Why animal charities are much more effective than human ones

post by utilitarian01 · 2019-04-08T17:48:24.427Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · EA · GW · 11 comments

Using the chicken-to-human results on this SSC post (https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/03/28/partial-retraction-of-post-on-animal-value-and-neural-number/) ( some of you may have seen it), I was interested in just how much more effective an ACE charity is over a popular Givewell one, like Malaria Consortium. I really do think that this animal vs human debate should be talked about much more, considering that (1) this is a very practical change we could all be making, and (2) it could make a huge difference.

So the first assumption that has to be made here is that 25 chickens = 1 human. Now intuitively this probably feels off to everyone that isn't a hardcore animal welfare advocate, even to me it still feels off, but let me try to explain why it could make sense. Bigger brains, like the human one, generally shouldn't scale linearly in moral worth because of diminishing returns. The huge number of cortical neurons humans have could just be going to processes like thinking, memory, language, things that don't contribute to the raw suffering that is necessary for moral worth. Even in nematodes with 300 neurons, we still see them have an averse reaction to predators, even the smell of them. This could mean that nematodes are experiencing some very primitive form of suffering that gives them a lot more moral worth than imagined. Or as better explained by this quote: "Neural network analyses show that cognitive features found in insects, such as numerosity, attention and categorisation-like processes, may require only very limited neuron numbers. Thus, brain size may have less of a relationship with behavioural repertoire and cognitive capacity than generally assumed, prompting the question of what large brains are for. Larger brains are, at least partly, a consequence of larger neurons that are necessary in large animals due to basic biophysical constraints. They also contain greater replication of neuronal circuits, adding precision to sensory processes, detail to perception, more parallel processing and enlarged storage capacity. Yet, these advantages are unlikely to produce the qualitative shifts in behaviour that are often assumed to accompany increased brain size."

Now the question is what chicken-to-human number do we use to compare the charities? The MTurk survey that one of Scott's readers used came up with 25, but what I use for comparison is a square root of neuron count, which is 15,000/293,000 = 20 chickens per human (chickens have 220 million and humans have 86 billion total.) This number is eerily similar to 25, which is a bit comforting. However this number is only looking at capacity to suffer. In order to compare this in duration, we have to compare a broiler chicken life to a full under-5 life saved by Malaria Consortium. That would look something like 6 weeks/40 years = 330*20 = 6600 chickens-to-humans. This number feels a lot more intuitively better now. The guesstimate model (https://www.getguesstimate.com/models/10636) here of THL gives an estimate of 18 animals "spared" per dollar (this is really just the 5% welfare improvement that equals a chicken). Malaria Consortium saves a life at around $2200. So the final calculation here would be 6600/18 = 1 "human" saved per $366. That's about 6x more effective than Consortium, and it's only using a 5% welfare improvement which sounds very low to me. So the call to action here would be to start pulling more donations to THL or another ACE charity. Even using very conservative estimates for welfare improvement, you still get a large inherent difference between animals and humans.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-04-08T18:00:35.076Z · score: 16 (11 votes) · EA · GW

Your opinions might change as you take into account the full ranges of possible estimates, relative robustness, and longer-term effects. I'm pretty uncertain about the relative value of global poverty work vs. animal work, even given a non-speciesist account. See "
Global poverty could be more cost-effective than animal advocacy (even for non-speciesists)"
for a sketch of what I'm talking about.

comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-04-09T11:44:17.129Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

The first impression though is that animal charities should be accepted as more effective until proven otherwise by some large positive AMF flow-through effect that outweighs saving a life (maybe reducing insect populations?) Until then it seems much more straightforward to donate to ACE charities, specifically the cage-free ones.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-04-09T17:43:20.041Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

It's a rather weak consideration though. I think I'd most rather invest in more research to figure out these comparisons.

comment by Michelle_Hutchinson · 2019-04-09T14:00:29.395Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · EA · GW

You might also want to take longer-run effects into account, as is discussed in this article: http://globalprioritiesproject.org/2014/06/human-and-animal-interventions/

comment by Jamie_Harris · 2019-04-28T10:18:04.643Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for this, hadn't seen that link before.

