which they enjoy treating well. This scenario would require humans or their descendants to continue to flourish and expand, which is possible but far from certain.

In the short run a greater appetite for direct regulation of animal welfare is the the most I really see happening. In the long term though I am hopeful that humans will end up living much better lives than they currently do, and find that they have nothing to gain by having suffering animals living on Earth.

A common folk explanation for the triumph of capitalism over communism goes along these lines:

Communism has some lovely notions about sharing wealth between people in proportion to their needs and ideally we would indeed live that way. But people are not motivated to work under such egalitarian conditions. Humans are somewhat pro-social and do make some sacrifices for others, especially close friends and family. But that just isn’t enough to keep people working hard and productiviely in big, anonymous, industrial economies year in, year out. The economic system has to go with the grain of human nature and appeal to people’s greed by offering private rewards for work hard and risk-taking. That is why market economies have become rich and centrally planned ones have stagnated. Communism was a triumph of idealism over the realities of human nature.

If this really is the reason capitalism has been so successful, I’m afraid the future doesn’t look so good for capitalism.

In that caricature, capitalism is only the best economic system given the constraints imposed by human nature. Human nature has turned out to be harder to mould than 19th century idealists had hoped, but it will not remain fixed in that way forever. Over thousands of years evolution can and will change human nature, leaving us free to choose from a broader range of social structures.

Long before ‘natural selection‘ has much impact I expect that ‘human directed selection’ will take off. Initially children will be chosen for things like beauty, intelligence and health, but eventually our personalities will also become a parental or social choice. It will then be within our power to take the pro-social behaviour that humans currently display to only a small in-group of close friends and family, and direct it towards larger groups of our choosing. Communism could get a second run, only this time it wouldn’t have to work against a human nature that evolved to serve our hunter-gatherer ancestors!

Communist communities whose members are selected to cooperate selflessly among themselves could turn out to be more productive and gradually out-compete individualistic or capitalist communities. These communities might resemble hyper-social super-organisms like ant or bee colonies.

The competitive dynamics of such a scenario are a challenge to imagine. There would be lots of ways such cooperation could be undermined but it might also be possible to sustain. Excluding and punishing free-riders within the community will be an option for people as it is for insects.

Such communities might still choose to use markets and prices to solve the economic calculation problem but then redistribute what they produce in a very egalitarian way. Or future technologies might allow them to dispense with markets altogether.

Though I am personally quite an individualist and enjoy the classically liberal way of life, I am not so horrified by the thought of human or post-human societies being very different in the future. The members of such a future ‘communist’ society would not necessarily share my individualistic preferences and so might not suffer to live as slaves to giant communities as humans today do. The desirability of this scenario was discussed by Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen a few years ago:

Cowen: Let’s try some philosophical questions. You’re a philosopher, and I’ve been very influenced by your writings on personal obligation. Apart from the practical issue that we can give some money and have it do good, there’s a deeper philosophical question of how far those obligations extend, to give money to other people. Is it a nice thing we could do, or are we actually morally required to do so? What I see in your book is a tendency to say something like “people, whether we like it or not, will be more committed to their own life projects than to giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint”. I think we would both agree with that, but when we get to the deeper human nature, or do you feel it represents a human imperfection? If we could somehow question of “do we in fact like that fact?”, is that a fact you’re comfortable with about human nature? If we could imagine an alternative world, where people were, say, only 30% as committed to their personal projects as are the people we know, say the world is more like, in some ways, an ant colony, people are committed to the greater good of the species. Would that be a positive change in human nature or a negative change?

Singer: Of course, if you have the image of an ant colony everyone’s going to say “that’s horrible, that’s negative”, but I think that’s a pejorative image for what you’re really asking …

Cowen: No, no, I don’t mean a colony in a negative sense. People would cooperate more, ants aren’t very bright, we would do an ant colony much better than the ants do. …

Singer: But we’d also be thinking differently, right? What people don’t like about ant colonies is ants don’t think for themselves. What I would like is a society in which people thought for themselves and voluntarily decided that one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things they could do would be to put more of their effort and more of their energy into helping people elsewhere in need. If that’s the question you’re asking, then yes, I think it would be a better world if people were readier to make those concerns their own projects.

