Note: We're experimenting with writing shorter, more accessible versions of key Open Philanthropy blog posts for the Good Ventures blog. For a more detailed version of this essay, see the original. In this post, "we" refers to Good Ventures and the Open Philanthropy Project, who work as partners.
We try to find the best giving opportunities we can by comparing many causes and pursuing the ones we believe will allow us to have the biggest impact. However, many of the comparisons we'd like to make hinge on highly debatable questions.
For example, how should you weigh the life of an animal versus a human? If you believe chickens matter even 1% as much as humans, farm animal welfare looks like an outstanding cause. Billions of chickens each year are treated cruelly on factory farms, and we estimate that cage-free campaigns targeting major food companies can spare 200 hens from a life of confinement in a small cage for each dollar spent.
Also, how should you weigh the lives of people who haven't been born yet? Depending on how you value future lives, reducing the risk of a catastrophe that permanently worsens humanity's future or causes human extinction could have overwhelming importance. Perhaps accelerating scientific research or improving the functioning of government could be similarly impactful.
However, if you believe chickens have no moral significance, or if you're skeptical about how accurately you can predict the long-term future, you might believe such work is a poor use of money compared with helping people today. You might prefer to put all of your charitable dollars into evidence-backed programs serving the poorest people in the world, like bednets to prevent malaria. GiveWell estimates the Against Malaria Foundation can prevent the loss of one year of human life for every $100 invested in bednets.
We consider each of the above-mentioned perspectives, which we call "worldviews," highly plausible, and we're drawn to support what we see as the most promising work according to each worldview. (Notably, work that looks extremely valuable to someone with one worldview might seem relatively low-value, or even silly, to someone with another.)
At the same time, because we're trying to do as much good as we can with limited resources, we need to prioritize. But prioritizing is difficult when such fundamental questions are hard to answer.
We could try to quantify our uncertainties by using probabilities to calculate a kind of expected value for each broad approach (e.g. "There's a 10% chance that I should value chickens 10% as much as humans"). But doing so is fraught because any numbers we'd choose would be fairly arbitrary, and even modest changes in assumptions could result in very different conclusions.
Despite these challenges, we could use such calculations to take our best guess about which approaches would allow us to accomplish the most good, and then stick with them. We'd guess that this type of exercise would point us to focus exclusively on animal welfare or global catastrophic risks or global health and development, or another category of giving, and pay no attention to the others.
But this isn't the approach we're taking. Instead, we're working on multiple causes that look extremely promising according to radically different perspectives on the world. We see several reasons to take this approach:
Avoiding diminishing returns. We believe giving tens of millions of dollars per year over the next decade is likely enough to cover the best opportunities in any single focus area, while also helping the field grow and improving the odds that it pulls in other resources. Giving much more in a single focus area could still do some good, but it's likely to have diminishing returns. At the margin, giving 10x as much money might only accomplish 2x as much good. At that point, it would be better to shift resources to another cause where the marginal increase in funding could have a much larger impact.
Building capacity and keeping our options open. Developing staff capacity to work in many causes gives us the ability to adjust our approach as we learn. For example, last year Holden Karnofsky, executive director of the Open Philanthropy Project, discussed three key issues about which he's changed his mind — with major implications for how promising he finds certain causes. Specifically, he now finds two causes — reducing potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence and supporting the effective altruism community — more promising than he did previously.
It's very possible that after ten more years of learning and giving, some causes will look much stronger to us than they do today. If that happens, we'll be glad to have invested in years of capacity building so that we can quickly and strategically ramp up our support in those areas.
Helping other philanthropists. There are many people with similar values to ours but different "best guesses" on some fundamental questions, such as how to value reducing global catastrophic risks versus accelerating scientific research versus improving policy. Building expertise in a variety of causes increases our odds of helping other donors who share our values. It means we can provide useful information to a larger set of philanthropists with a wider range of interests, and better participate in discussions about philanthropy. Our goal is for anyone looking to maximize the positive impact of their giving to see us as a helpful resource.
Considering others' values. If a group of friends who each bought a lottery ticket were talking about how they would spend any future winnings, they might agree that "if one of us wins, that person should spend some money on the things each of us wants, rather than spending all of the money on the one thing they want." Working in a variety of causes is the ethical thing to do, in the sense that it reflects an agreement we would have made before we knew we'd have outsized resources. What's more, at the scale we plan to give, we believe we have an opportunity to improve the world greatly according to multiple sets of values, not just the mix of values we currently hold (which, by the way, varies even among our staff).
For all these reasons, we're putting resources behind each cause for which we see a highly plausible argument that it could be among the very highest-impact causes. It seems possible for us to be a transformative funder in a number of areas. We don't want to pass up that opportunity to focus exclusively on one cause or one worldview, particularly when we're uncertain about which one it should be.