One point made there is that "likely interventions in human welfare, as well as being immediately effective to relieve suffering and improve lives, also tend to have a significant long-term impact... By contrast, no analogous mechanism ensures that an improvement in the welfare of one animal results in the improvements in the welfare of other animals." An important long-term consideration for the effects of welfare reforms is whether they generate more momentum for further reforms for animals and for expansion of the moral circle, or whether they generate complacency. I'm currently very uncertain on this, though lean slightly towards momentum. See here for relevant considerations and evidence.

Some other posts related to considering the long-term effects of animal advocacy interventions:

1) Jacy [EA · GW] Reese, [EA · GW] "Why I prioritize moral circle expansion over artificial intelligence [EA · GW] alignment" [EA · GW]

2) Me, "How tractable is changing the course of history?" (see especially some of the considerations in "How tractable are trajectory changes towards moral circle expansion?")

3) Brian Tomasik, "Charity Cost-Effectiveness in an Uncertain World" (not necessarily specific to animal issues, but I think there is some v useful theoretical discussion)

comment by Jamie_Harris · 2019-04-28T10:49:51.618Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Additional consideration to the cross-species comparison consideration:

In comparing human to animal charities, we're often comparing human years lost (with DALYs or QALYs) to improvements in quality or years of negative life prevented. There's lots of scope for disagreement in making these comparisons.

E.g. is a year on a factory farm worse than a year of an average human's life is good? If so, by how many orders of magnitude? I'd guess it is worse, perhaps by an order of magnitude or more.

See here for more discussion (though it's quite an old post and Kelly has told me she would change / update sections of it, given the time).

comment by Open_Thinker · 2019-04-12T21:16:44.465Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

This is absurd. Not because human lives are necessarily inherently more valuable than other animal lives, but rather because the calculation is ridiculously unrefined and cannot be used to support the conclusion.

The idea of basing the calculation on a simple neuronal count is flat out wrong, because humans aren't even at the top in an even, 1:1 weighting in that regard, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons . If it were that easy, the point could much more easily be made by just looking at elephant charities rather than chicken charities. It should be obvious right away from this that the argument from neuronal count is wrong.

And then, even if there is something to the idea, why arbitrarily use a square root in the calculation? Its only purpose seems to be to make the ratio closer: from 391 to 20.

And then it also assumes that there is a direct relationship between neuronal count and capacity for suffering, ignoring all other brain functions such as "thinking, memory, language, things that don't contribute to the raw suffering that is necessary for moral worth," which should itself appear absurd for obvious reasons.

And then there is also the basic assumption that ethics is based on suffering, which is a whole other subject (and doesn't need to be discussed here, and is perhaps the least controversial aspect).

Any one of the aspects being wrong is enough to draw the conclusion into serious doubt, but almost the entire chain of aspects is questionable.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-12T21:54:33.197Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · EA · GW

I think that when someone puts a number on an unknown value, the only good response is to say whether it's too high or too low. Merely describing the uncertainty doesn't get us anywhere closer to knowing where to donate. Animal charities could easily be better than the OP suggests.

comment by Open_Thinker · 2019-05-09T04:50:56.917Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Point taken, but look at OP's title--it is a definitive claim, one which is not supported at all by the accompanying text. Describing the uncertainty in fact does get us somewhere, it allows one to throw out the claim. "Animal charities could easily be better than the OP suggests" indeed, but they could also be far worse.

Unless someone submits new data one way or the other though, the point is moot; which is to say, "back to the drawing board," which is better than being led down a false path, i.e. is, again, an improvement over what was originally presented.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-09T05:29:15.976Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

You can interpret "much more effective" as a claim about the expected value of a charity given current information. Personally, that's what I think when I see such statements.

comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2019-04-13T13:04:09.481Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Since there are less than 1 million elephants alive today, even if each elephant has modestly more moral value than each human, elephant welfare is still very unlikely to meet the importance criteria.