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.

Comments (16)

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 17 February 2017 12:12:10AM *  6 points [-]

I broadly agree with this and am often pleased to see people go into party politics, government bureaucracies or advocacy on particular policy areas. The skills and connections they gain will hopefully be useful in the long term.

The interesting questions remaining to me here are: i) how much leverage do you get through political engagement vs direct work, aiming to include in your sample people who try and fail; ii) how worrying is it to find yourself working on a controversial issue, both because you'll have to fight against opponents and because you might be on the wrong side. Tough questions to answer!

Comment author: the_jaded_one 19 February 2017 10:39:42AM *  12 points [-]

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

I agree that EAs should look much more broadly at ways to do good, but I feel like doing political stuff to do good is a trap, or at least is full of traps.

Why do humans have politics? Why don't we just fire all the politicians and have a professional civil service that just does what's good?

  • Because people have different goals or values, and if a powerful group ends up in control of the apparatus of the state and pushes its agenda very hard and pisses a lot of people off, it is better to have that group ousted in an election than in a civil war.

But the takeaway is that politics is the arena in which we discuss ideas where different people in our societies disagree on what counts as good, and as a result it is a somewhat toxic arena with relatively poor intellectual standards. It strongly resists good decision-making and good quality debate, and strongly encourages rhetoric. EA needs to take sides in this like I need more holes in my head.

I think it would be fruitful for EA to get involved in politics, but not by taking sides; I get the impression that the best thing EAs can do is try to find pareto improvements that help both sides, and by making issues that are political into nonpolitical issues by de-ideologizing them and finding solutions that make everyone happy and make the world a better place.

Take a leaf out of Elon Musks's book. The right wing in the USA is engaging in some pretty crazy irrationality and science denial about global warming. Many people might see this as an opportunity to score points against the right, but global warming will not be solved by political hot air, it will be solved by making fossil fuels economically marginal or nonviable in most applications. In particular, we need to reduce car related emissions to near zero. So Musks goes and builds fast, sexy macho cars in factories in the USA which provide tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs for blue collar US workers, and emphasizes them as innovative, forward looking and pro-US. Our new right wing president is lapping it up. This is what effective altruism in politics looks like: the rhetoric ("look at these sexy, innovative US-made cars!") is in service of the goal (eliminating gasoline cars and therefore eventually CO2 emissions), not the other way around.

And if you want to see the opposite, go look at this. People are cancelling their Tesla orders because Musk is "acting as a conduit to the rise of white nationalism and fascism in the United States". Musk has an actual solution to a serious problem, and people on the political left want to destroy it because it doesn't conform perfectly to their political ideology. Did these people stop to think about whether this nascent boycott makes sense from a consequentialist perspective? As in, "let's delay the solution to a pressing global problem in order to mildly inconvenience our political enemy"?

Collaborating with existing social justice movements

I would personally like to see EA become more like Elon Musk and less like Buzzfeed. The Trump administration and movement is a bit like a screaming toddler; it's much easier to deal with by distracting it with it's favorite toys ("Macho! Innovative! Made in the US!") than by trying to start an argument with it. How can we find ways to persuade the Trump administration - or any other popular right wing regime - that doing good is in its interest and conforms to its ideology? How can we sound right wing enough that the political right (who currently hold all the legislative power in the US) practically thinks they thought of our ideas themselves?

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 22 February 2017 11:06:44AM 2 points [-]

I agree with much of this. Prior to joining CEA, I worked a bit on the bipartisan issue of how to make politics more rational (1, 2, 3, 4). I still think this is a wortwhile area, though my main focus right now is on other areas.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 16 February 2017 11:56:36PM 4 points [-]

I looked a bit at the expected value of campaigning for Hillary in "How Should I Spend My Time" and came away thinking the cost-effectiveness and career capital value looked pretty low. As such, I've mostly deprioritized political work.

However, I'm open to reconsidering. The estimate I made definitely has very wide error bars and could easily be anywhere from very positive to quite net negative. I also could see that targeted legislative lobbying might improve cost-effectiveness, confidence in the impact being positive, and career capital. Definitely worth re-investigating and I'm glad some EAs are looking at this.

Comment author: SophieHermanns 18 February 2017 11:25:05PM 1 point [-]

One of the benefits of political organizing is that many people can do it in a way that mostly uses their free time, rather than their productive time. Calling a political representative, going to a protest or hosting a meeting are all activities most people can do on top of their careers and donations. The relative costs and benefits here will be different for different people - if political organizing would cut into time and energy you would otherwise spend on e.g. EA research projects, it might not be worth it for you.

Comment author: MatthewDahlhausen 17 February 2017 04:59:33AM 7 points [-]

Key article from this forum: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/is/how_valuable_is_movement_growth/ Developing positive impressions of EA is much more important than near-term growth. If we align with partisan political causes, we risk greatly limiting the eventual scope and impact of EA. Because our movement goal is inherently very different (long term size and positive impression, vs. immediate policy changes), I don't think the organizing knowledge is transferable/useful. Also, much of organizing around left the left is founded in a justice as the core value framework, rather than an impact as the core value framework. There are many posts/arguments in the social justice community explicitly arguing against impact (e.g. arguing against metrics for charity) because these can undermine more speculative causes and deprioritize grassroots/marginalized activists. If we align EA with these movements, we risk undermining the core quantitive and utilitarian values in EA. Because of these risks to EA, I'm partial a firewall between EA and social justice themed organizing, meaning EA orgs do not endorse partisan political causes. This isn't to say EAs should never participate in politics. As you pointed out, there is a lot in international aid that is nonpartisan or very weakly partisan, and the good from doing so is likely to overcoming the risks above.
If we engage in more controversial leftists political causes, EA work would be better spent in cause research, rather than direct political activism. Also, we can prioritize implementing laws that are already passed more effectively, rather than proposing new partisan legislation. This was the aim of the EA policy analytics project. I echo the above comments that elevating organizing to an "obligation" is inappropriate given the speculative nature of impact and possible externalities.

