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: 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.)

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.