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Why we have selected these areas as priority causes

Updated: Apr 15, 2022


In previous articles, we talked about the fact that in the Effective Altruism movement we have determined that certain causes deserve much higher priority over others. This means that we consider them of a much greater moral and social urgency than other problems. Therefore, they deserve more widespread attention and much more monetary investment than other causes or social problems. The causes that we mentioned are the following:


Priority Causes


World poverty and global health.

  • Economic and social development.

  • Global health.

  • Cosmopolitanism and international cooperation.

The long-term future of humanity.

  • The ethics of Artificial Intelligence.

  • Genetic engineering and transhumanism.

  • Climate change.

  • Possible paths for the future development of humanity.

Animal rights.

  • Opposition to factory farming and trawling.

  • Wild animal welfare.

Research on values.

  • Moral philosophy and moral psychology.

When mentioning these cause areas, natural questions arise: "since there are so many causes in the world, why have you selected these causes in particular as priority areas, instead of others?" and "What is it that unites all these causes? "


To answer these types of questions, we will first explain what theoretical framework we use to determine which social causes are the most important.


The Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness Framework


To determine how urgent a problem actually is, we use a specific theoretical framework that allows us to numerically measure the cause to which we could contribute the most. In this way, we can determine precisely and as scientifically as possible what causes are to be prioritized, that is, to which problems we must invest more money and man-hours to solve. This theoretical framework is known as the "Importance, Neglectedness, Tractability" framework, or the INT framework. [i]


Importance


The importance, scope, or scale of a problem area or specific issue refers to the dimension or size of the problem with which we are dealing. Regarding how to determine this measure, there are several factors to consider, such as:

  1. By solving this problem, how many people would it affect for the better?

  2. What is the intensity level of the problem? For example, in terms of suffering caused that could be avoided.

Why importance?


We all accept by moral common sense that improving the lives of a thousand people is preferable to improving the lives of ten people. It is also common sense to accept that helping a person undergoing deep suffering is preferable to relieving another person from mild suffering.


From the point of view of global issues, such as the ones we dedicate ourselves to, it is necessary to think about issues that affect many people, and even the whole of humanity. And we must also be able to measure such interventions in order to be able to compare them and prioritize them appropriately.


Example.


A problem that stands out due to its sheer magnitude in terms of pain and suffering caused is our current treatment of animals. Currently, humans slaughter billions of animals each year for food. This, added to the suffering caused throughout the life of these animals, which live in absolutely deplorable conditions, represents an enormous amount of suffering.


On the other hand, on the side of low importance, minor problems include those that affect a few people, local causes, or the relief of minor problems. Therefore, we do not consider it particularly effective to dedicate ourselves to solving these types of problems.

Factory farming stands out as a prime example of importance in terms of suffering caused to a large number of sentient beings.

Neglectedness


The neglect or disregard of a problem is the measure of how ignored that problem is.

A good proxy or indicator to know how ignored a problem is is to check how much is being financially invested towards dealing with it, or in terms of people dedicating their work and effort to solve it.


Why neglectedness?


The most neglected problems tend to have an easier solution than those in which a lot of money and effort has already been invested into solving them. This is because hard-to-solve problems tend to be difficult for some reason. If the solution were easy, it would have already been found and executed. For example, it is difficult to achieve international coordination and the real commitment required among many countries to mitigate climate change. As we explore common-sense solutions and they don't work, we require spending more and more hours, effort, and money looking for more convoluted solutions in more complex theoretical frameworks.

Example.


A problem of great importance that is particularly neglected is the defense of the moral consideration of future generations. That is, the focus on ensuring the long-term survival and flourishing of the future of humanity. It is likely that there will be many more billions of human beings in the future. Even billions if our civilization extends into outer space. However, our political and democratic systems do not give voice or vote to people who have not yet been born. This gives rise to the roots of problems such as climate change, as well as catastrophic or existential risks that can irreparably damage the future of an unimaginable number of people. Giving some kind of voice or vote to future generations of humanity from a representative of their interests would solve many of these problems.


On the other hand, issues that already receive a large amount of attention include many national-level projects, which currently receive the majority of government and philanthropic funding. However, helping a family or community in the developing world can have far greater positive consequences than helping a person in the developed world, but international aid receives far less funding than domestic aid.

One of the most neglected social issues of our time is giving future generations their due moral weight.

Tractability


The tractability or solvability of a problem is the measure of how amenable to progress a problem is. If we invested $ 1 million in a problem, what percentage of the problem would go away? If a person spends their entire professional life trying to solve this problem, how far could they go towards solving it?


Why tractability?


Some problems are particularly difficult to solve, such that sometimes we cannot even know if we are making progress on them. We should be able to know if we are working or putting effort in vain. We also should be able to correct the practical problems that might arise when applying our interventions and social programs. To do this, it is necessary to focus on solvable problems, and those whose criteria for success are clear.


Example.


Some solvable problems include interventions in global health. Providing medicines and vaccines to certain countries or regions that do not have enough wealth or resources can alleviate a lot of pain, and it is a measurable, tangible, and quantifiable matter in terms of patients treated, immunized people, and even years of life being saved ("Quality Adjusted Life Years ", QALY).


On the other hand, intractable problems are those about which we have no idea whether we are making progress in solving them or not. An example may be certain controversial political actions to achieve rapid social change. Some radical actions can lead to backlash or resistance from society and therefore be counterproductive. This happens when the organizations or activists that carried out such actions did not really know if their action was going to have a positive, neutral, or negative result in their intervention. Hence the importance of having a clear forecasting analysis before carrying out an action, as well as reliable indicators to measure the effects of an intervention.

Global health is a particularly tractable area of social intervention, since we can measure results in terms of vaccines and medications provided, or even lives saved.

How to use the INT framework


Having presented the INT theoretical framework, it is necessary to know how to use it to prioritize areas, as well as to use it to evaluate specific programs of social intervention. To do this, we can use the following equation:


Importance * Neglectedness * Tractability

Multiplying the terms in this way gives us a numerical result that we can use to evaluate how important it is that we invest resources and efforts in certain causes over others.


When using it, we will realize that the aforementioned causes deserve much more attention than other types of causes. Using this method, we can realize that certain causes can be thousands or even millions of times more important than others. They are extremely important causes because they affect billions of people. They are extremely neglected causes because do not receive anywhere near the level of economic, social, governmental, or philanthropic support they need. These causes also do not receive a sufficient amount of research compared to their extremely high level of importance. Finally, they are solvable issues, since monetary investment, research, and effort towards solving them would lead us to develop the necessary ethical and legal protocols and programs necessary to reduce or solve these problems on a global scale.


In the future, we hope to evaluate each priority area mentioned at the beginning of the article using this framework. Preliminarily, check this link to see how 80,000 Hours assesses these causes. They have done truly exceptional work highlighting each of these priority areas in detail.


 

[i] This theoretical framework was originally created by Open Philantrophy, and later developed by the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and 80,000 Hours.