The Open Philanthropy Project, as its name suggests, provides thorough online explanation of its varied initiatives, and with it, some interesting insights into what guides its giving. Case in point—how it applies principles of effective altruism to farm animals.
A little about the Open Philanthropy Project: It’s a joint initiative of Good Ventures and GiveWell. The former is the philanthropy of Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, and the latter is a nonprofit that evaluates causes for donors. GiveWell is part of the effective altruism movement of philanthropy, and OPP conducts research, makes grants, and publishes findings, with that movement’s principles often guiding the way.
OPP has made farm animal welfare one of a handful of its priorities—which range from immigration policy to artificial intelligence—for reasons that include the amount of suffering involved, the potential to make a measurable impact, and the cost-efficient nature of the solutions. The funder has made 15 grants in the area since early 2016, with a heavy emphasis on corporate campaigns to speed the transition to cage-free hens.
While it’s important not to conflate the effective altruism movement too much with the Open Philanthropy Project—it's not like either is beholden to the other—this cage-free funding is a useful illustration of how the school of philanthropy approaches a problem.
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Briefly, effective altruism is a philosophy that emphasizes rationality and evidence-based analysis to guide philanthropy. Its utilitarian approach has been embraced by many young donors and tech philanthropists who are after definitive positive outcomes resulting from their giving. Detractors find it too moralistic and prone to treating the edges of problems instead of structural issues.
Animal welfare has become a draw for effective altruists, who cite the billions of animals bred for food each year worldwide, and the suffering they endure.
In the case of OPP, for example, the team found a target in the hundreds of millions of egg-laying hens kept in “battery cages,” which restrict a chicken’s movement and inflict suffering. According to an explanatory blog post (OPP unpacks its giving in thorough online documentation), Program Officer Lewis Bollard describes that campaigns to convince food companies to switch to selling cage-free eggs were tractable, impactful, and cost-effective, relative to tactics like ads promoting veganism.
In Bollard’s post, you also get quantitative analysis of suffering in living creatures that, frankly, illustrates why some philanthropists feel a little creeped out by effective altruism. The post discusses the counterpoint that such campaigns do not save animals entirely from factory farming, only from being in cages. But based on stats about different campaign tactics, he concludes, “I think it’s unlikely that sparing an animal from a year of factory farming entirely is five times to 227 times better than sparing an animal from a year of life in a cage.”
Lo and behold, during the past year, several of the largest restaurant chains in the United States have committed to serving cage-free eggs. Bollard, in fact, worried that perhaps OPP’s funding wasn’t even needed to make it happen. Then again, there’s still work to be done to make the practice more widespread, and the funder views it as just one step along the way to greater reduction of suffering among animals in factory farms. OPP has been giving to a lot of animal welfare work in China lately, but still supports cage-free advocacy.
I suspect I'm like a lot of people in that I have mixed feelings about effective altruism. Followed staunchly, it can lead to some weird moral gymnastics and prescriptiveness on approaches to problems. But the cage-free example shows that a lot of good can be accomplished by going for low-hanging fruit and accepting incremental progress.