Cause Neutrality

Updated: Nov 14

Summary


Cause neutrality (or cause impartiality) refers to the attempt to prioritize different causes or ways of doing good based on impartial estimates of impact. Though being completely impartial is difficult, those who support cause neutrality aim to avoid a dedication to “pet causes”, exploring options only within a narrow goal or field, or including considerations that are irrelevant to impact such as personal connection or preferences.


Overview


When trying to help others (using our career or otherwise), the cause we choose to work on can have a profound effect on what we can achieve. By cause area we mean, broadly, what goal are we working towards - for example, are we trying to eliminate hunger, reduce the burden of disease, prevent future pandemics, improve the pace of scientific research, mitigate climate change, etc. Even when applying the same resources, skill, or effort - there can be differences of a hundredfold or more in the scale or likelihood of success you could have depending on how and where those resources are applied. As a result, those who want to help others and are not pre-committed to a specific cause area (due to existing skills or preferences) might ask themselves - how should I choose which cause area to work on?


Cause neutrality is the view that when comparing potential causes to work on, we should make the decision based only (or primarily) on how promising those causes are for advancing the values you care about. One approach for trying to compare different cause areas impartially is the Scale, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework, which tries to evaluate causes according to their (you guessed it) - scale, tractability and neglectedness.


Different people value different things, so the question of what is an “impartial” or “fair” comparison is not always obvious. However, proponents of the cause-neutral approach will often emphasize avoiding decisions or biases that clearly hinder our ability to achieve the impact we could have if we made decisions in a more cause neutral way. For example, they would warn against having “pet causes”, “falling in love” with the first cause you’ve properly been exposed to instead of exploring others, or choosing a cause based on touching personal stories you’ve been exposed to - as these might direct you towards options that have far less impact than the best opportunities you’d find when searching for the greatest impact across all cause areas accessible to you. Note that these considerations are distinct from personal fit - even under a fully cause neutral approach, there are strong reasons to take into account relevant skills or circumstances that might enable you to have more impact working in one cause or another.


Finally, it’s worth pointing out - even though choosing what cause area to work on is an incredibly important decision, this doesn’t mean you should always choose a cause area first and look for concrete opportunities later. As we mention in our career guide, we think it’s often useful to keep in consideration several cause areas that are good candidates for enormous impact, and compare the concrete opportunities you find within them.


Additional Resources


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