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Understanding cause-neutrality

I'm pleased to be able to share Understanding cause-neutrality, a new working paper produced by the research team at the Centre for Effective Altruism. (PDF version.)

Executive summary

The term “cause-neutrality” has been used for at least four concepts. The first aim of this article is to define those concepts.

Cause-impartiality means to select causes based on impartial estimates of impact. This is the concept most frequently associated with the term “cause-neutrality”. Cause-impartiality can either be seen as entailing moralimpartiality, or as pure means-impartiality: choosing the means (e.g., charity evaluation, policy work) to reach one’s moral ends impartially.

Cause-agnosticism means uncertainty about how investments (direct work, donations) in different causes compare in terms of impact.

Cause-general investments have a wide scope. They yield capacity which can affect any cause. Cause-general capacity fall into two categories. Cause-flexible capacity (e.g., money) can be flexibly re-allocated across causes. Broad impact capacity (e.g., good epistemics) affect multiple causes without having to be re-directed.

Cause-divergent investments are cause-specific investments in multiple causes (e.g., global poverty, existential risk).

Figure 1: Decision process for altruistic investments (the four concepts’ antonyms in black).

Cause neutrality 1

My second aim is to give a survey of considerations on the value of cause-impartiality, cause-agnosticism, cause-generality, and cause-divergence. In these sections, I among other things discuss the relations between the four concepts.

Though cause-impartiality is sometimes mixed up with the other three concepts, it does not entail any of them. Cause-agnosticism can be a reason for cause-divergent and cause-general investments. Cause-divergent and cause-flexible investments can substitute for each other, whereas cause-divergent and broad impact investments can complement each other. Recruiting cause-impartial individuals amounts to a cause-flexible investment.

Comments (3)

Comment author: ThomasSittler 11 March 2017 10:40:23AM 4 points [-]

I think I've only ever seen cause-neutrality used to mean cause-impartiality.

Comment author: RyanCarey 11 March 2017 07:28:11PM *  4 points [-]

I think one aim here is to stop people from conflating other things with cause impartiality, which does seem like an unhelpful thing that people occasionally consciously or subconsciously do.

Comment author: RobBensinger 15 March 2017 01:18:31AM 2 points [-]

The discussion of CFAR's pivot to focusing on existential risk seemed to use "cause-neutral" to mean something like "cause-general".

Confusingly, the way "cause-neutral" was used there directly contradicts its use here: there, it meant avoiding cause-impartially favoring a specific cause based on its apparent expected value, in favor of a cause-partial commitment to pet causes like rationality and EA capacity-building. (Admittedly, at the organizational level it often makes sense to codify some "pet causes" even if in principle the individuals in that organization are trying to maximize global welfare impartially.)