Cause X – What Will the New Shiny Effective Altruist Cause Be?

The Qualia Research Institute hosted an interesting event a couple of weeks ago. Here is how the event was advertised:


Event NameQRI & Friends: “Cause X” – what will the new shiny EA cause be?
Time: Saturday, January 19, 2019 at 4 PM – 1 AM
Description: This event will consist of 4-minute presentations from attendees about what the “new EA cause area should be” (from 4pm to 6pm) followed by a casual and chill hangout for the rest of the evening.
There are 10 slots for the presentations, and we encourage you to sign up for one before they run out. If you want to give a presentation please fill out this form: [deleted link]
If you want to see people’s presentations please show up before 4:15pm (we will start the presentations at 4:30 sharp). Each participant will be given 4 minutes to present and 1 minute for Q&A. We will be strict on time. You should come prepared to defend your cause with logic, data, etc.
Everyone who sees the presentations will get to vote* at the end for the following three categories:
  1. Most likely to prevent as much suffering as possible with 1 million dollars of funding
  2. Most fun to think about
  3. Most likely to be the plan of a super-villain
There will be real prizes for each of these three categories!!!**
If you just want to come and hang out for the evening please show up from 6:30pm onwards. Vegetarian/vegan food and drinks will be served at around 7:30pm. Feel free to bring vegan/vegetarian food/drinks too.
As usual, feel free to invite people who are curious about consciousness and EA (but please let me know in advance so I can make a head-count for the event).

*Voting was carried out with Approval Voting (where every person can vote for as many presentations as they want and the ones with the highest number of votes win). This was chosen based on the assumption that some presentations might be similar, which would lead to an unfair penalty on similar presentations based on the spoiler effect. Additionally, voters who are undecided between more than one presentation can communicate their uncertainty via this type of voting rather than having that useful information be discarded.
**Prizes were announced the day of the event. For category (1) the prizes were “a fully-equipped first-aid kit plus a 16-bottle essential oils kit”. The winner of category (2) received a prize consisting of “a 3D Mirascope and an Ivy Cube“. And category (3) had as its prize an “Apollo Tools 39 piece general tool set (DT9706)“. These prizes were, of course, highly symbolic of their respective categories.


With the permission of the participants, here is what each of the winners presented:

For (1) two presenters tied in first place:

– Natália Mendonça presented about “Using smartphones to improve well-being measures in order to aid cause prioritization research” (link to presentation). She argued that the experience sampling paradigms that made waves in the 2000s and early 2010s happened at a time when relatively few people had smartphones. Since today smartphone adoption in developing countries has exploded we could use an experience sampling app to determine the major causes of suffering throughout the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. She specifically mentioned “comparing how bad different illnesses feel” in order to help us guide policy decision for cause prioritization.
– An anonymous attendee presented about “Psychedelic Drug Decriminalization“. Some of the core ideas involved taking a look at the effect sizes of the benefits of MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, etc. on various mental illnesses and comparing them against current alternatives. Also looking at the potential downsides they estimated that these only account for about 10% of the benefit, so cost-benefit wise it is very positive. They didn’t cover the entire presentation due to time – more details and a contact email can be found at

For (2) the winner was:

– Matthew Barnet who presented about “Timeloop Concept as Cause X” (link – slides don’t have much content; they were used just to keep the presentation on track). Matthew looked at the recent Qualia Computing article about the “Pseudo-Time Arrow” and wondered whether the importance of agents from an ethical point of view should be weighted at least in part based on their subjective time-structure. It’s true that 99% of experiences are experienced as having a linear causal time arrow, but this is not the case for the general space of possible experiences (e.g. including “moments of eternity”, “time loops”, “atemporal states”, etc. common on altered states of consciousness). He posited that perhaps time loop experiences have a much bigger moral importance because from the inside it feels like they never end. A discussion about infinite ethics and the quantification of consciousness ensued.

For (3) the winner was:

– Yev Barkalov, who proposed that rather than trying to endlessly battle in favor of digital privacy… how about we “just give up” and instead refocus the absence of digital privacy for social good. He mentioned China’s social credit score as a possible bad implementation of what he had in mind (“they have poisoned the well of the no-privacy camp by doing it so poorly”). Part of his argument was that technologies such as adblockers, crypto tokens, and the dark net further arms races in which advertisers, financial institutions, and governments become more clever at displaying ads, making you sign up for credit cards, and forcing citizens to abide by the law. Since arms races are dangerous and may lead to draconian systems while also being a waste of resources (due to their zero-sum nature), he suggested that we at least consider the alternative of seeing how a privacy-less world could work in practice. He posited that this could allow people to find quality collaborators more easily thanks to enhanced “people search” capabilities made available to the general population.

For completeness, the remaining presentations included:
Open Individualism as a new foundation for ethics
– Collective internet identities to replace countries
– The researching of possible Cause Xs as itself Cause X
– Automatic Truth Discovery neo-Wikipedia: like the current Wikipedia but with meta-analytic tools embedded into it, which provide confidence intervals for each claim based on the statistical robustness of the empirical findings that support it. And…
– A critique of utilitarianism that was more of a rant than a specific proposal (???)

Finally, I would like to add here some additional possible Causes X that I have thought about. These did not participate in the event because the organizers were not allowed to present (due to fairness and also because I didn’t want to “win a prize” that I bought myself):

  1. Subsidizing/sponsoring the use of HEPA filters in every house
  2. Distributing DMT vape pens that dispense in 4mg doses to deal with unexpected cluster headaches (this deserves an article of its own; cf. “Hell Must Be Destroyed“)
  3. Building a model that takes in genetic data and returns hedonic set point (and/or tells you which recreational drugs you are most likely to respond positively to).

