General questions for causes

The following is a list of questions that could be asked for causes under investigation. It is provided here as a “checklist of things to investigate” to guide one’s thinking; in particular, it’s important to note that investigating a cause isn’t just about asking what the importance/tractability/neglectedness breakdown is. The list is not an exhaustive list of questions, but any complete investigation of a cause should at least answer these.

  • What type of cause is it (technological/scientific, one-off, advocacy, etc.)?
  • How important is the cause?

    • What is the raw dollar estimate for solving the problems related to the cause?
    • What is the growth potential for organizations working on this cause?
    • Could the cause actually be a bad thing? What are the potential problems/costs associated with making progress on a cause? See also the “differential intellectual progress” question.
      • Are there keyhole solutions?
      • Can offsets be purchased to compensate for potential negative consequences?
    • How controversial is the cause? (Is there something like an “uneducated/contrarian/meta-contrarian” triad for different positions on the cause?)
    • What do experts (or more generally, people who have deliberately thought about the cause) say about the cause?
    • What do people generally think about the cause?
    • More overall: factoring in all the other points, how important is the cause? Should people work on it?
    • How important is the cause given different assumptions (e.g. how much does one care about reducing suffering versus increasing the number of happy people? Also look at population ethics and e.g. the repugnant conclusion.)?
    • What are the most favorable assumptions for the cause? In other words, in order for this cause to be one of the most important, what would the world have to look like?
  • How neglected/crowded is the cause?

    • How known is the cause?
    • What is the history of the cause? (This is a somewhat big question that touches on more than just neglectedness. “What can we learn from history?” is a good question when investigating both importance and tractability as well. In addition it’s important to note that investigation of history isn’t just about the history of a single cause, but rather many analogous causes. For instance, when studying a social movement, it is helpful to investigate not just the history of the social movement in consideration but also other social movements in general.)
    • How many people are working on it professionally (academia, industry, non-profits)?
    • Is the number of people working on it more/less than comparable causes?
    • Should more people be working on the cause?
  • How tractable is the cause?

    • Is it something we can solve by throwing more money/people at it?
    • Is it something that may be impossible to solve?
  • What are the ways people can help to solve the problems of the cause?

    • Can people just donate money?
    • Can people volunteer, and if so, how useful is this relative to other causes?
    • Is it an intellectually difficult problem (e.g. artificial intelligence, curing aging), or is it something that needs more advocacy (e.g. open borders)? (It could be both.)
  • What can we say about the cause if we consider differential intellectual progress? For instance, how much it will speed up development in both risk-increasing and risk-decreasing ways?
  • Are most of the actors of the cause in the for-profit or non-profit world? Consider also “broad market efficiency” (i.e. factoring in the market efficiency of for-profit versus non-profit, does it seem like a lot of progress can be made by investing more resources?).
  • What are the general steps involved in solving the problem?
  • How likely is it that the cause will affect the long-term trajectory of humanity (as Nick Beckstead argues we might want to)?
  • Can the cause lead to “better morality” in society?
  • Does the cause allow for any interesting “intersections” with other causes? Can it act as a “template” for “intersections”?
    • One example here is artificial intelligence, which can provide the “intersection” of AI and an arbitrary cause X by asking “Is it easier to achieve X directly or by first attempting to create a superintelligence?”
    • Romance also has interesting intersections with e.g. open borders and quantified self; see Romance: Intersection with other causes for more.
    • Life extension also has an interesting template, namely, “Would solving cause X be easier in an ageless society, or would the problem be exacerbated?”
  • What are the memetic implications of discussing the cause and particular solutions for a problem? What sort of dissonance do proposed solutions cause in people?

See also