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Giving What We Can is Cause Neutral

Giving What We Can materials (including our website and presentations) typically talk about global poverty, even though as an organisation we are fundamentally cause neutral. Our recommended charities work in global health, while we have cause reports and ‘in-area’ recommendations for charities in poverty broadly construed (including, for example, climate change). That might seem to be a surprising choice, so in I’m going to write a couple of posts explaining why we do this. In this post, I’ll explore what cause neutrality is and say a bit about GWWC’s overall aims. The following post will be about how we see ourselves fitting into the EA ecosystem.


 

What does it mean to be cause neutral?

A person is cause neutral if they choose who to help by how much they can help them, rather than with reference to their personal connections (whether with a person or an intervention). For example, say I were to donate to a gay rights organisation in the UK which lobbies to get gay marriage in Church of England churches legalised. My reason is that my family have all gotten married in the same parish church, and I think it’s outrageous that my younger sibling isn’t allowed to simply because of her sexual orientation. But I know that that change will be very expensive to bring about and will make a smaller difference in people’s lives than other, cheaper interventions. When I donate to the gay rights organisation, I do not act cause neutrally, but due to my personal connection to the cause. By contrast, if I chose what charity to donate to impartially and open mindedly, simply by reference to which charity would help others the most with my money, I would be acting cause neutrally.


Although we often talk as if it were binary, cause neutrality is a matter of degree. Someone who was not at all cause neutral might be willing to give to only one particular charity based on their personal connection to the cause area, or only support their blood relatives. A more cause neutral stance would be supporting any charity which treated Alzheimer’s. A still more cause neutral person might be willing to support any organisation which helps humans, but not non-human animals. Other things being equal, the more cause neutral a person is willing to be in choosing which charity to support, the more they will be able to help others with their donations.


But being cause neutral is not the same as valuing everything. Different people value different things, and there are numerous plausible ethical systems. You might or might not value complexity and diversity; you might or might not value non-human animals; you might or might not value lives which haven’t yet to come into existence. The more inclusive your moral system, the more likely you are to feel that moral systems that exclude some of the things you value are partisan. For example someone who values non-human animals might feel that someone whose moral system does not attribute value to non-human animals was being partisan, just as someone who helps those near to them rather than those far away is being partisan.


There is a difference between having an inclusive moral system and acting impartially with respect to your moral system. Almost everyone agrees that it is just as important that people in Ethiopia be helped as it is that those in the US be helped, and that it is just as important that people dying of cancer be treated as those dying of Alzheimer’s. Such global humanitarianism is consistent with believing that you have a particular reason for helping people in the US rather than anywhere else, or people suffering from cancer rather than any other disease. On the other hand, many people think that it is more important that humans are helped than that non-human animals are.1


Giving What We Can's stance

So when I say that GWWC is cause neutral, what do I mean? Our pledge commits people to donating to the organisations which can help others the most with their donation, regardless of intervention type or the individuals the organisation helps. GWWC is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) and along with the rest of CEA we are aiming for a world where everyone (including non-human animals) is happy, fulfilled and free. Our community tries to help others as much as we can without reference to personal connections, but rather impartially and open-mindedly.

That does not mean that every member of the GWWC community has the same moral system. Some of us think that you should treat those in the far future as we do those alive today, others don’t. Some of us think we should prioritise those who are worse off, others don’t. What binds us together is wanting to find out how we can most effectively help others using our donations, and putting our money where our mouth is. More concretely, our aim is to change culture to make it the norm for people in developed countries to give at least 10% of their incomes to the organisations they think are the most effective: to make it common and unremarkable to choose where to donate based on where you can do the most good, and to donate significantly.

 

1 A philosopher might want to frame this by saying that people are cause neutral to the extent that they think that we should respond to reasons that make a claim on everyone (agent neutral), rather than to reasons that make a claim just on you (agent-relative); and that this is separate to the question of what reasons there are that make a claim on everyone.

Comments (20)

Comment author: SophiaSea 23 April 2016 02:41:58AM 4 points [-]

I really liked this post. Cause-neutrality is one thing, scope of one's moral system is another.

It makes sense that if you consider people alive today as more morally significant than future people or non-human animals that global health is a cause-neutral thing to recommend. It does save the most current lives and also likely reduces the most suffering of currently living people.

I think most people think people are equal, but future people and non-human animals are more controversial topics. Because they are more controversial and more complicated topics, you have to question your moral system in order to include them. Being cause-neutral based on what people already value is one thing, getting them to think why they value what they value is a whole different ball-game. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me for an organization like GWWC to focus on being cause-neutral based on the scope of most people's moral system and other organizations look at where you should donate if you consider future people and non-human animals significant.

Comment author: davidc 23 April 2016 01:06:46AM *  2 points [-]

Hi Michelle--

I'm a bit confused. If cause-neutrality is "choos[ing] who to help by how much they can help", then there are many individuals and organizations who seem to fit that definition who I wouldn't ordinarily think of as cause-neutral. For example, many are focused exclusively on global health; many others are focused on animals; etc. Many of those with a cause-exclusive focus chose their focus using "how much they can help" as the criterion. Many of these came to different conclusions from others (either due to different values, differences in how they evaluated the evidence, etc.), which isn't surprising.

I'm hesitant to try to define EA, but really your condition seems more appropriate to being part of a definition of EA than cause-neutrality.

If we accept your definition, then it seems like you could say "GWWC is cause-neutral, and also GWWC is exclusively focused on promoting global health and has no interest in any other EA causes." (I don't mean that's what you did say or will say - it's just something consistent with GWWC being cause-neutral in this sense.)

Edit:

Hmm, I've heard from a good friend that your definition is the one they're familiar with in EA, and that they see no tension between being cause-neutral and entirely focused (at the moment) on one cause.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 24 April 2016 07:42:43PM 0 points [-]

Hi David, It doesn’t seem problematic to me to say that a person or individual could be cause-neutral but currently focused on just one area. If that weren’t the case, the only people who would count as cause neutral would be those working on / donating to cause prioritisation itself. That seems like a less useful concept to me than the one I tried to carve out (though equally plausible as a way of understanding ‘cause neutral’). One way to frame my understanding of cause neutrality is that what matters is not whether a person/organisation is currently focused on one area, but if they’d be willing to switch to focusing on a different area if they became persuaded it would be more effective to do so. There’s also the difference between an individual and an organisation being cause neutral. It’s very plausible that a cause neutral individual could work for an organisation that isn’t cause neutral. It even seems plausible that an organisation might be not cause neutral, while being staffed entirely by people who are cause neutral. That would be true, on my understanding, if it were the case that those individuals would be willing to pivot away from working on that cause if it turned out not to be the best, but wouldn’t do so by pivoting the organisation (rather by closing it down, or finding others to staff it). On this understanding, Giving What We Can is both run by individuals who are cause neutral, and (separately) is cause neutral as an organisation.

Comment author: davidc 25 April 2016 11:45:33AM 0 points [-]

Yep, we're just using different definitions. I find your definition a bit confusing, but I admit that it seems fairly common in EA.

For what it's worth, I think some of the confusion might be caused by my definition creeping into your writing sometimes. For example, in your next post (http://effective-altruism.com/ea/wp/why_poverty/):

"Given that Giving What We Can is cause neutral, why do we recommend exclusively poverty eradication charities, and focus on our website and materials on poverty? There are three main reasons ..."

If we're really using your definition, then that's a pretty silly question. It's like saying "If David is really cause neutral, then why is he focused on animals?" or "If Jeff is cause neutral, why does he donate to AMF?" Using your definition, there's (as we've both pointed out) absolutely no tension between focusing on a cause and being cause neutral.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 25 April 2016 12:49:48PM 1 point [-]

I think even if there's no tension, there could still be an open question about how you think your actions generate value. For example, cause-neutral-Jeff could be donating to AMF because he thinks it's the charity with the highest expected value per $, or because he's risk averse and thinks it's the best if you're going for a trade off between expected value and low variance in value per $, or because he wants to encourage other charities to be as transparent and impact focused as AMF. So although it's not surprising that cause-neutral-Jeff focuses his donations on just one charity, and that it's AMF, it's still interesting to hear the answer to 'why does he donate to AMF?'.

But I agree, it's difficult not to slide between definitions on a concept like cause neutrality, and I'm sorry I'm not as clear as I'd like to be.

Comment author: davidc 25 April 2016 12:59:18PM 0 points [-]

Not really your fault. I'm starting to think the words inherently mean many things and are confusing.

Thanks for the posts.

Comment author: ClaireZabel 22 April 2016 06:25:46PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the writeup, Michelle. I thought it was a really clear introduction to the topic.

However, it makes me curious about why GWWC's materials are so focused on global poverty, given the organization's explicit cause neutrality. I can think about some possible reasons for it but don't have a strong intuition about which is driving your thinking.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 22 April 2016 11:51:15PM 2 points [-]

Thanks Claire, I'm really glad it was helpful. That's what the follow up posts will be about! I have a tendency to splurge onto a page, and was advised to cut the piece into several posts - hence not having answered that yet.

Comment author: richardcanal 24 April 2016 06:16:58AM *  0 points [-]

Hi Michelle,

This is so hard to comprehend why this post was made, when it is in strict disagreement with the history/current mission statement for GivingWhatWeCan. Here are are the best descriptions about GivingWhatWeCan's mission that I could find.

"What do you do, and hope to achieve? Our goal is to play our part in eliminating poverty in the developing world."

"OUR HISTORY Giving What We Can is the brainchild of Toby Ord, a philosopher at Balliol College, Oxford. Inspired by the ideas of ethicists Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge, Toby decided in 2009 to commit a large proportion of his income to charities that effectively alleviate poverty in the developing world."

I started a GivingWhatWeCan chapter in my home town and have been very active in the community reading books/blogs/courses/ etc. and it's still incredibly difficult to figure out the various organisations and what their stated goals are and how they differ. A recent problem I've encountered is why are there GivingWhatWeCan chapters and LEAN/Local EA chapters. Our current meetup.com group is called GivingWhatWeCan, but our website is eacalgary.org.

This makes things extremely difficult for new members who are learning about the movement to navigate the EA landscape, and when the communications coming directly from the organisation are conflicting with it's stated mission, it becomes even more difficult to piece everything together. Perhaps this is a start of a rebranding effort that I wasn't aware of.

Looking forward to hearing back from you, appreciate all the good work the organisation does!

Richard

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 24 April 2016 09:39:27PM *  1 point [-]

Hi Richard, I'm sorry it's rather confusing at the moment, and thank you so much for all the work you do with the GWWC/EA Calgary chapter. I'm hoping my more recent post on the Forum might help bring some clarity. I think part of the reason it's particularly confusing at the moment is that our website has been undergoing some changes, so the page with our mission/vision/values is currently not up. We've also, as Jon mentioned, been clarifying what GWWC is fundamentally about, including whether we are necessarily an organisation which focuses primarily on poverty or only contingently so (it's the latter).

These are our vision/mission/values:

Our Vision

A world in which giving 10% of our income to the most effective organisations is the norm

Our Mission

Inspire donations to the world’s most effective charities

Our Values

We are a welcoming community, sharing our passion and energy to improve the lives of others.

We care. We have a deep commitment to helping others, and We are dedicated to helping other members of our community give more and give better.

We take action based on evidence. We apply rigorous academic processes to develop trustworthy research to guide our actions. We are open-minded towards new approaches to altruism that may show greater effectiveness. We are honest when it comes to what we don't know or mistakes we have made.

We are optimistic. We are ambitious in terms of the change we believe we can create. We apply energy and enthusiasm to support and build our community.

All the best, Michelle

Comment author: richardcanal 25 April 2016 01:01:12AM 0 points [-]

Great to hear Michelle. I agree that being cause neutral allows us to make more of a difference, and agree 100% with the change in tone, it's going to be extremely confusing for new members that are checking out the website, or reading wikipedia, etc.

Have you talked with Tom Ash Re: givingwhatwecan chapters vs. EA chapters? I think the branding continues to be confusing for a lot of people.

Comment author: richardcanal 25 April 2016 01:17:33AM 0 points [-]

Nevermind, Jonathan has responded below.