In brief, (1) above might be a highly effective way of improving the health-span of a country’s population in a cost-effective fashion. As Robin Hanson has argued over the years, if we truly cared about the health of people, we would be spending more resources on the top 4 drivers of health (diet, exercise, sleep, and clean air) rather than on extravagant medical interventions designed to convince us that “an attempt was made.” Clean air, in particular, seems easy to influence at a rather minimal cost. HEPA filters capable of providing clean air to entire apartments (reducing by 10X the PM2.5 concentrations in the apartment) can cost as little as $70, with an upkeep of about $30 a year for renewing filters, and about $20 a year for electricity. Fermi calculation would indicate this would cut the average person’s daily PM2.5 exposure by half. I haven’t worked out the math concerning the amount of micromorts prevented per dollar this way, but the numbers seem extremely promising.

For (2) the rationale is that inhaling tiny doses of DMT aborts a cluster headache within about 3 seconds. Given the fact that about 0.1% of people will suffer from a cluster headache at least once in their lifetimes, and the fact that they are considered one of the most painful experiences possible, having a DMT vape pen within reach at all times as an insurance against spontaneous hellish levels of pain might be perfectly justified. A dedicated article about this specific topic will be posted soon.

And finally, (3) was recently argued in a Qualia Computing article: Triple S Genetic Counseling: Predicting Hedonic-Set Point with Commercial-Grade DNA Testing as an Effective Altruist Project. This may very well be a defensible Cause X on the basis that building such a model is already possible with the data available to commercial DNA testing companies like 23andMe, and that it might course-correct the reproductive strategy of millions of prospective parents within a few years, preventing untold amounts of suffering at a relatively small cost.

Why don’t more effective altruists work on the Hedonistic Imperative?

By David Pearce (in response to a Quora question)


Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why.

Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.

Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of in vitro meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.

You ask specifically about effective altruists (EAs). Some effective altruists (cfEffective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding) do explore biological-genetic solutions to complement socio-economic reform and other environmental interventions. Most don’t. Indeed, a significant minority of EAs expressly urge a nonbiological focus for EA. For example, see Why I Don’t Focus On The Hedonistic Imperative by the influential EA Brian Tomasik. I can’t offer a complete explanation, but I think these facts are relevant:

1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100 – 150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is wildly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s just Brave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.

2) The Hedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cfHow Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic (cfCan “effective altruism” maximise the bang for each charitable buck?) than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.

3) The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.

4) Core Values. Self-identified effective altruists range from ardent life loversfocused on existential risks, AGI and the hypothetical Intelligence Explosion to radical anti-natalists and negative utilitarians committed to suffering-focused ethics (cfWhat are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). There’s no inherent conflict with HI at either extreme. On the one hand, phasing out the biology of suffering can potentially minimise existential risk. Crudely, the more we love life, the more we want to preserve it. On the opposite wing of EA, radical anti-natalists oppose reproduction because they care about suffering, not because of opposition to new babies per se. Technically speaking, CRISPR babies could be little bundles of joy – as distinct from today’s tragic genetic experiments. In practice, however, life-loving EAs are suspicious of (notionally) button-pressing negative utilitarians, whereas radical anti-natalists view worldwide genetic engineering as even more improbable than their preferred option of voluntary human extinction.

5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or larger-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.

For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventually be eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cfConstitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration. Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.

Mental Health as an EA Cause: Key Questions

Michale Johnosn and I will be hanging out at the EA Global (SF) 2017 conference this weekend representing the Qualia Research Institute. If you see us and want to chat, please feel free to approach us. This is what we look like:


At EAGlobal 2016 at Berkeley

I will be handing out the following flyer:

Mental Health as an EA Cause Area: Key Questions

  1. What makes a state of consciousness feel good or bad?
  2. What percentage of worldwide suffering is directly caused by mental illness and/or the hedonic treadmill rather than by external circumstances?
  3. Is there a way to “sabotage the hedonic treadmill”?
  4. Can benevolent and intelligent sentient beings be fully animated by gradients of bliss (offloading nociception to insentient mechanism)?
  5. Can we uproot the fundamental causes of suffering by tweaking our brain structure without compromising our critical thinking?
  6. Can consciousness technologies play a part in making the world a high-trust super-organism?


Wallpaper symmetry chart with 5 different notations (slightly different diagram in handout)

If these questions intrigue you, you are likely to find the following readings valuable:

  1. Principia Qualia
  2. Qualia Computing So Far
  3. Quantifying Bliss: Talk Summary
  4. The Tyranny of the Intentional Object
  5. Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States
  6. How to secretly communicate with people on LSD
  7. ELI5 “The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences”
  8. Peaceful Qualia: The Manhattan Project of Consciousness
  9. Symmetry Theory of Valence “Explain Like I’m 5” edition
  10. Generalized Wada Test and the Total Order of Consciousness
  11. Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane
  12. Why we seek out pleasure: the Symmetry Theory of Homeostatic Regulation
  13. The Hyperbolic Geometry of DMT Experiences: Symmetries, Sheets, and Saddled Scenes

Who we are:
Qualia Research Institute (Michael Johnson & Andrés Gómez Emilsson)
Qualia Computing (this website; Andrés Gómez Emilsson)
Open Theory (Michael Johnson)

Printable version: