What is cause prioritization?
We use cause prioritization to refer to the process where organizations or donors identify causes (i.e., broad areas of charitable activity or advocacy work) that are most likely to provide opportunities for highly effective interventions or donations. Once promising causes have been identified, the search can proceed toward determining which specific actions and organizations within those causes are likely the most effective.
The range of causes considered in a cause prioritization effort can vary. For instance, some people consider any cause that helps humans or animals, while others consider causes that only help humans or those that only help animals. This does not mean that everyone who chooses a cause to support does so due to what we call cause prioritization.
Why prioritize causes?
Cause prioritization makes sense for organizations and individuals who support many causes and want to direct their resources to where they can do the most good. For example, animal advocates who want to help animals can choose between opportunities such as helping place dogs and cats for adoption, protesting animal experimentation, fighting factory farming, and advocating for wild animals. It’s unlikely that all these activities have an equal impact. Thinking carefully about which causes to prioritize can help advocates make the largest difference possible.
How do people decide which causes to prioritize?
A common framework for cause prioritization uses three main criteria to assess which causes are the most promising:
- Scale: Does the cause attempt to solve important, large-scale problems? If efforts in this area were completely successful, how much better would the world be?
- Tractability: How easy or hard is it to make progress on the issue? Can the problems be partially or completely solved with current knowledge and technology?
- Neglectedness: Does the cause get less attention or resources than other causes with similar scale and tractability? Are there important activities in need of more funding?
Taken together, these three criteria (or variations of them)1help identify causes where meaningful progress can be made efficiently. People can use this framework to avoid focusing on problems that are small, unprepared to make progress, or already receiving sufficient resources that more would not be very helpful.
This page offers a detailed overview of the considerations involved in prioritizing animal causes. Specifically, we consider the scale, tractability, and neglectedness of various causes, following a common framework for identifying causes where work can have especially high returns.1 We believe these three factors should be weighed against each other to determine high-priority cause areas.
The scale of a cause refers to its size and intensity. The most important causes deal with severe, large-scale problems, while less important causes might deal with local problems or with problems that have less severe impacts on those affected. It is worth noting that just because a cause area is large in scale does not mean that we should focus many of our resources on it. Other considerations, such as tractability and neglectedness will influence our decision-making. Our main criteria for the scale of animal causes are the numbers of animals involved, the capacity for the animal to experience suffering, and the degree to which they are suffering.
One important aspect of scale is the number of individuals in various animal groups and species. We do not believe that the number of individuals is the only relevant characteristic of scale, nor do we believe that animal groups or species should be prioritized solely based on scale. However, the number of individuals in a group or species is one characteristic of scale that we use for prioritization.
Previous research on the number of animals living in various environments and statistics compiled by governments and agencies can be used to estimate how many animals are directly targeted by different types of animal advocacy. We present some estimates in the table below—all estimates are for the number of animals alive globally at any given time.
Table 1: Animal groups as a percentage of the world population
|Animal groups (vertebrates only)||World population||% of animals at any given time|
|Animals in labs||∼192.1 million2||0.00002%|
|Companion animals (cats + dogs)||∼1.45 billion||0.0001%|
|Farmed land animals||∼40.5 billion5||0.003%|
|Farmed fishes||∼125 billion6||0.01%|
|Farmed animals (land animals + fishes)||∼165.5 billion||0.01%|
|Wild animals||∼1015, 7||99.9%|
The estimates on the table only include vertebrates (i.e., mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) because of the generalized lack of data regarding invertebrates (i.e., arthropods, annelids, mollusks, cnidarians, and nematodes). However, it is worth noting that there are many more wild invertebrate individuals (∼1021) than wild vertebrate individuals (∼1015). By these numbers, the situation of wild animals is by far the largest-scale animal cause, followed by the situation of farmed animals.
