The Moral Obligation to Organize

This post is coau­thored with So­phie Her­manns, PhD can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge and a vis­it­ing fel­low at Har­vard University

Effec­tive al­tru­ists are very in­ter­ested in moral obli­ga­tions and have de­vel­oped a set of norms mainly fo­cused on char­i­ta­ble giv­ing and the use of our ca­reers. For ex­am­ple, one effec­tive al­tru­ist “moral baseline” is the Giv­ing What We Can (GWWC) pledge, which obli­gates one to give at least 10% of your in­come to effec­tive causes for the rest of your life. In this post, we pro­pose a com­ple­men­tary “obli­ga­tion to or­ga­nize,” fo­cused in par­tic­u­lar on effec­tive al­tru­ists who may find poli­ti­cal ac­tivity re­ward­ing. Im­por­tantly, we will not sug­gest that this obli­ga­tion ex­tends to all effec­tive al­tru­ists or that it should re­place the GWWC pledge, but merely that it should serve a com­ple­men­tary role. The ex­act for­mu­la­tion of this obli­ga­tion will likely be ar­bi­trary, just as GWWC’s pledge. How­ever, we ar­gue that or­ga­niz­ing effec­tive al­tru­ists to take effec­tive poli­ti­cal ac­tion likely rep­re­sents a rel­a­tively low-effort, un­der-pri­ori­tized, and highly con­se­quen­tial set of ac­tions that any­one can take. Our anal­y­sis fo­cuses on ac­tions in the United States, al­though we hope that oth­ers will ex­pand our anal­y­sis to other con­texts.


In our ex­pe­rience, some of the ap­proaches that char­ac­ter­ize effec­tive al­tru­ism—ev­i­dence-based in­ter­ven­tion, a fo­cus on im­pact, an­a­lyz­ing trade­offs and coun­ter­fac­tu­als—are of­ten con­spicu­ously ab­sent in poli­ti­cal or­ga­niz­ing. EAs can con­tribute these ap­proaches, mak­ing poli­ti­cal cam­paigns more effec­tive. Con­versely, there’s prob­a­bly plenty that effec­tive al­tru­ists can learn about build­ing com­mu­ni­ties and so­cial move­ments from big­ger or more ex­pe­rienced move­ments like Black Lives Mat­ter, fem­i­nism, or so­cial jus­tice more broadly. EA already shares a fun­da­men­tal con­cern for suffer­ing with these com­mu­ni­ties—join­ing their poli­ti­cal or­ga­niz­ing is a way to show that EA speaks to their con­crete con­cerns, too.

Most of us are here be­cause at some point we’ve felt the im­pulse to save a drown­ing child in a thought ex­per­i­ment. Shrug­ging our shoulder at re­fugee chil­dren drown­ing in the Med­iter­ranean be­cause there’s no GiveWell-re­viewed char­ity to donate to on this cause can’t be the next log­i­cal step. True: hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren need­lessly dy­ing of malaria each year is also a hu­man­i­tar­ian crisis and it’s one of the strengths of effec­tive al­tru­ism that it takes all suffer­ing se­ri­ously, not just that which makes it on the front­page. But donat­ing to the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion and call­ing on your rep­re­sen­ta­tive to aid re­fugees are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.


Across in­dus­tries, lob­by­ing has an ex­tremely high rate of re­turn. One study con­cluded that cor­po­ra­tions fund­ing lob­by­ing ac­tivi­ties re­lated to tax breaks on the Amer­i­can Jobs Creation Act earned $220 back for ev­ery sin­gle dol­lar they in­vested in in­fluenc­ing poli­ti­cal ac­tivity, a 22,000% rate of re­turn. Similar (much less rigor­ous) analy­ses have found ex­tremely high rates of re­turn on in­vest­ment in other cases. It would be naive to con­clude from these nar­row ex­am­ples that lob­by­ing as an in­dus­try is always an effec­tive in­vest­ment or even as­sert that there is fre­quently a causal link be­tween lob­by­ing and de­sired leg­is­la­tive out­comes. How­ever, it is clear that the sheer sum of re­sources at stake can make lob­by­ing sen­si­ble from an ex­pected value ap­proach.