Below is a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It is one of the most haunting exchanges I have ever seen on the screen.

We all find ourselves in the same circumstance as Schindler: confronting unending opportunities to save lives at low cost. Indeed it is easier for us to save lives than it was for Schindler. None of us faces the risk of arrest and execution by the SS.

We may not weep for those we fail to save because we never see them, but they are just as real.


Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his
Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his
wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach.
The rabbi hands him some papers.

We’ve written a letter trying to explain
things. In case you’re captured. Every
workers has signed it.

Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the
typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets
it, this new list of names.

Thank you.

Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler’s hand. It’s
a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an
inscription inside it.

It’s Hebrew. It says, ‘Whoever saves
one life, saves the world.’

Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods
his thanks, then seems to withdraw.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more out …

Stern isn’t sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him,
from his wife, from the car, from the workers.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more … if I’d just … I don’t
know, if I’d just … I could’ve got more…

Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who
are alive because of you. Look at them.

He can’t.

If I’d made more money …I threw away
so much money, you have no idea.
If I’d just …

There will be generations because of
what you did.

I didn’t do enough.

You did so much.

Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The
look on Schindler’s face as his eyes sweep across the faces of
the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for
not doing more.

This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car.
Why did I keep the car? Ten people,
right there, ten more I could’ve got.
(looking around)
This pin –

He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel
and holds it out to Stern pathetically.
Two people. This is gold. Two more people.
He would’ve given me two for it. At least one.
He would’ve given me one. One more. One
more person. A person, Stern. For this.
One more. I could’ve gotten one more person
I didn’t.

He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he’s
been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him.

They killed so many people …
(Stern, weeping too,
embraces him)
They killed so many people …

From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below,
trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and
Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls
out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.

The power of exponential growth seems to make a compelling case for effective altruists to delay their donations. An average 5% return on investment (ROI) would turn one dollar into ten in 50 years time. If saving a life costs $2000 now and similar opportunities will exist in the future it would cost just $200 to save a life in 2062 – a relative bargain! Sadly things aren’t so simple. Whether we really should delay depends on specifics of the activities we are funding and difficult predictions about the future. Here I’ll summarise the most important uncertainties as a roadmap for future posts.

Our goal can be summarised as choosing the time t which maximises

(1 + Return on investment)t × Cost effectiveness of donation

× Probability of donation actually being madet.

Unless you are a multimillionaire, the relevant expected ROI is the highest one available without regard to risk. Giving $2m will do about twice as much good for the world as $1m, so to maximise your expected impact you should just maximise your expected donation. Note that if your favourite charity would be able to use money now to attract donations at a rate faster than you expect your investments could return profits then donating would have to be better.

The second and more challenging issue is how cost effective your donation will be in the future relative to now. If you thought basic health would be the optimal cause this would involve anticipating things like

  • the extent of poverty
  • the cost of delivering health services
  • how much other donors will be funding the low hanging fruit.

The last point is especially relevant for those like me thinking of funding existential risk reduction because a few billion from governments or philanthropists could make a big impact on the value of further funding in that area.

In evaluating cost effectiveness we must factor in that any good charity will have impacts that propagate through time and so offer its own ROI. For instance, combatting contagious diseases now rather than in 2062 should lead to fewer people becoming infected in the meantime and so result in a richer and healthier population in 2062. Similarly, spending on existential risk reduction draws attention, money and researchers to that issue. Giving now leaves your donations more time to have this snowball effect during the window of greatest extinction risk.

On the other hand delaying leaves you more time to identify cost-effective targets for donations. Personally, I am investing rather than giving mostly because I expect groups like 80,000 Hours to give me a much better idea of how to best reduce existential risk within the next decade.