Farmed animals make up the majority of animals raised and used by humans, with an estimated 40.5 billion farmed vertebrate land animals and 125 billion farmed fishes alive at any given time. The estimated number of farmed animals (∼165.5 billion) is more than 100 times higher than the estimated number of companion animals (∼1.45 billion dogs and cats) and around 900 times higher than the estimated number of animals in labs (∼192.1 million). This suggests that farmed animal advocacy is the most important cause of the three—at least in terms of the number of animals involved. It’s worth noting that invertebrates are farmed in larger numbers than vertebrates. Rough estimates suggest that many subgroups of farmed invertebrates (e.g., cochineals, honey bees, and shrimps) are more numerous than the total number of farmed vertebrates.8
Animals in labs form the smallest group on our table, with about 190 million vertebrates alive globally at any given time.9 We could not find an estimate for the number of invertebrates, such as flies, that are commonly used in research. Regulations for animals in labs commonly focus on specific vertebrate species. For example, academic labs in the U.S. must report the numbers of certain animals they use, but they do not have to report common vertebrates such as rats, mice, and fish or invertebrates such as flies.10 Because of this, the estimate in our table is an underestimate for the total number of animals in labs worldwide.
Companion animals form the next smallest group on our table, with about 1.45 billion animals worldwide. This estimate only includes numbers of dogs and cats—so it is also an underestimate for the total number of companion animals worldwide. This is a large number of animals, but it is relatively small compared to other animal causes.
Note that the number of individuals is not the only proxy to determine the scale of animal suffering. Other considerations are the severity and duration of suffering, which depend on the level or likelihood that members of a species are sentient.
It is possible that sentience levels vary largely between animal species. Based on currently available research,11 we believe that the case for higher sentience levels in vertebrate animals is stronger than the case for invertebrate animals. However, more research is needed to confidently assess the level of sentience of many animals, especially lesser-studied species.
A tractable cause is one where significant progress could be made relative to the total size of the issue using a realistic amount of resources. The most tractable causes are those for which we clearly understand the problems and possible solutions, and for which we have experience implementing those solutions. Many causes have only some of these characteristics. For example, we may know what a problem is but not know whether our proposed solutions will solve it, or we may know what the solutions should be but find them hard to implement. Advocates may disagree about problems and solutions, even if each side feels they clearly understand the issues.
If we can clearly articulate a problem and envision the world without it, we are in a good position to begin trying to solve that problem. If we only have a vague sense that something is not right in a situation, we may have identified that a problem exists without knowing what the specific problem is; therefore, we may need to spend more time learning about the current situation before we can start trying to think of ways to improve it. For instance, predation in the wild causes a lot of suffering to prey but produces clear benefits for predators. This makes it hard to define the problem or envision a solution, meaning that it is an issue that is relatively intractable. In general, we believe that animal causes that attempt to rectify some harm humans do to nonhuman animals are more tractable than causes that attempt to aid animals in the wild. We understand how human-created systems work much better than we understand how natural systems do, so it is easier to implement and predict the effects of changes.12
However, because not everyone agrees about what changes are desirable, even problems with a clear cause can have varying tractability. For example, many animal advocates agree that industrial animal agriculture should be stopped. However, there is disagreement on what system should replace it. Some advocates think that no animals should be farmed, while others think that some farming could be net positive for the animals involved, who would probably not exist otherwise.13 When advocates disagree on an end goal, there’s debate about what tactics would work best to solve the problem and what a finished solution would look like. This makes the problem less tractable, since advocates would use resources while deciding on a goal as well as while trying to achieve it.
Some problems are relatively well understood and uncontroversial among advocates—they can clearly describe the problem, what the world would look like if it were solved, and some solutions. For instance, many cats and dogs in the U.S. are euthanized if animal shelters can’t find homes for them.14 Animal advocates try to solve this problem by i) encouraging or requiring people to spay or neuter their companion animals to reduce the number of animals who need homes,15 ii) encouraging people to adopt animals from shelters rather than purchasing them from pet stores or breeders,16 and donating money to shelters and foster programs that care for animals waiting to be adopted.17 Collectively, these solutions have greatly reduced the number of cats and dogs euthanized in shelters.18
Even if we understand a problem and have a good idea of what the solutions might be, those solutions might not be easy to implement. Sometimes, people are already working on a solution, and we can observe their efforts to judge the solution’s feasibility. Other times, little work is being done on the solutions we have in mind. Because many of the difficulties involved with implementing those solutions are unknown, we can assume that the solution may be harder than it seems.19
Additionally, some solutions do not require continued attention after they have been implemented, while others require continued, long-term attention. A problem that can be partially or fully resolved with solutions that require only short-term efforts is more tractable than one with solutions that require long-term attention.
