Cross posted at

In September 2014, 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City to protest inaction against climate change in what was the single biggest demonstration of the last decade in the United States. In the previous month, and in nearly every month since, protests against racism in the criminal justice system have roiled nearly every major U.S. city. This comes in a decade when the national conversation has already been shaped profoundly by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

 It's common to view participation in mass protests as a choice. I want to argue that, sometimes, participation in protests is not a choice: it is wrong not to participate.

 I don’t claim that community or solidarity or anything like that has inherent importance. Instead, I want to argue that it may be immoral to stay home from a protest because doing so causes harm.

 To start, I offer perhaps the most influential thought experiment of contemporary times – one that has led thousands of people associated with a movement called Effective Altruism to commit their lifetime earnings to addressing extreme poverty. The thought experiment comes from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

By analogy, Singer argues, we are obligated to save children in developing countries by donating our money, even if it comes at the cost of our own wants.

In More Than Good Intentions, economist Dean Karlan extends this pond analogy. Suppose I don't know how to save the child - I can jump in after him or I can throw something to him in the water. Knowing which is more effective could save his life. By analogy, if we are obligated to help those suffering from extreme poverty, we are obligated to figure out the most effective way to help them. Unsurprisingly, Karlan is the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit (where, full disclosure, I work) that is dedicated to finding effective solutions to global poverty.

I'd like to extend the pond analogy in a different way. Suppose I am walking past a deep pond and see a child drowning in it. The child is drowning in the middle of the pond, where I would have to swim in to get him. This is not safe - I risk being pulled in by the drowning victim. Instead, I see a large plank of wood that I could throw to the child as a flotation device. With a group of about 10 people, we could throw the wood to the middle of the pond to reach the child. Any less, and we would not be strong enough for it to reach the child. There is no time to run and get any additional people.

If there are nine other people around the lake determined to help, I ought to assist them in throwing the plank of wood. The choice isn't much different from that in the original analogy. If there are eight people, and I really know that we need at least ten to throw it, then it seems I am under no obligation to assist. If there are ten or more, then I am again under no obligation to assist, because they will save the child on their own.

Now the number should not really matter for this decision - if it takes one million people to throw the plank of wood and I am the millionth person, then my obligation is equally strong. Similarly, it should not matter whether the child is in a far away country, living in the far future, or of a different species.

Clearly, this example is both trivial and unrealistic. So we can relax some the assumptions. Maybe I don't know how many people it will take to throw the plank of wood. In that case, if there is still a significant chance I am the threshold person, and I don’t have an equally pressing need to rush off to, I am obligated to help the group.

We can modify the thought experiment in another way: maybe there isn't a sharp cutoff where we can suddenly throw the plank, but each additional person helps get the plank a little bit closer. Again, this modification is easily dealt with - if I significantly increase the chance that the plank reaches the child, I am obligated to assist (and given that a child's life is on the line, I don't need to make much of a contribution for it to be wrong to sit out).

We can modify this hypothetical in further ways, but the basic idea is clear: if collective action can produce major change, and my potential contribution is large enough, it is wrong to stay home. If a collective action’s potential impact is great, even a tiny contribution to it may be morally required.

Singer’s pond analogy makes very salient our individual obligation to those in need. The growing numbers of people – termed Effective Altruists – who take his analogy seriously are changing the world in a meaningful way. I would identify myself as an EA and encourage readers of my blog to join this compelling and rapidly growing movement. Effective Altruists (EAs) are collaborating more and more to build a community. But EAs’ outward engagement with the world tends to focus overly narrowly on ways to act alone. Donating to effective charities and eating a vegan diet are important and necessary ways to relieve suffering, but sometimes, more traditional collective action is required too. I fear a movement centered around doing the most good risks doing far less good for overlooking more traditional forms of protest.

The months following the People’s Climate March saw a new accord between the U.S. and China, the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. Senate, and the growth of a vibrant fossil fuels divestment movement across the U.S. The #blacklivesmatter marches that have swept the country are leading police departments even in cities untouched by the national spotlight to revise their training. And there is evidence that not just the Tea Party movement but specific Tea Party protests altered the course of national and local politics.

It is far from rare that collective action changes the world. If we can contribute meaningfully to it – which if we cannot do as an individual activist, we almost certainly can as an organizer – we have no choice but to do so.


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My sense reading this post is that it gestures at a framework for assessing the impact of political action that is widely endorsed in EA and that I like, but to make it actionable one needs the empirical detail to show competitive gains for particular examples. [ETA: I see on your own blog that you are going to follow up with a post trying to do that, which I will look forward to along with Ben Kuhn!] Also, congratulations on starting posting, it's always great to see more thoughtful pieces like this.