Finally you must assess the risk of your donation never being made, for example due to a catastrophe which eliminates your savings. If you can’t bind yourself through a trust fund, you must also worry about changes to you or your life which result in you deciding not to give.

The current and potential future suffering of ‘wild’ animals is one of the most serious problems a utilitarian must confront. In spite of that it is basically ignored, even by most smart and compassionate people. Fortunately the number of people concerned with the matter is growing, though from a low base.

There are three new resources available for those who would like to spread the word. The Felicifia wiki offers a nice compendium describing the issue and what might be done about it.

Utilitarian Essays now hosts a detailed pamphlet called Life in the Wild, which aims to persuade people who are already concerned with captive animal welfare to offer the same empathy to wild animals.

It isn’t new, but Tyler Cowen’s paper Policing Nature offers responses to some common arguments against giving ethical consideration to wild animals, both from utilitarian and other perspectives.

Finally, Oscar Horta is looking for “a graphic designer and a web designer for a project aimed at spreading the word about animal suffering in the wild and animal ethics.”

Hopefully the stock of research and publications on the issue will continue to grow.

Last year I gave a few thousand dollars to the charity Village Reach, which performs vaccinations in rural Mozambique, on the recommendation of charity evaluator GiveWell. The bottom line of the recommendation is that Village Reach can prevent a childhood death for around $400-$800 – very cheap indeed.

A natural response might be to ask what value there is in saving someone’s life in such a poor country. Though I don’t know a great deal about quality of life in rural Mozambique, living in a country with “one of the lowest GDP per capita, one of the worst human development index and amongst the highest inequality in the world” presumably isn’t great. Anywhere that you can save lives for a few hundred dollars would have to be pretty rough! Given this, the justification for vaccinations has to rest on more than just averting death. It must also be about improving people’s quality of life.

Population effects aside, reducing the rate at which people die is a significant way to improve quality of life. Being sick and dying is painful for the person involved and those who care for them. Further, raising kids only to have them die in infancy uses up resources in a community that has no resources to waste. Childhood disease reduces the intelligence and health of survivors and depresses school attendance. A high risk of a child dying discourages investment in human capital and encourages large families, both of which are probably bad for economic development.

If we want to do as much good as possible with health interventions we should aim to not only avert direct suffering from disease and death. The treatments that will most effectively improve quality of life in the long run will also spur on the economic development that allows people to support themselves.

What’s more, for someone who wants to maximise ‘total welfare’, the impact health spending has on population is not a second-tier issue. If Village Reach improves health without increasing incomes or reducing fertility, then it may just result in more people living in abject poverty, which is a questionable achievement. On the other hand folks who are optimistic about the quality of life of people living in poverty will not be so enthusiastic about fertility falling unless the population decline does a lot to improve average quality of life.

It is much harder to quantify these flow on effects on development and population, which is why they usually get short shrift. Education, health and development all cause one another with different intensities and lags, and unravelling the chains of causation between them is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the absence of randomised experiments. A charity like Village Reach could randomly allocate villages to treatment and non-treatment groups and collect data on incomes and fertility in addition to health. Tracking these effects would require collecting data for an extended period of time, but would be a very valuable research project in its own right.

GiveWell has chosen to focus on health and nutrition interventions over others in large part because many more of them are cheap and have proven impacts. [1] Strong evidence of cost effectiveness is key for GiveWell, as a large part of what they are trying to achieve is a shift the culture among NGOs towards thorough data collection and evaluation of projects. [2] Given the current low standards of evaluation for most charities, this is a creditable goal.

A manageable improvement given this constraint would be to look at which kinds of disease do the most to depress education and productivity. A long lasting tropical parasite, childhood diarrhoea, chronic illness or fatal adult disease could all have different impacts on family structure and capacity for education and work. Likewise some countries may be in a better position to advance economic development in response to improved health than others. These flow on effects may be as important, if not more so, than the number of deaths averted per dollar.

[1]  An education program which can’t demonstrate an impact on education presumably isn’t doing much for quality of life, population or development either, so it is fair enough to ignore it.

[2]  While GiveWell’s evaluation style is likely to be biased towards interventions that have easily measured, short-term outcomes, this isn’t a problem necessarily. While GiveWell may miss highly effective charities, something which can’t be measured can’t be targetted.

jkaufman over at LessWrong has been good enough to post a transcript of an interview between Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer on ethics. It had a big influence on my thinking when I first heard it several years ago. Below is a highlight. The whole thing is worth reading.


Cowen: Let me ask you a question about animal welfare. I have been very influenced by a lot of what you’ve written, but I’m also not a pure vegetarian by any means, and when it comes to morality, for instance, my view is that it’s perfectly fine to eat fish. There may be practical reasons, like depleting the oceans, that are an issue, but the mere act of killing and eating a fish I don’t find anything wrong with. Do you have a view on this?
Singer: There’s certainly, as you say, the environmental aspect, which is getting pretty serious with a lot of fish stocks, but the other thing is there’s no humane killing of fish, right? If we buy commercially killed fish they have died pretty horrible deaths. They’ve suffocated in nets or on the decks of ships, or if they’re deep sea fish pulled up by nets they’ve died of decompression, basically their internal organs exploding as they’re pulled up. I would really … I don’t need to eat fish that badly that I need to do that to fish. If I was hungry and nothing else to eat I would, perhaps, do it but not given the choices I have.
Cowen: But now you’re being much more the Jewish Moralist and less the Utilitarian. Because the Utilitarian would look at the marginal impact and say “most fish die horrible deaths anyway, of malnutrition or they’re eaten or something else terrible happens to them”. The marginal impact of us killing them to me seems to be basically zero. I’m not even sure a fish’s life is happy, and why not just say “it’s fine to eat fish”? Should it matter that we make them suffer? It’s a very non-Utilitarian way of thinking about it, a very moralizing approach.
Singer: You would need to convince me that in fact they’re going to die just as horrible deaths in nature, and I’m not sure that that’s true. Probably many of them would get gobbled up by some other fish, and that’s probably a lot quicker than what we are doing to them.
Cowen: You have some good arguments against Malthusianism for human beings in your book. My tendency is to think that fish are ruled by a Malthusian model, and being eaten by another fish has to be painful. Maybe it’s over quickly, but having your organs burst as you’re pulled up out of the water is probably also pretty quick. I would again think that in marginal terms it doesn’t matter, but I’m more struck by the fact that it’s not your first instinct to view the question in marginal terms. You view us as active agents and ask “are we behaving in some manner which is moral, and you’re imposing a non-Utilitarian theory on our behavior. Is that something you’re willing to embrace, or something that was just a mistake?
Singer: Look, I think economists tend to think more in terms of marginal impact than I do and you may be right that is something I may need to think about more. Look, Tyler, I have to finish unfortunately, I’ve got another interview I’ve got to go to, so it’s been great talking to you, but I think we’re going to have to leave it at that point.

ImageThere is a principle in finance that obvious and guaranteed ways to make a lot of money, so called ‘arbitrages’, should not exist. It has a simple rationale. If market prices made it possible to trade assets around and in the process make a guaranteed profit, people would do it, in so doing shifting some prices up and others down. They would only stop making these trades once the prices had adjusted and the opportunity to make money had disappeared. While opportunities to make ‘free money’ appear all the time, they are quickly noticed and the behaviour of traders eliminates them. The logic of selfishness and competition mean the only remaining ways to make big money should involve risk taking, luck and hard work. This is the ‘no arbitrage‘ principle.

Should a similar principle exist for selfless as well as selfish finance? When a guaranteed opportunity to do a lot of good for the world appears, philanthropists should notice and pounce on it, and only stop shifting resources into that activity once the opportunity has been exhausted. This wouldn’t work as quickly as arbitrage on financial markets of course. Rather it would look more like entrepreneurs searching for and exploiting opportunities to open new and profitable businesses. Still, in general competition to do good should make it challenging for an altruistic start-up or budding young philanthropist to beat existing charities at their own game.

