Cause neutrality refers to the effort to be impartial and neutral when choosing what causes to prioritize. Though being completely impartial is difficult, those who support cause neutrality aim to avoid dedicating themselves to “pet causes,” only exploring options within a narrow goal or field, and including considerations that are irrelevant to impact.
How to prioritize limited resources
When trying to help others (using our career or otherwise), the cause area we choose to work on can have a profound effect on what we can achieve. By cause area we mean, broadly, what goal we are working towards – whether it’s trying to eliminate hunger, reduce the burden of disease, prevent future pandemics, improve the pace of scientific research, mitigate climate change, or something else.
Even when applying the same resources, skill, or effort, there can be differences of a hundredfold or more in the scale or likelihood of your success, depending on how and where those resources are applied.
Choosing a cause area
For example, you’d likely have far greater impact if you spend your time working on an important political advocacy campaign than you would by volunteering at a popular animal shelter. Because of this difference, those who want to help others and are not already 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 primarily on how much impact that cause area would allow you to have. One approach for trying to compare different cause areas impartially is the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework, which tries to evaluate causes according to how big the problem is, how easy it is to solve, and how much attention it currently receives.
Approaching decisions with impartiality
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 “falling in love” with the first cause you’ve been exposed to instead of exploring others, or choosing a cause based on touching personal stories you’ve witnessed – 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 that 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.