Comment author: jonathancourtney 24 April 2016 04:52:59PM *  1 point [-]

Hey Richard,

Thanks for the comment- I might just field my best reply to these points and let Michelle chime in if I get any of it wrong!

I can totally understand your confusion- Giving What We Can does, in a great deal of its research, and its promotional material, focus on the project of eliminating extreme poverty. This is because we believe that projects that focus on the elimination of extreme poverty (the provision of bednets, or drugs for Schistosomiasis, ect) are one of the ways we can do the most good with our time and money. As you can imagine, it is hard to clearly communicate both the point that we are promoting the most effective charities alleviating poverty in the developing world and that we are choosing these charities because we think that giving money to them is plausibly the highest impact action people can take amongst all actions. Due in part to the difficulty of communicating both of these points simultaneously, we have generally focused our promotional material on the former, while always having the later as the core motivation. As Michelle mentioned, this is reflected in the Pledge which is explicitly cause neutral, and this reflects our belief that what defines us as an organisation is not merely a desire for people to give more to the most effective charities in the development space, but to all charities which reason and evidence suggests are likely to improve the world. We are currently undergoing the process of clarifying this point in our vision- roughly (and provisionally!) our new vision is: a world where giving 10% of your income to the most effective causes is the norm. This vision clearly ties into our previous vision of eliminating extreme poverty, as we believe that donations to the most effective charities that tackle extreme poverty represent -from a cause neutral point of view- some of the most effective ways for us to improve the world. After all, if we still have extreme poverty in a world where everyone is giving 10%, then we are probably doing it wrong!

In terms of confusion around branding for local groups, that the the product of two factors: 1) Giving What We Can for the last year and a half has been supporting the growth of both EA and GWWC groups, and 2) There are a number of different organisations in the local-group support space- including Giving What We Can, EAO and LEAN. The reason why there are both EA and Giving What We Can chapters is that different individuals choose to brand their groups differently- some individuals are most exited by the ideas and branding of Giving What We Can, with it's focus on the pledge and extreme poverty, while others are most drawn to a general EA brand. In the case of Calgary, I know Reza was most exited by the Giving What We Can brand, and so went with that. We at Giving What We Can support both types of groups. All that being said, I agree this could definitely be clearer from the outside, and we will work on making it so!

I really enjoyed visiting all of you in Calgary last December, and hope to have the chance to visit again in the not too distant future! If you have any suggestions for how we can make the above considerations clearer, I would be super keen to get your input. Thanks for your questions, and thanks for helping to grow the movement!

Comment author: richardcanal 25 April 2016 01:17:13AM -1 points [-]

Hi Jonathan, I agree that if you're goal is to "do the most good" that majority of EAs (myself included) believe that reducing extreme poverty is the most tractable/efficient way to do that at the current moment.

I think the main issue is that when people are learning about EA, if they find major discrepancies between GWWC currently stated mission (helping reduce poverty) and some materials like the blog post above (mission being do most good) it becomes difficult to figure out what's going on.

One recommendation I have is that if a major rebranding effort is happening within GWWC, an email out to Pledge members/chapter leads etc., and blog post on GWWC's blog and updating the various mission statements would be a good start. I was extremely surprised reading the post, when I follow many effective altruism forums/websites/materials and have never once seen GWWC even hinting at being cause neutral with the exception of the Pledge.

I find a good analogy for this situation is climate scientists, they are "cause neutral" when it comes to global warming, it just happens that all the science/facts point towards global warming being a real man made thing that should be addressed.

I'm very happy for the new direction, with GWWC being primarily focused on making the world a better place via donations to effective charities.

Richard

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 27 April 2016 03:51:51PM 1 point [-]

Hi Richard, Thanks for your comments. Sorry to have been unclear - there isn't a major rebranding planned. The changed vision should be thought of more as clarifying what lies at the heart of gwwc and what makes it unique. In large part, the reason for doing it is to further focus the team, rather than to change anything for others. It doesn't mean that we plan to move away from working most on extreme poverty (for the reasons outlined in my more recent blog post). Ending extreme poverty is still a major focus for us (as it is for many EAs), but we wanted a vision that articulated why we work on that, and encapsulated the other things we care about. I am planning to write a blog post about our vision on the GWWC blog in May, I'm glad that seems like a helpful thing to do. Michelle

Comment author: richardcanal 24 April 2016 06:19:49AM *  0 points [-]

Also if this is the case, we should probably update the Wikipedia article as well:

"Giving What We Can is an international society for the promotion of the most cost-effective poverty relief, in particular in the developing world."