I don't think 'collective action' is really an issue stopping EAs from prioritizing protests. Charitable donations have the same problem, as a given $10 donation is very unlikely to make the difference between an extra malaria bednet distribution or not (which might costs hundreds of thousands of dollars). When I give $10/n the cost of the distribution I have a 1/n chance of having n times the impact, so the expected value of my donation is unaffected by the chunkiness/collective action. I basically need to know about the returns on large amounts of marginal funds and can then consider what the scaled-down share for my contribution would be.

For protests I don't think anyone has a problem with asking what going from 100,000 to 400,000 protesters would do, and evaluating the individual decision to protest in terms of its scaled share. But to be convincing you have to actually show your work that the returns on protesting really are competitive with the opportunity cost of time (e.g. earning and donating some money, studying to advance your career and ability to get things done, doing malaria research, resting up after all of the above).

Some of the points that I think could be engaged with to make the OP case more concrete:

  • Police in the U.S. kill perhaps 1,000 people each year, and perhaps 300-400 African-Americans; in 2014 GiveWell moved $9.5 million to AMF, enough to save thousands of lives, plus twice that to deworming and cash transfer charities
  • EA donors numbered at most in the thousands (even counting all GiveWell donors), a far smaller movement
  • The human lives saved by GiveWell classic top charities were all African, and not only powerfully express support for the idea that black lives matter, but that they do across national borders
  • If the tens of millions of person-hours spent on the protests were spent at minimum wage jobs and the proceeds donated, then tens of thousands of African lives would have been saved; if one can earn higher wages or contribute in other scarce ways, the opportunity cost will be larger still
  • The protests were enabled by funding to organizing groups, e.g. George Soros spent over $33 million funding protests; we can compare the impacts of the total spending on such funding to the impacts of spending those same funds elsewhere
  • One could instead campaign, or fund (which will be much more productive in terms of campaigning produced for many people) political or policy work on issues like increasing immigration from poor countries or foreign aid that address the billions of people in absolute poverty, and the millions who die from preventable disease, war, and malnutrition abroad; time and funds spent on any given protest must be compared against the best alternatives we can find
  • Because of such considerations the value of different kinds of political involvement likely vary by many times, and the vast majority will be much less effective than the most
  • Groups like GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project have and are investigating political and policy work, and have even made grants, such as to the Center for Global Development and even some specifically criminal justice reform organizations; Giving What We Can has highlighted donation opportunities for funding political advocacy for more and more efficient foreign aid in the past
  • Effective altruism is itself a fast-growing social movement one can campaign for in various ways, which has been doubling in scope every year or so for some time now, and is already saving multiple times as many lives as could be saved by preventing every police shooting in America; campaigning for effective altruism has so far been highly effective
  • If the growth of effective altruism can continue for even a few more doublings and then level off while still accounting for only a tiny portion of rich country charitable giving it could save millions of lives
  • See this post by Benjamin Todd: Earning to give is systemic change
  • Also see Nobody is perfect, everything is commensurable, which I see also discussed the police shooting protests compared to malaria charity
  • Effective altruists are funding the investigation of political advocacy to find areas and interventions that are more effective than what they are doing

"It is far from rare that collective action changes the world. If we can contribute meaningfully to it – which if we cannot do as an individual activist, we almost certainly can as an organizer – we have no choice but to do so."

I strongly object to this. Everyone could use up every waking hour of every day protesting, writing letters, going door-to-door, etc for a thousand different causes. They can't all simultaneously exert an obligatory demand on our time, especially when they are worse than what we would otherwise doing.

You could make a case that while the opportunities available for political activism for cause X on a political day aren't competitive with the best alternatives, on certain unusual occasions, e.g. on election days (moreso in primary elections, etc) the impact of an hour of time on political activity is many times greater than usual, and that might temporarily 'push it over the top.' But the political campaigns discussed in the OP occur over multi-year time scales, and plausibly benefit from the cash one could earn in an hour more than from an hour holding a sign. And in any case, one should still be able to pass basic checks on the empirical plausibility of an effect large enough to make this a competitive use of altruistic time.

All that said, people don't have to be maximally effective or maximally altruistic all the time, and if they want to do something that is still good but far from maximally so, I don't object. But to claim that at present margins a focus on "donating to effective charities...risks doing far less good for overlooking more traditional forms of protest" calls for at least a rough empirical sketch of how that could be true, ideally for some particular examples.

I have some old posts reviewing the rough probabilities of votes swinging elections, the cost of buying votes with donations. But you need a lot more to get to the point of thinking protests are a winning move, e.g.:

  • The value of the advocated metric of change
  • The likelihood of different sorts of change
  • The kind of policy change one might get and its efficacy to compare to alternative activities
  • The impact of things like books, films, academic research, think tanks, media articles, lobbying, and many other channels of advocacy that may be better (some of which are actual contributions to knowledge, e.g. RCTs showing success for an aid intervention are powerful lobbying tools in getting public funds to those interventions, economic analysis of immigration is an important factor in debates there, etc)

Thanks for your helpful reply. Will take note of this in my response.

