Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Join, or Die (Part 1)

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 fuelsdivestment 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.


  1. Congrats on starting a blog!

    > if collective action can produce major change, and my potential contribution is large enough, it is wrong to stay home.

    I would bet that the vast majority of self-identified EAers already agreed with this statement at the beginning of your post, despite focusing on individual action. To make a case that, as you later conclude, the EA focus on individual action is "overly narrow," you need to add a key component to your argument, which is that

    > my potential contribution is, in fact, large enough.

    My guess is that, for EAers who focus on individual rather than collective action, it's because they disagree with you on this point, not on the hypothetical above. I would love to see more support for the position that collective action participation is individually cost-effective, but it seems like you haven't touched on that here.

    1. Agreed, and thanks for reading! That will be for a later blog post. I suspect there are EAs who ignore collective action a priori, perhaps in part due to personal biases, but I could be wrong.

    2. Awesome! I look forward to reading about it.