The Moral Obligation to Organize

by scottweathers 16th Feb 201718 comments


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.