Oh and the Centre for Effective Altruism website: "Giving What We Can is an international society dedicated to eliminating extreme poverty."

Comment author: davidc 25 April 2016 01:05:30PM 1 point [-]

That's not really inconsistent with cause-neutrality, given Michelle's definition (which I admit seems pretty common in EA).

(As long as GWWC is open to the possibility of working on something else instead, if something else seemed like a better way to help the world.)

Comment author: davidc 23 April 2016 01:19:46AM *  0 points [-]

I'd suggest that we interpret "cause-neutrality" in a more straightforward, plain-language way: neutrality about what cause area you support; lack of commitment to any particular cause area.

As with your definition, cause-neutrality is a matter of degree. No one would be completely neutral across all possible causes. In an EA context, a "cause-neutral" EA person or organization might be just interested in furthering EA and not specifically interested in any of the particular causes more than others. But they might want to exclude some causes from EA, which is a limit on their "cause-neutrality", and might be a thorny subject.

For example:

  • I don't know who runs this website or how cause-neutral they are as an individual or organization, but it seems to be run in a pretty cause-neutral way.
  • I'm not cause-neutral (I'm almost exclusively focused on animals, because I think that's where I can help the most).
  • Expanding the pledge made GWWC more cause-neutral, but looking at the website, the organization doesn't come across as particularly cause-neutral to me.
  • Etc.
Comment author: SophiaSea 24 April 2016 09:44:38AM 2 points [-]

The point of cause neutrality is to be indifferent between causes based on any criteria except how much good you can do by focussing on that cause area. The advantage of being cause-neutral is, instead of choosing what to do based on how much you like the cause or any other reason, you are choosing based on how much of a difference you can make.

People who exclude causes because they think there is less room for doing good are cause-neutral, people who exclude causes based on other reasons are not cause neutral. As the reason you are exclusively focussed on animals is because that's where you think you can help the most, you seem cause-neutral. Cause-neutral people can come to different conclusions as to which causes to support, what makes them alike is how they decide on the cause(s) they currently focus on.

GWWC is cause-neutral if it would be willing to no longer focus on poverty and global health if it was convinced that by focussing on other cause areas they could do more good. It is my understanding that the only reason they are committed to poverty and global health is because this cause area is where they believe they can do the most good. If they were to receive evidence that contradicted that, they would no longer focus on poverty and global health. The reason they are focussed on this cause is because they care only about the difference they can make in their cause selection. The reason they focus on this cause is because they are cause-neutral.

Comment author: davidc 04 May 2016 02:04:00PM *  1 point [-]

The value in discussing the meaning of a word is pretty limited, and I recognize that this usage is standard in EA.

Still, I've done a pretty bad job explaining why I find it confusing. I'll try again:

Suppose we had an organization with a mission statement like "improve the United States through better government." And suppose they had decided that the best way to do that was to recommend that their members vote Republican and donate to the Republican Party. The mission is politically neutral, but it'd be pretty weird for the organization to call itself "politically neutral".

This isn't a criticism of Michelle's post or GWWC, since their usage of the phrase is (as I now know) standard in EA. (Initially I was criticizing this post, but I was confused. Sorry!) Instead, it's a criticism of how EA uses the term generally. The "EA definition" is different from a common-sense definition.

As I see it now, "X-neutral" is implicitly "X-neutral for some purpose Y". The way EAs use "cause-neutral", Y is basically "cause selection". It means that EAs haven't committed to a cause before they select a cause. That's a good and useful part of EA, but it's also pretty narrow and (I claim) not the most natural meaning of "cause-neutral" in all contexts.

"Cause-neutral" sounds like a phrase whose meaning you could understand based on a small amount of context, but really you need the special EA definition. This makes it jargon. Jargon can be helpful, but in this case I think it's not.