Even in­di­vi­d­u­als seek­ing to im­prove the qual­ity of Amer­i­can gov­er­nance can have a ma­jor im­pact. For ex­am­ple, within the 1,300 pages of the Afford­able Care Act is buried a few para­graphs that bar health in­sur­ers from im­pos­ing “life­time limits” on the amount of care they provide to in­di­vi­d­u­als. This pro­vi­sion only ex­ists thanks to the ad­vo­cacy of a North Dakota woman who per­sis­tently wrote, called, and lob­bied her Se­na­tor. For fam­i­lies with med­i­cal bills reach­ing into the mil­lions of dol­lars, this pro­vi­sion is liter­ally life-sav­ing.

Be­cause the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s pri­ori­ties reach across so many fields, we sus­pect that there are many un­tapped op­por­tu­ni­ties for poli­ti­cal ac­tion. At the mo­ment, we iden­tify one key is­sue area that we are con­fi­dent is par­tic­u­larly high-im­pact: in­fluenc­ing global health al­lo­ca­tion.

The Reach Every Mother and Child Act is one ob­vi­ous tar­get for effec­tive al­tru­ists to fo­cus on—this bill would re­struc­ture the United States Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment’s (USAID’s) global health efforts in or­der to move fund­ing to­wards ev­i­dence-based and cost-effec­tive in­ter­ven­tions. Bills like this that fo­cus on ne­glected is­sues that don’t have deeply par­ti­san, en­trenched views are of­ten high-im­pact and emerge out of the efforts of a small group of com­mit­ted poli­ti­ci­ans and con­stituents. Con­trary to Congress’ grid­lock on most ma­jor is­sues, in 2016, Congress passed three ma­jor pieces of leg­is­la­tion fo­cused on global de­vel­op­ment and global health—the For­eign Aid, Trans­parency, and Ac­countabil­ity Act, the Global Food Se­cu­rity Act, and the Elec­trify Africa Act.

How­ever, effec­tive al­tru­ists should not limit them­selves to ad­vo­cacy on global health is­sues. Sig­nifi­cantly at­ten­tion should be paid to is­sues that don’t have highly en­trenched con­stituen­cies or party-line views, such as pan­demic pre­ven­tion, ex­is­ten­tial risk miti­ga­tion, and more. Although we run the risk of hit­ting quickly diminish­ing re­turns, effec­tive al­tru­ists should also con­sider ways to dis­rupt the Trump ad­minis­tra­tion, as it rep­re­sents a uniquely ex­is­ten­tial threat to Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions and the world. Col­lab­o­rat­ing with ex­ist­ing so­cial jus­tice move­ments here, while at­tempt­ing to pur­sue the strate­gies that are most likely to be im­pact­ful, is key.

Although cru­cial ques­tions around the na­ture and ex­tent of this obli­ga­tion re­main un­re­solved, it is clear that en­gag­ing in poli­ti­cal ac­tivity is high-im­pact. For global poverty and global health is­sues, or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the ONE Cam­paign and RESULTS already provide sim­ple ac­tion pages (here and here) to help effec­tive al­tru­ists take the first steps to­wards poli­ti­cal ac­tivism. Similarly, Global Zero is an­other or­ga­ni­za­tion with a sur­pris­ingly ac­tive and pop­u­lar pres­ence on nu­clear disar­ma­ment. Con­nect­ing with lo­cal chap­ters of these or­ga­ni­za­tions, as well as fel­low effec­tive al­tru­ists, is also im­por­tant for fur­ther­ing the im­pact that one may have through poli­ti­cal ac­tion.

Many effec­tive al­tru­ists are already do­ing highly in­volved in poli­ti­cal or­ga­niz­ing and we’d like to thank them for this work. For ex­am­ple, many effec­tive al­tru­ists or­ga­nized highly suc­cess­ful phone can­vass­ing cam­paigns dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Similarly, the Hu­mane League’s grass­roots or­ga­niz­ing on an­i­mal is­sues is ex­tremely high-im­pact. EAs have also thought­fully ex­plored policy through Open Philan­thropy’s Open Borders re­search pro­ject, through a policy track at EA Global 2016 in Berkeley and through many other routes.

Poli­ti­cal or­ga­niz­ing is a highly ac­cessible way for many EAs to have a po­ten­tially high im­pact. Many of us are do­ing it already. We pro­pose that as a com­mu­nity we rec­og­nize it more for­mally as way to do good within an EA frame­work, just as we do good by tak­ing the GWWC pledge or by tak­ing 80,000 Hours’ ca­reer ad­vice.