This year, I am seriously considering making the bulk of my charitable donations to organizations working on animal rights, specifically Animal Charity Evaluators and two of the charities they recommend, Animal Equality and Mercy for Animals. I wanted to talk about my reasons for this, both to get feedback from other people in the effective altruism movement, and to convince some of them to do the same if I’m right.
Other EA causes are hurting less for cash
Lately, there’s been a lot of worries within the effective altruism movement about how much good additional money, beyond what people are already donating, will really do. Two months ago, Ben Kuhn wrote a post on the EA forum titled “How important is marginal earning to give?”, which had a good summary of reasons to be worried:
- Most of GiveWell’s senior staff are moving over to the Open Philanthropy Project.
- This year, GiveWell had to set explicit funding targets for all of their charities and update their recommendations in April to make sure nobody ran out of room for more funding.
- My understanding is that Good Ventures (a) probably has more money than the current discounted cash flows from the rest of the EA movement combined and (b) still isn’t deploying nearly as much money as they eventually will be able to.
- Open Phil has recently posted about an org they wish existed but doesn’t and funder-initiated startups.
- I can’t remember any EA orgs failing to reach a fundraising target.
- Effective altruism is growing quickly; many EAers plan to earn to give but are currently students and will increase their giving substantially in the next few years.
To these points, I’d add that on the AI-risk front, there’s Elon Musk’s recent donation of $10 million to the Future of Life Institute. And I heard Benjamin Todd of 80,000 Hours express similar worries at a recent EA meetup in San Francisco.
But these points don’t seem to apply to animal charities. Animal Charity Evaluators (whose goal is to be the GiveWell of animal charities is still a young and under-funded organization. They’ve only really existed since 2013, and last year their budget was under $100,000.
Low-hanging research fruit
My confidence in the reliability of ACE’s research is lower than my confidence in GiveWell’s. However, I see no reason to think that their research couldn’t be greatly improved with more funding. Figuring out how to persuade more people to go vegan seems like an inherently tractable problem–unlike, say, trying to address potential threats from new technology decades before they occur, a cause whose tractability is highly debatable.
Having read some of their research, I think ACE does an impressive job with the limited resources they do have. For example, while I’m impressed by some of the work The Humane Society of the United States has done and have considered donating to them, ACE’s article on the organization persuaded me than donating probably doesn’t make sense for smaller donors. (Though if you’re reading this and looking to donate an amount of money that could potentially fund a new project or employee position, I recommend reading ACE’s report on HSUS for why doing so might make sense.)
In spite of my lower confidence in ACE’s current set of recommendations, I plan on donating to both ACE and some of their recommended orgs for three reasons. First, I think those organizations probably do do a significant amount of good, even if it’s hard to be certain or quantify their impact exactly. Second, I think the effective altruism movement should be very cautious about getting overly focused on “meta” charities. Finally, I suspect that ACE will be more effective if animal rights organizations know that ACE’s recommendations carry weight.
The enormous importance of the cause
Claire Zabel (a form Stanford student who’s about to start a job as a researcher for GiveWell) put it very well in an article titled “The worst thing in the world”:
Promoting animal rights and animal welfare is not a side issue. It is the immense, towering moral problem of our time. And all of us have the luxury of ignoring it, as long as savvy farmers keep the billions suffering in ceaseless torment hidden away. Thus far, most of us have chosen to do so. And yet, most of us care deeply about suffering, aspire to right injustices and believe ourselves to be good people who stand against cruel and unnecessary killing and torture. But while we support these brutal animal agriculture institutions and pay them to kill on our behalf, our belief in our positive impact on global well-being remains an empty delusion.
Looking at it another way, we’ve made enormous strides in human welfare over the last two centuries on almost every measure. The rise of factory farming, however, may be the single most significant way the world has gotten worse over the past century, and makes it harder to be optimistic that things are guaranteed to always get better, all the time.
There’s also a part of me that wonders, if we can’t get this moral issue right, what are the chances we’ll make the right decision when faced with moral dilemmas involving, say, possibly-sentient computer programs? So while it’s very hard to predict the long-run impact of anything we do, how we deal with animal rights could have a huge impact on the balance of happiness over suffering in the universe.