Cause Awareness as a Factor against Cause Neutrality

[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.