There is a very important difference though. Most investors are looking to make money and to them a dollar is a dollar, whatever business activity it comes from. Competition between investors makes opportunities to get those dollars hard to find. The same is not true of altruists, who have very diverse preferences about who is most deserving of help and how we should help them; a ‘util’ from one charitable activity is not the same as a ‘util’ from another. This suggests that unlike in finance, we may able to find ‘altruistic arbitrages’,  that is to say ‘opportunities to do a lot of good for the world that others have left unexploited.’

The rule is simple: target groups you care about that other people mostly don’t, and take advantage of strategies other people are biased against using.  The rule  is the root of a lot of advice offered to thoughtful givers and consequentialist-oriented folks. An obvious example of the rule is that you shouldn’t look to help poor people in rich countries. There are already a lot of government and private dollars chasing opportunities to assist them, so the low hanging fruit has all been used up and then some. The better value opportunities are going to be in poor, unromantic places you have never heard of, where fewer competing philanthropist dollars are directed. Similarly, you should think about taking high risk-high return strategies. Most do-gooders are searching for guaranteed and respectable opportunities to do a bit of good, rather than peculiar long-shot opportunities to do a lot of good. If you only care about the ‘expected‘ return to your charity, then you can do more by taking advantage of the quirky, improbable bets neglected by others.

Who do I personally care about more than others? For me the main candidates are animals, especially wild ones, and people who don’t yet exist and may never exist – interest groups that go largely ignored by the majority of humanity. What are the risky strategies I can employ to help these groups? Working on future technologies most people think are farcical naturally jumps to mind but I’m sure there are others and would love to hear them.

This principle is the main reason I am skeptical of mainstream political activism as a way to improve the world. If you are part of a significant worldwide movement, it’s unlikely that you’re working in a neglected area and exploiting how your altruistic preferences are distinct from those of others.

What other conclusions can we draw thinking about philanthropy in this way?

For those concerned about the future there are a lot of things to worry about. Nuclear war, bioterrorism, asteroids, artificial intelligence, runaway climate change – the list goes on. All of these have the potential to devastate humanity. How then to pick which one is the most important to work on? I want to point out a reason to work on machine intelligence even if one thinks that there is a low probability of the technology working.

Preventing catastrophes like nuclear war does avoid human extinction and keep us on the path of growth and eventual space colonisation. However, it is unclear how pleasant this world will be for its inhabitants. If a singleton does not develop, that is “a single decision-making agency … exerting effective control over its domain, and permanently preventing both internal and external threats to its supremacy,” the logic of survival means that we will eventually end up regressing to a competitive Malthusian world. That world is one where vast numbers of beings compete for survival on subsistence incomes, as has been the case for most creatures on Earth since life first appeared billions of years ago. The creatures working to survive could be mind uploads or something else entirely. In this scenario it is competitive pressure and evolution which determine the long run outcome. There will be little if any path dependence. Just as it was not possible for a group of people planted on Earth millions of years ago to change the welfare of the beings that exist today after evolution has had its way, so too it will be impossible for anyone today to change what kinds of creatures win out in the battle for survival millions of years from now. The only impact we could have now would be to reduce the risk of life disappearing altogether at this brief bottleneck on Earth where extinction is a real possibility. The difference between the best and worst futures possible is that between the desirability of life disappearing altogether and the desirability of a Malthusian world.

As competitive pressures do not necessarily drive creatures towards states of high wellbeing, it is hard to say which of these is the better outcome. I hope that technology which allows us to consciously design our minds and therefore our experience of life will lead to a nicer outcome even in the presence of competitive pressures, but that is hard to predict. Whatever the merits of the competitive future, it falls short of what a benevolent, all-powerful being trying to maximise welfare would choose.

On the other hand if a singleton is possible or inevitable, the difference between the best and worst futures is much greater. The desires of the singleton which comes to dominate Earth will be the final word on what Earth originating life goes on to do. It will be free to create whatever utopia or dystopia it chooses without competitors or restrictions, other than those posed by the laws of physics. In this world it is possible to influence what happens millions or billions of years from now, by influencing the kind of singleton which takes over and spreads acoss the universe. The difference in desirability between the best and worst case is that between an evil singleton which unrelentingly spreads misery across the universe, and the ideal benevolent singleton which goes about turning the entire universe into the things you most value.

If you think there is much uncertainty about whether a singleton is possible, and want to maximise your expected impact on the future, you should act as though you live in a world where it is possible. You should only ignore those scenarios if they are very improbable.

What technology is most likely to deliver us a singleton in the next century or two, giving you a chance to have a big impact on the future? I think the answer is a generalised artificial intelligence, though one might also suggest a non-AI group achieving total dominance through mind uploads, ubiquitous surveillance, nanotechnology, or whatever other emerging technology.

So if any of you are tempted to dismiss the Singularity Institute because the runaway AI scenario seems so improbable: you shouldn’t. It makes sense to work on it even if it is. The same goes for those who focus on the possibility of an irreversible global government.

Update: I have tried to clarify my view in a reply to Carl Shulman below. My claim is not that the probability is irrelevant, just that it is only part of the story and that working on low probability scenarios can be justified if you can have a larger impact, which I believe is the case here. Nor do I or many people working on AI believe that an intelligence explosion scenario is particularly unlikely.

For the last two years whenever I have felt charitable, rather than directly give away the money – to VillageReach incidentlaly – I have offered to match donations made by my Facebook friends 1:1. Initially I could only raise a few hundred dollars in matching donations, but most recently attracted almost $2000 with little effort. I always kept the maximum amount I was willing to match above what I expected would be forthcoming, so that matchers were apparently inducing me to donate more. Is all this a good thing to do?

The obvious answer is yes. By matching donations I am inducing others to donate more than they otherwise would. As long as I can find enough people to match that I don’t donate much less than I otherwise would, I’m increasing the additional effect of my donation. This is probably right. That said, it’s likely that many of those other folk were planning to give some money away anyway and reduced their other donations in order to match mine. For this reason I don’t believe that I was really causing two dollars to be donated for each dollar that I gave. The additional impact was probably quite a bit less.

An outside possibility is that donation matching not only doesn’t induce extra donations but rather ‘crowds them out’. This would be the effect if the people who matched my donation reduced their other donations by more than one dollar for each dollar they matched for me. Why would that happen? It could if they were targetting a certain amount of charitable donations each year and counted each dollar they matched for me as more than one dollar given, because the considered themselves partially ‘responsible’ for my donation as well. Having given $X, they feel like they have given $2X and cut back on $2X donations in the rest of their life. Thinking through human psychology I doubt this happens much, but it’s possible.

Even if it were true though, I would still use matching donations. The charity that I was donating to, VillageReach, can probably avert an infant death through vaccinations for around $500. That is far more effective than most other chartiable organisations [1]. While the people matching my donations are a clever and discriminating lot, my guess is that any donations I might have ‘crowded out’ would still have gone to less effective causes. It was worth matching just to better direct the funds.

Furthermore, inducing someone to give to VillageReach once, and making them aware of how effective their interventions are, will probably tempt them to give more in future both out of habit and a desire for consistency in their behaviour.

Further still, I was able to splash our giving all over our Facebook profiles, advertising what we were doing to my and their friends. While normally advertising one’s generosity in this way would be gauche, I have a good excuse (I am looking for matching donations!) and so do they (I did it not them, and it’s good to raise awareness!) which makes it socially acceptable. This raises the benefits of giving to us donors, probably tempting us to give more than we would otherwise.

This scheme also changes and raises the standards of what is admirable do-goodery to everyone who happens to be watching: not signing a petition or watching a YouTube clip, but rather giving hundreds or thousands of dollars to an organisation you have properly researched. Maybe this will improve their behaviour too.

The only mystery to me is why matching donations on social networking sites are not more popular. I hope I am just ahead of the rush.

[1] Though not as effective as existential risk reduction I now think. I would say the key downside of using matching donations is that it tempted me to give to familiar ‘African health program’ interventions that would attract matching donations, rather than more unusual but probably more effective animal welfare or existential risk charities.

I have spent almost all of my life in formal education. One of the most stressful things about high school and university, at least for a diligent (indeed perhaps, obsessive) student like me, is the open-ended nature of study. No matter how much time I dedicated I could always learn more and get better results. My work was never done and for much of the year this left me feeling guilty and distracted whenever I wasn’t studying.

This is a a very common experience among many people I know, especially the academically successful ones. It is doubly an issue for postgraduates, who on top of everything get little meaningful feedback on how they are performing and whether they are doing enough. I know people who are avoiding doing PhDs specifically because they dread never being able to walk away.

As my friends and I make the transition from study to work, the most common reaction is that of relief. Work may be challenging at times, but for most it is a contained part of life. I certainly don’t feel bad that I lack the discipline to go into the office every weekend.

Study guilt may be gone for now, but I still feel a lot of guilt when it comes to trying to be a good person. If I were to life consistently with my values, I would forgo all Earthly pleasures – except those required to stay healthy and productive – and dedicate myself to existential risk reduction. The expected return to putting effort into reducing existential risk is very high, I would never run out of very important things to do, and I would never get feedback on whether what I was doing was enough or even making any difference. Knowing this is a serious drag: every dollar I spend on myself is a dollar not given to savings future generations from annihilation.

At the moment, guilt is necessary to motivate me to do good things, but however much it motivates me to do, it will still taint the rest of my life. I am not sure what to do about this, but I have a few options I’m looking into.

One option is to set a maximum target amount of effort to put into study or do-goodery and then commit myself to not doing more. I would convince myself that that is a target I should be happy with and not feel any need to exceed. While this may be successful at preventing me from working too hard and burning out, I’m not sure that it would necessarily help me focus properly when doing other things.

Another better option would be to cultivate the ability to focus and control my state of mind hour to hour. Friends have suggested to me that learning to experience flow or meditating regularly help with this.

Another idea would be to switch from being motivated primarily by guilt and horror at bad things that could happen, to hope for a better future or something else more pleasant. I am not clear how to do this but presumably there is advice out there.

A final possibility is to irrevocably commit myself to doing good, for instance with a contract obliging me to give away some share of my future income to a given cause. I would then be free to cultivate much less concern for existential risk (or the problems of the world in general) as I will no longer need to feel guilty for motivation.

Being able to switch off and enjoy life is important. I would like to achieve a lot for the world, but preferably without being a martyr. I am unlikely to be able to keep up a lifestyle I don’t enjoy in the long run. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts if you’re in the same situation, or better yet, if you’ve been here before and can suggest what has worked for you.


This article from The Conversation, which quickly went viral around the world, argues that those concerned with animal welfare would do better to eat grass-fed beef than bread, because by doing so they would avoid the crushing and poisoning of vast numbers of mice and other small animals in the production of wheat (and presumably other grains or pulses). It is a thought-provoking claim and it might even be right, but the argument seems to have serious holes that I have not seen addressed in any of the comments. (Warning: I have no particular knowledge of farming, so I’m just applying common sense as an alternative.)

The author points out that a lot of land, particularly in Australia, is not fertile enough to be used for any agricultural purpose other than light grazing by livestock or wild animals like kangaroos. In that sense the resulting meat represents a free lunch; if the land were not used for grazing it would not produce any food for humans. Crucially, when the animals are grazed they do not need to eat grain produced on farms that crush and poison mice. But grazing on grass is not all that cows raised for meat generally eat, and I expect it is mostly not what any additional cows we produce will eat. Wikipedia informs us:

Prior to entering a feedlot, cattle spend most of their life grazing on rangeland or on immature fields of grain such as green wheat pasture. Once cattle obtain an entry-level weight, about 650 pounds (300 kg), they are transferred to a feedlot to be fed a specialized diet which consists of corn by-products (derived from ethanol production), barley, and other grains as well as alfalfa. Feeds sometimes contain animal byproducts[3] or cottonseed meal, and minerals. …

In a typical feedlot, a cow’s diet is roughly 95% grain. 