Assuming equal scale and tractability, relatively neglected causes are more impactful to focus on than relatively popular causes. It’s likely that effective approaches to popular causes are adequately funded, so any additional money or effort given to those causes would go toward supporting less effective approaches. By contrast, it’s less likely that effective approaches to neglected causes are adequately funded, so any money or effort given to those causes would go toward the most effective ways of addressing them.
Of course, some causes may be neglected because they are small in scale or intractable, in which case addressing them would not be a good use of resources. However, among animal causes, this is not often the primary reason that causes are neglected. Many people value animal lives differently for speciesist reasons, or because different species occupy different roles in human society. To animal advocates who assign value to all sentient animals, many animal causes appear to be neglected primarily because others do not recognize their scale, rather than because they are unimportant or intractable. These neglected causes may present especially good opportunities to make an impact.
For instance, in the U.S., many more resources are devoted to helping companion animals than farmed animals even though farmed animals are far more numerous. Compared to farmed animals, the best ways of helping companion animals are well funded, yet there are much more efficient ways of helping farmed animals that are not fully funded. Most donors are more willing to donate to help companion animals, so they donate to opportunities to help companion animals even though they could help more animals by donating to a farmed animal organization. Someone with no preference for which animals they help could therefore have a bigger impact by donating to help farmed animals.
Similarly, donating to help animals in countries where the animal advocacy movement is less developed and funded could be more helpful than donating to help them in countries where the movement is more developed and funded, assuming equal scale and tractability.
The most effective causes to support are likely to be relatively large in scale, tractable, and neglected. We recognize that causes may not have equal attributes in every one of these areas, so we must weigh them against each other when deciding where to prioritize our efforts.
The table below helps summarize how the causes we consider compare in each factor of our framework. We use a five-point rating scale (very small, small, medium, large, and very large) for scale and a similar five-point rating scale (very low, low, moderate, high, and very high) for tractability and neglectedness. This is a rough tool to help us think about the issues—it is not a final judgment about them, as scale, tractability, and neglectedness are difficult to measure precisely.
Table 2: Comparison framework for the scale, tractability, and neglectedness of animal causes
|Wild Animals||Very Large||Very Low||Very High|
|Animals in Labs||Small||Moderate||Low|
|Companion Animals||Very Small||Very High||Very Low|
Our overall impressions of each cause follow.
Implications for ACE
ACE guides the donations of relatively casual donors—those who take their giving seriously, but who are not involved in setting the direction for the organizations where they donate. We expect that we will have the largest impact by focusing on farmed animals and wild animals, e.g., by directing general animal advocates to those causes and by identifying particularly effective opportunities within those causes.
We conduct limited work on advocacy for animals in labs and companion animals because we think that good opportunities to help animals are easier to find in those cause areas than in farmed animal advocacy and wild animal welfare. Our work in these areas serves mainly to check our assumptions about the scale, tractability, and neglectedness of various causes. If we discovered our assumptions were wrong, we would reconsider which causes to prioritize.
To view all of the works cited in this report, see the reference link
Campaigns to introduce animals to new habitats or eliminate them from existing habitats have often had unexpected effects. See Ripple & Beschta (2012), Bergstrom et al., (2009), and Zabaleta et al. (2001) for more details.
Cognitive biases such as the Dunning-Kruger effect and the planning fallacy tend to cause people to overestimate their skill at tasks they are bad at and underestimate the time needed for activities they haven’t tried. When something hasn’t been attempted at all, these biases are especially important to consider, because it’s harder to correct for them using prior experience.
For instance, see the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments.