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Altruism, helping others, is so difficult. Suppose you save a child’s live, and many years later that child becomes a new Hitler, killing thousands of people. Of course this is very unlikely, because there are not many Hitlers in the world. And the child could also become a scientist who invents a new vaccine that saves thousands of people. So in expectation, saving a child is good. But, it’s complicated, because of…


The harm cascade

What does it mean to help others? Simply put, it means choosing something that is desired, or the consequences of which are desired, by the individuals that are helped. The individuals have positive evaluations of the choice or the consequences of the choice. This means the individuals must have personal experiences and personal desires or preferences. In this sense, the others are persons or sentient beings (including almost all humans and many non-human animals). We cannot help non-sentient objects or things that have no personal experiences and desires. The opposite of helping is harming: doing something such that individuals have negative evaluations of the consequences. 

Now here is the real problem: almost everyone that we will help, is very likely to harm others as a consequence of the provided help. The more we help sentient beings, the more harm they will cause to others. If you help one individual, that individual is likely to cause harm to more than one other individual. Not helping that one individual will result in less harm caused to other individuals. So that means those other individuals are helped. But to make it more complex, when they are helped, those other individuals will cause harm to even more other individuals. 

Suppose each saved individual will – as a consequence of the help – kill two other individuals. Or vice versa: killing (harming) one individual will save (help) two other individuals. So if you help individual A, she will harm individuals B and C, such that these two individuals will no longer harm their victims, namely individuals D, E, F and G. The latter individuals are helped and will as a consequence harm individuals H, I, J, K, L, M, N and O, who will no longer harm individuals P, Q,… And so forth. This is the harm cascade.

As a concrete example, consider saving a human child’s life. That child will not become a new Hitler, but is most likely a meat eater: she will eat more than one animal during her life. And if you help a poor person raising his income, that person is likely to spend some of that extra income on meat, thereby increasing animal farming that causes harm to even more animals. This is the poor meat-eater problem. What if the humans that you helped become vegan and stop eating animal products? That will reduce animal farming and the use of agricultural land. Those vegans may have a preference for turning that unused farm land back into natural habitat. That will increase the population of wild animals. Those wild animals may be better-off than farmed animals, but many of those wild animals will cause harm to other wild animals. 

In nature we see again a harm cascade. One top-predator kills more than one meso-predators. Those harmed meso-predators can no longer kill their many prey. So due to the top-predator harming many animals, many other prey animals are saved. Those saved animals can cause harm to even other animals. Especially in aquatic ecosystems we see long food chains, where a top predator is like a serial killer who kills many other serial killers who kill even more serial killers, and so on.

If animals are not killed by predators, they might increase in population and hence increase competition for food with other animals. They might use violence to attain food or protect territory, because food and territory are scarce resources. As territory is scares and all territory is occupied by sentient beings, almost every sentient being conquered territory of other sentient beings, who conquered the territory of even other sentient beings. And there is not only competition for food, water and territory, but also for sexual partners. One male animal might use violence against other competing males to mate with a female animal. And of course one large animal might accidentally injure and kill many small animals. 

In all these cases, animals are causing direct harm to other animals. Without the harming animals, the other animals would be better-off. But animals may also harm other animals indirectly. For example, if they are not eaten by predators, not trampled by large animals and have enough food to eat, the animal population might increase, making it more susceptible to infectious diseases and parasites. As with contagious diseases, one infected animal might infect more than one other animal. And in cold environments, saving an animal allows that animal to reproduce. But that animal gives birth to many offspring. Many of those offspring will freeze to death right after they are born. That means those newborn animals have lives full of suffering. These are lives not worth living because they are dominated by negative experiences of freezing to death. For those animals, it would have been better if they were not born. In that sense, the one adult animal that you saved will harm many of her newborn children, by giving them a net-negative life, by letting them freeze to death. 

Of course, the harm cascade does not go on infinitely, because the number of individuals that can be harmed is finite. But it is very difficult to determine where the cascade stops. This uncertainty about the length and structure of the harm cascade is probably the most important aspect of cluelessness in effective altruism.


Why is there a harm cascade?

Why is it so likely that helping one individual will harm more than one other individual? The underlying mechanism or reason is that if a male and a female sentient being reproduce, they will give birth to on average more than two children. That means many of the offspring will die before they can reproduce, otherwise we would see an exponential growth of the global population of sentient beings on Earth. In fact, most of the individuals that are born on Earth, do not reproduce. They die too young or are prevented from reproduction. Almost all farmed animals are slaughtered before they could reproduce. Only a small minority of farmed animals give birth to the many other farmed animals. Similarly, almost all newborn wild animals die prematurely from predation, starvation, competition, parasitism, diseases, extreme weather events and so forth.

In many of the cases, the offspring that died prematurely, are killed directly or indirectly by other sentient beings. The newborn animals are captured by predators, infected by parasites, infected by animals with contagious diseases, trampled by large animals, injured by competitors for sexual partners and territory or starved by animals that took the food. Hence, in many cases, other animals are the culprit of the harm.

If most animals die prematurely, it means that most animals in the world do not harm many others, because they do not have enough time to harm other animals. So most animals do not actually harm others. The small minority of animals that live long enough to reproduce, also live long enough to harm others. These are the animals that cause the most harm.

If we help an individual sentient being (human or animal), there are two important consequences. First, the individual is likely to live longer and hence more likely to cause harm to others. Second, that individual is more likely to reproduce and give birth to many children. And a lot of those children will be harmed and killed by other individuals or will have lives not worth living. For non-human animals, the majority of newborn children will be harmed by others.



As is clear in the above discussion of the harm cascade, all individuals, without arbitrary exceptions, are considered. Everyone’s interests matter. We do not only have to help humans, but also members from other species. Speciesism is discrimination on the basis of species, or more generally, on the basis of a biological category. The problem is that almost all sentient beings are speciesist, in the sense that they treat individuals that are biologically more related to them different from other, less related individuals. For example, they treat other sentient beings that are not their kin in ways that they do not want to be treated themselves. They violate the golden rule (do not treat others in ways that you do not want to be treated). Especially predators are speciesist.

Only a few individuals are antispeciesist. These are humans who adopted a vegan lifestyle and support animal welfare causes. However, even many of those vegan animal rights activists and animal welfare advocates are still speciesist, because they believe that humans should not massively intervene in nature to help wild animals. They believe that humans should leave nature alone, that harm caused by humans is worse than harm caused by non-humans. This is a clearly speciesist attitude because it refers to a specific species. Non-human animals such as predators are allowed to massively intervene in nature, according to those animal advocates, but humans are not.

To effectively help others, we have to avoid speciesist biases. What we can do, is considering all sentient beings as humans, with different physical and mental properties.


How to help others and avoid the harm cascade?

Really helping others and avoiding the harm cascade is more difficult than what most people realize. What can we do? Which organizations can we support?

There are four approaches we can follow to deal with the harm cascade problem. First, we can focus on helping those sentient beings that least contribute to the harm cascade, i.e. those individuals that are least likely to cause harm when they are helped. Second, we can look for methods or interventions that reduce or eliminate the harm cascade. Third, we can help individuals in such a way that the provided help does not contribute to the harm cascade, i.e. the individuals will not cause extra harm as a result of the provided help. Fourth, we can do more scientific research on how to reduce and eliminate the harm cascade.

Concerning the first approach, when we want to help others, we can prioritize who to help. It is best to help sentient beings who do not reproduce too much (i.e. do not have too many offspring that cannot survive), who do not harm others much, and preferably, who are able to help others. Helping others can be done by inventing technologies that benefit others, by collaborating with others or by creating mutually beneficial situations (such as trade). The ideal individual to help would be a vegan, antispeciesist human. That person has a long life, can attain a high positive welfare, does not abuse other sentient beings, is able to acquire and share resources (territory, food,…) in a fair way with others, is able to collaborate with others, is able to help others with technologies, and has a number of children close to the replacement level (i.e. two children per adult couple) such that every child can become adult and reproduce without creating an overpopulation problem.

Veganism means abstaining from animal-based food. What happens if humans switch to vegan diets? Animal-free food production requires less agricultural land. So the question becomes: what happens with that agricultural land that is no longer needed for farmed animals? First, it can be used to produce more food for more humans. Food will become cheaper and more available, such that more humans can be born and live sustainably. If the agricultural land is not used for human purposes, it becomes nature again. That means more wild animals will be born and live in that new natural habitat. Most farmed animals have lives worse than most wild animals and humans. A majority of people believe that most farmed animals (those in factory farms) have net-negative lives. Most humans have positive lives and for wild animals the case is uncertain (some argue that wild animals have net-negative lives, others that they may have positive lives). I think it is unlikely that wild animals have lives as bad as or worse than those of farmed animals, which are mostly farmed fish and poultry (this is confirmed by the Weighted Animal Welfare Index study done by Charity Entrepreneurship). Hence, when humans go vegan, farmed animals are no longer born, but they are replaced by humans and wild animals who likely have higher welfare levels. 

To help vegan antispeciesist humans, we first have to promote veganism and antispeciesism, such that more humans become vegan and antispeciesist. I think Animal Ethics is one of the best organization that promote antispeciesism, and the Good Food Institute is one of the best organizations to promote animal-free diets.

Our next candidates on the list of sentient beings we can help with priority, are large herbivores. They do not prey on others and their fertility can be more easily controlled with contraception. Some random examples of organizations that help large herbivores, are Donkey Rescue and Save the Elephants. But these are probably not the most cost-effective organizations to help animals.    

Concerning small animals, there is increasing evidence that insects such as bees are sentient. Here we can prioritize helping bees and dung beetles, because these insects do not hunt other animals, are not aggressive, are not parasitic, do not compete much for scarce food resources with other animals and instead help increase food production (by pollination and fertilizing the soil). Pollinator Partnership is an example of an organization that protects bees. In general, we can prioritize helping herbivorous animals, but there are not many organizations that specialize in helping them. And there are not so many purely herbivorous animals.

Next to the question of which sentient beings we can prioritize to help, we can look for more broad approaches that reduce or eliminate the harm cascade. Here are two interesting examples. 

First, as mentioned above, the crucial underlying mechanism behind the harm cascade, is the high reproduction rate or fertility rate of most sentient beings: one reproducing animal gives birth to many offspring. Humans are the only population of sentient beings that have avoided excess reproduction, by using voluntary family planning methods such as contraception. As a consequence, the human population will not explode, and every newborn human child is likely to survive and be able to live long enough to reproduce. All non-human animal populations (including farmed animals and wild animals) have reproduction rates that are too high. The excess reproduction rate of farmed animals can of course be decreased by eliminating animal farming (i.e. going vegan). For wild animals, wildlife fertility control (contraception for and sterilization of wild animals) can reduce reproduction rates. FYXX Foundation is an organization that specializes in wildlife fertility control. Especially reducing the fertility of predators (e.g. cats) and small animals with high reproduction rates (e.g. rats) can be prioritized.

Second, we can eliminate harmful processes that contribute to the harm cascade, such as infectious diseases and parasitism. Vaccination is an effective method to prevent that one sentient being harms another. Mission Rabies and Wild Animal Health Fund are organizations that provide vaccination for wild animals. Unfortunately, the latter organization also helps wild animals such as predators in other ways that contribute to the harm cascade. Other methods that are explored to eradicate diseases and parasitism, include gene editing and gene drives. Gene drives can also be used for other purposes, such as reducing fertility rates of wild animals. For example, Target Malaria intends to use gene drives to eradicate malaria mosquito’s. Oxitec is a company that develops genetically modified insects to reduce reproduction rates in insects. Supporting gene drive research like Target Malaria is important, because it helps eradicating diseases and avoid excess reproduction of wild animals, and it teaches us how to apply gene drives safely. 

The third approach we can follow, is providing help that does not cause the helped individual to harm others. Think of increasing the happiness of sentient beings. Happier Lives Institute does research on how to increase mental well-being and happiness of humans, Strong Minds treats depression in poor countries, and the abovementioned Wild Animal Health Fund provides pain relief to wild animals.

Finally, there is a fourth approach to deal with the harm cascade: do more research on how to solve this problem. This is a meta-approach, and probably the most important and most effective thing we can do about the harm cascade. Wild animal Initiative does research on how to generally help wild animals. 


Which organizations should we avoid supporting?

For completeness, it is also interesting to see which organizations we should definitely not support when we want to solve the harm cascade problem or want to help others without causing extra harm. Unfortunately, I personally supported many of such organizations in the past, a choice I now regret. Here is a short list of organizations to avoid.

  • Organizations that focus on human overpopulation and want to reduce human population growth. In contrast to what those organizations claim, there is no human overpopulation problem. Rather, wild animals face a serious overpopulation crisis every year, due to their high reproduction rates. As discussed above and elsewhere, humans (when they are vegan) are unique as they most easily avoid the harm cascade, they avoid overpopulation and they can contribute most to global welfare. Therefore, it would be better to have a world with more humans (and fewer wild animals, and no farmed animals). Disclaimer: in the past I founded a short-lived organization DEEP (Deep Ecological and Ethical Project) and I supported other organizations such as Population Matters, Population Connection and Population 2.0, that campaigned against human overpopulation.
  • Organizations that help many wild animals or help carnivorous animals in particular, such as cat and dog shelters. These organizations help animals such as predators that cause harm to other animals. Disclaimer: in the past I volunteered for many years at a wildlife rescue centers that took care of predators such as birds of prey, and I volunteered for the Shark Alliance.
  • Environmental protection organizations that protest against gene drives and gene editing to control insect populations (such as the project of Target Malaria). Disclaimer: in the past I did actions with such environmental protection organizations, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
  • Anti-poaching organizations, especially when they protect predator species. Disclaimer: in the past I sailed with Sea Shepherd.
  • Nature conservation organizations. These organizations are against large scale interventions to improve wild animal welfare. Disclaimer: in the past I volunteered at and funded nature conservation organizations such as WWF.


A (controversial) vision of the far future

In this final section, I want to describe a vision that I have for the far future, what the world might look like when we eradicated harm cascades and are effectively helping all sentient beings. Note that this is just a very hypothetical scenario, because I do not know what future technologies are possible. I also chose the more controversial examples.

Animals will no longer be used in food production. But I suggest to also avoid using land or soil in food production, because outdoor farming harms wild animals on agricultural land (e.g. with insecticides, rodenticides and heavy machinery). Hence, ideally all food will be produced indoors, for example in vertical farms. But then again, what about all that vacant land that is no longer used for agriculture? Part of it can be used by extra humans for infrastructure and buildings, the rest can be used for wild animals. Wild animals will have more food that can grow on that vacant land. But as more wild animals will survive, we have a responsibility to take care of their welfare. This requires large scale interventions in nature. We need more research into new technologies that can help wild animals. Perhaps with gene editing and gene drives we can control animal populations, decrease their fertility rates to sustainable levels. Perhaps with universal vaccination we can eradicate harmful viruses, bacteria and parasites. Perhaps it is possible to herbivorize predators or genetically modify plants to make them more attractive and digestible for carnivorous animals. Perhaps cultivated meat technologies can provide sufficient food for carnivorous animals. Perhaps with gene editing we can modify animal preferences and eradicate violent or aggressive behavior in animals. Perhaps we can cognitively enhance animals to increase cooperation and empathy. Perhaps we can desensitize some animals. Think of the zooplankton: it is possible that those small animals are sentient, but they are killed by the millions by a baleen whale. If we could make the zooplankton animals insentient, baleen whales can still eat them but no longer harm them. The same goes for desensitizing other small animals and invertebrates that are killed by accident by large herbivores. For all of these utopian ideas, much more research is required. It is not yet known which of those ideas are safe and effective in reducing harm. 



Helping one sentient being (human or animal) often leads to harm to more than one other sentient being. This generates a harm cascade, where help results in more harm, which in turn results in more help, which causes even more harm, and so on. It is like saving the life of a serial killer who kills many other serial killers who kill even more serial killers, and so on. Due to such a harm cascade, helping others is very difficult.  

The harm cascade is the result of the high fertility rates of sentient beings. As most reproducing sentient beings give birth to more than two offspring, most of the newborn sentient beings die prematurely, and other sentient beings are often the cause of death of those sentient beings. Many of the newborn, short-lived animals may also have lives not worth living (especially animals born in harsh cold environments and in factory farms). Hence, allowing animals in the wild to reproduce at a high rate, or causing animals on farms to reproduce at a high rate, causes harm. 

To effectively help others without falling in this harm cascade, there are four things we can do. First, we can prioritize helping those sentient beings that are least likely to cause extra harm when they are helped (e.g. vegans, large herbivores, bees and dung beetles). Second, we can look for methods that reduce or eliminate the harm cascade, such as wildlife fertility control, vaccination and elimination of predation (by adopting vegan diets for humans and herbivorizing wild predators). Third, we can help individuals in such a way that the individuals will not cause extra harm as a result of the provided help, for example by mental health programs for humans and pain relief for animals. Fourth, we can do more research on how to safely and effectively avoid, reduce and eliminate the harm cascade. 





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Thanks for writing this, Stijn! Strongly upvoted.

I just wanted to note that there is also a benefit cascade for the same reasons there is a harm cascade.

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