Comment author: SophieHermanns 19 February 2017 12:10:09AM 3 points [-]

The way we’ve been thinking about this is less “EA as a movement/community endorses cause X” and more individual EAs engaging in political work that seems valuable to them. Many EAs did phone canvassing for Hillary Clinton or attended women’s marches around Trump’s inauguration, all without there being some official EA position on US politics. I think EAs are actually remarkably good at disagreeing with each other - we already respect that we support different causes and make different career and lifestyle choices. EAs canvassing in the US election didn’t lead to fallouts within the community between Sanders, Clinton or Republican supporters.

There could be quite high value in EAs engaging people who work in social justice, precisely because of some the disagreements you mentioned. I work a lot with people who would describe themselves as committed to social justice and I find that although there are things I find irritating (like disregard for quantitative approaches) there’s also lots of common ground: wanting to alleviate suffering, willingness to make personal sacrifices for causes, convergence on particular policy issues. Working with them and constructively making a case for eg. more evidence-based approaches could be productive. Plus, I’ve definitely learned, too, from being exposed to very different ways of thinking about issues I care about.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 17 February 2017 06:40:18AM *  2 points [-]

I'm gonna half-agree with this. I agree that we shouldn't in general as a community align with (or against) social justice causes, at least not in America.

I think there are many issues where taking a partisan view is still a good idea, though. I think we should align with the left on climate change, for example.

Comment author: the_jaded_one 18 February 2017 06:32:05PM *  1 point [-]

I think we should align with the left on climate change, for example.

re: climate change, it would be really nice if we could persuade the political right (and left) that climate change is apolitical and that it is just a generally sensible thing to tackle it, like building roads is apolitical and just generally sensible.

Technology is on our side here: electric cars are going mainsteam, wind and solar are getting better. I believe that we have now entered a regime where climate change will fix itself as humanity naturally switches over to clean energy, and the best thing that politics can do is get out of the way.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 21 February 2017 01:49:39AM 2 points [-]

In an ideal world, it would be apolitical, but that's not the world we live in. Actually, the same is true about building roads - investments in infrastructure is a liberal cause. Consider how Obama proposed a massive investment in infrastructure, which Republicans rejected. When Trump proposed investing in infrastructure, Democrats implied this was one of the only areas where they would go along with him, but then other Republicans were against it and pressured him to change course on this.

Comment author: the_jaded_one 23 February 2017 08:01:05PM 0 points [-]

I think we can push issues towards being less political by reframing them and persuading others to reframe them.

Abortion, gun control, tax rate - these issues are so central to the left-right political divide that they will never be depoliticized.

Climate change is not like them IMO. I think it can be pushed away from the political left-right axis if it can be reframed so that doing something about climate change is no longer seen as supporting left-wing ideas about big government. There is an angle about efficiency, fairness & cutting red tape (carbon tax) and another angle about innovation and industry (e.g. Tesla). I think we should be pushing those very hard.

Comment author: Daniel_Eth 17 February 2017 02:16:11AM *  3 points [-]

I broadly agree with what's written here, but I take issue with the idea of any "moral obligation." First, it seems to suppose some threshold of morality that needs to be passed, but after which there is less imperative to do good - that doesn't align with my personal views of morality. Second, I think it's a pretty ineffective way of convincing people to do good ("hey, we have an opportunity to do a lot of good and be heroes!" seems more convincing than "you have an obligation to do good or else you're a jerk!").

I agree we should consider how other movements (like Black Lives Matter, feminism, or social justice) have grown, but I think these particular movements also point out some pitfalls we might want to avoid. In particular, it seems like value drift over time, not to mention lack of specific goals due to poor coordination, are issues some of those movements have experienced.

Comment author: SophieHermanns 18 February 2017 11:31:40PM 1 point [-]

Definitely agree that “opportunity to do good” is more convincing than “obligation to do good”. What we meant here wasn’t that everyone has a moral obligation to organize, though I can see that formulation wasn’t super clear. The idea behind “obligation to organize” is something analogous to the GWWC pledge or joining 80,000 hours: a formal commitment EAs can make to do good in a particular way.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 17 February 2017 08:47:03AM 2 points [-]

I think a potential fallacy in cargo culting on larger movements is the tendency to treat selected-for processes as if they were designed, and as a result believing that the causal explanations of their efficacy will be neatly organized along some legible abstraction level.

Comment author: Sanjay 16 February 2017 11:55:54PM 1 point [-]

There's plenty in this post that I agree with, in particular "Political organizing is a highly accessible way for many EAs to have a potentially high impact". I also appreciate that many EAs would like to use their spare time effectively, and this may provide a potential avenue for that.

However I question whether "moral obligation" is really right here. When Toby Ord wrote about the Moral Imperative towards cost-effectiveness, he was arguing for actions which I think were almost certain to be right (i.e. almost certain to make the world a better place) - hence the moral imperative.

However there are lots of ways that lobbying or other political actions could have unforeseen consequences, and could lead to net negative outcomes.

Comment author: scottweathers 02 March 2017 07:10:13PM 0 points [-]

Great point! We are uncertain about the "obligation" part, absolutely. We would love it if other folks would think about the exact nature of the responsibility/obligation/etc. to organize. While I agree that there may not be any obligation to organize, specifically, I think there is decent evidence that it is among the most high-impact activities we can take. Given that I do believe in an obligation to high-impact things, I think we should strongly consider it.