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.