I'm curious about the implicit framework where some things are obligatory and some things are choices.

[-][anonymous]7y 1

I suspect the social intuition of when we consider someone obligated has at least a little to do with the level of personal sacrifice required.

As in, you are almost always obligated to be good if it the personal cost to you is nothing,and you are almost never obligated to be good if it costs you a great deal. (Which is why you are obligated to save a drowning child but you are a hero if you save the same child from a dangerous burning building.)

If Singer says we're "obligated" to be effective altruists, he's trying to transfer the social norm we have for being obligated to save drowning children because the personal cost is very slight, over to being obligated to, say, buy mosquito nets, because the personal cost is very slight.

(personal morality, divorced from social ideas of what is an obligation, of course, might widely differ)

That's also combined with whether the person is culpable. (You're obligated to clean up your mess, but you're extra good if you clean up someone elses.)

Isn't that a common distinction among philosophers? I recall that there's a technical name for it.

Yeah, and among common intuitions I think. But I thought EAs were mostly consequentialists, so the intended role of obligations is not obvious to me.

I thought EAs were mostly consequentialists

I think the survey of EAs from the start of the year picked up a few hundred non-consequentialists. It had a high %age of consequentialists, but emphasized this figure shouldn't be taken as covering all EAs out there.

Philosophers call good acts that aren't obligations 'supererogatory'.

[-][anonymous]7y 2

^ a related problem, and that page just informed me that there is a field of Public Choice Theory which might have more on this sort of thing.

(Of course, in all such problems, you still have to determine the effect of the collective action itself, in addition to the effect of your contribution on the strength of the collective action. That goes without saying, of course, for all actions.)

[-][anonymous]7y 1

One hour of time for someone high-up in the organising process could plausibly cause 100 extra people to attend the rally.

If we're talking about the impact of volunteering time to help rallies, it would be more interesting to look at the main organisers instead of the marginal person who comes, since their time is having an impact several magnitudes higher.

The problem with demonstrations is that half of the time, people demonstrate against each other's causes. Or just for causes with unclear sign or scope of impact.

The whole thing has huge overhead; it blocks the streets and disrupts everyone, and additional police have to be paid to secure the whole thing.

On the other hand, there is no doubt some demonstrations have been of great historical significance.

So make sure this is worth your time, compared to just sending 20 bucks to some random effective charity,

[-][anonymous]7y 0

A big part of effective altruism is the belief that we should use much of our time to help others. If we had to choose between 'spending time non-altruistically' and 'going to a protest for an important cause', then yes, we would have some kind of obligation to go to the protest.

However, we don't have to choose between those two options. There are many different 'altruistic' actions we can take such as helping a friend move house, earning-to-give, volunteering for a specific organisation or signing a petition on social media. Some of those actions would do a huge amount of good, while others would do almost nothing. We have an obligation to take the action which will do the 'most' good.

People within the EA community already try to spend their time altruistically. And it's unclear that going to a protest would do more good than the action they would otherwise have taken. But if you can make your case to non-effective altruists, I'd say "Go for it!"

Do EA's generally think we have an obligation to take the action which will do the 'most' good?

depends which one you ask!

[-][anonymous]7y 1

I personally think we have an obligation. And I would speculate that most EAs would at least believe that we have an 'obligation to help others effectively' in a weaker sense. But I should have been more careful in making that statement.

I agree with the point about having to consider better alternatives, but I would like to push back against the idea of total self-sacrificing commitment (not necessarily attributing it to you, but it might be read out of this conversation):

"A big part of effective altruism is the belief that we should use much of our time to help others. If we had to choose between 'spending time non-altruistically' and 'going to a protest for an important cause', then yes, we would have some kind of obligation to go to the protest."

The totalizing view that participation in effective altruism means sacrificing all one's projects whenever doing so creates more impartial value for others, is not in line with the definitions normally given, or the behavior of effective altruists.

Peter Singer gives 25% of his substantial income, and does not push the 'give until one becomes as poor as those being helped, or until this reduces one's productivity/motivation enough to reduce net donations' line these days. Giving What We Can has a 10% centerpiece standard pledge, with lower pledges available (and some higher). The wealthiest EAs contribute a large fraction of EA donations while retaining generous personal consumption budgets even when giving a large majority of their wealth.

Almost all the good done by EA comes from making modest sacrifices, and a claim that EA=giving up time and money without limit would be both hypocritical and very plausibly self-defeating.

Also see: infinite debts.

This is one reason I am so excited about Giving What We Can. Their rule is you give 10% of your income to charity, and you’re allowed in their little club and you get your name on their site as an Officially Recognized Good Person.

For years, I felt like I was probably ethically obligated to give all my income to charity, minus whatever I needed to survive. And the fact that I obviously wasn’t going to do that made me not give anything at all.

Once someone told me that my obligation wasn’t infinite, but just some finite amount like ten percent per year, every year, I was thrilled to be able to comply.