The animal may gain an additional 400 pounds (180 kg) during its 3–4 months in the feedlot.[citation needed] Once cattle are fattened up to their finished weight, the fed cattle are transported to a slaughterhouse.

So there’s one big problem with the argument – not all, but a large share of the meat you eat in beef is just repackaged intensively farmed grains. The rule of thumb in biology is that about 90 per cent of the energy or biomass content is lost as you move up each so called ‘trophic level’ from plants to herbivores to carnivores. If that were the case here then you would need to feed a cow 10kj of grain to get 1kj of meat. Given that the livestock in feedlots are being rapidly stuffed full of calories the efficiency is probably much higher, as they won’t live for long enough to use up much of the energy on their own metabolism. If we guess that in fact the conversion has a 50 per cent efficiency, and that the cow was two thirds edible meat on entering the feedlot, then to get 100kj of meat at the end we needed approximately 100kj of farmed grains. Any benefit then would then only come from the higher protein and fat content of the meat relative to the carbohydrate packed grains that went in.

I think our doubts should go further though. Grazing cattle on land that is not suitable for other agriculture is the low hanging fruit for beef production – if the land does not have other productive uses we don’t give up anything to stick cattle there. For that reason we should expect such land to be used as much as possible for that purpose already. Eventually, as the stock of livestock grows, we should expect to exhaust the flow of foliage growing on this kind of land. Then where are they to go? We could stick them on land that doesn’t supply much grass for them to eat (or grassland where the foliage is already being fully grazed by cows). [1] But in that case what are the additional cows to eat? The likely answer is the cheapest form of calories we know how to produce: intensively farmed grains like wheat and barley.

Has humanity reached the point where otherwise wasted grassland is fully occupied? Supporting evidence for this is the common claim that higher demand for livestock among a growing Asian middle class is driving up grain prices. If additional cows were largely fed by grass, that wouldn’t be an issue. It is quite possible that if you as an individual switch from bread to beef both more cows will be slaughtered and more mice poisoned as a result of the extra grain needed to support the cows. If the cows were largely grain-fed then it would be many times worse for the mice.

The article has another notable weakness in that it only denominates the number of deaths by protein production. Protein is an important macronutrient but not the only thing we care about getting from our food. Indeed protein deficiency is exceeding rare amongst those wealthy enough to contemplate eating beef. If you denominated the number of lives lost by energy content, then wheat, being mostly carbohydrate, would come out looking a lot better than the 25 mice poisonings to each cow slaughter quoted in the article. The article  is also basically irrelevant when judging the treatment of poultry or pigs.

Further, the piece ignores the starvation and predation of small wild animals on land in the absence of intensive agriculture. Probably that isn’t such a large concern as there would be far fewer such animals than there would be mice during plagues, but it deserves consideration. Finally, the quality of life of grazing cows or indeed field mice isn’t mentioned, only their deaths. I am not sure whether such creatures have good or bad lives, but it seems to be a crucial issue for those sincerely concerned about their welfare.

It isn’t possible to say with any certainty that grains are better than beef from an animal welfare point of view, but the effects of our actions here are more complex and need deeper analysis than a short op-ed can provide. The huge popularity of the piece is more likely because it allows those who don’t care or think about animals at all to superficially stick it to vegetarians and claim they were right all along (by pure luck presumably), rather than because its claim really stands up to scrutiny.

UPDATE: This piece attempts to quantify the deaths from different sources of food and produces the opposite conclusion, though the figures for mice killed in harvesting are rubbery and may not apply to the ‘marginal field’.

[1] We could also graze or place them on highly fertile land that was previously used for crops, but that would be inefficient and unprofitable if you could raise more cows just by having intensively farmed crops and feeding cows the resulting grains elsewhere.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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