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I’ve thought a lot about charitable giving over the past decade, both from a universalist and from a Jewish standpoint. I have a few thoughts, including about how my views have evolved over time. This is a very different perspective than many in Effective Altruism, but I think it’s important as a member of a community that benefits from being diverse rather than monolithic for those who dissent from community consensus make it clear that it’s acceptable to do so. Hopefully, this can be useful both to other people who are interested in a more Jewish perspective, and for everyone else interested in thinking about balancing different personal views with effective giving.

Background

To start, there is a strong Jewish tradition, and a legal requirement in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, for giving at least ten percent of your income to the poor and to community organizations - and for those who can afford it, ideally, a fifth of their income. (For some reason, no-one ever points out that second part.)

So I always gave a tenth of my income to charity, even before starting my first post-college job, per Jewish customary law. My parents inculcated this as a value since childhood, and a norm, and it’s one I am grateful for. (One thing I did differently than most, and credit my sister with suggesting, is putting 10% of my paycheck directly in a second account which was exclusively for charity. That money wasn’t mine, and made it much easier to both track donations, and not feel the “pain” of giving away my money.) 

My giving as a child, and as a young adult, largely centered on local Jewish organizations, poverty assistance for local poor people and the poor in Israel, and community organizations I interacted with. In the following years, I started thinking more critically about my giving, and charity to community organizations seemed in tension with a more universalist impulse, what you might call “Tikkun Olam”- a directive to improve the world as a whole. I was very conflicted about this for quite some time, but have come to some tentative conclusions, and I wanted to outline my current views, informed by a combination of the Jewish sources and my other beliefs.

Judaism vs. Utilitarians

I am lucky enough, like most people I know personally, to have significantly more money than is strictly needed to feed, clothe, and house myself and my family. The rest of the money, however, needs to be allocated - for savings, for entertainment, for community, and for charity. And my conclusion, after reflection about the question, is that those last two are separate both conceptually and as a matter of Jewish conception of charity. My synagogue is a wonderful community institution that I benefit from, and I believe it is proper to pay my fair share. And in Halacha, Jewish law, community organizations are valid recipients of charity. But there is also a strong justification for prioritizing giving to those most in need.

Utilitarian philosophers have advocated for a giving on an impartial basis, seeing a contradiction between universalism and their “selfish” impulse to justify keeping more than a minimal amount of their own money. To maximize global utility, all money over a bare minimum should go to those most in need, or otherwise be maximally impactful. In contrast, Halacha is clear that you and your family come first, and giving more than a token amount of charity must wait until your family’s needs are met. More than that, it is clearly opposed to giving more than 20% of your income under usual circumstances, i.e. short of significant excess wealth. And once you are giving to charity, Jewish sources suggest progressively growing moral circles, first giving to family in need, then neighbors, then the community. In contrast to this, Jewish law also contains a preference for helping those most in need, rather than those locally who have less need. The tension between these two ideas is left largely to personal choices about prioritizing giving.

Differently contrasting, utilitarian philosophers have advocated for a quantified evaluation of how to do the most good on an impartial basis, globally. On the other side, in medieval and earlier Jewish sources, it is clear that once needs are met, giving was concentrated on local needs, specifically food banks, the immediate needs of those forced by poverty into collecting charity and paying for the redemption of captives. But these sources predate both modern communication, and modern econometrics and notions of evaluating impact. Given all of that, I’ve argued that the two viewpoints, while incompatible, are less fundamentally opposed than they seem.

My Views

Obviously, charity is a deeply personal decision - but it’s also a key way to impact the world, and an expression of religious belief, and both are important to me. Partly due to my experience, I think it’s important to dedicate money to giving thoughtfully and in advance, rather than doing so on an ad-hoc basis - and I have done this since before hearing about Effective Altruism. But inspired by Effective Altruism and organizations like Givewell, I now dedicate 10% of my income to charities that have been evaluated for effectiveness, and which are aligned with my beliefs about charitable giving.

In contrast to the norm in effective altruism, I only partially embrace cause neutrality. I think it’s an incomplete expression of how my charity should impact the world. For that reason, I split my charitable giving between effective charities which I personally view as valuable, and deference to cause-neutral experts on the most impactful opportunities. Everyone needs to find their own balance, and I have tremendous respect for people who donate more, but I’ve been happy with my decision to limit my effective charitable giving at 10%, and beyond that, I still feel free to donate to other causes, including those that can’t be classified as effective at all.

As suggested above, community is an important part of my budget. A conclusion I came to after reflecting on the question, and grappling with effective altruism, is that separate from charitable giving, I think it’s important to pay for public goods you benefit from, both narrow ones like community organizations, and broader ones. I think it’s worth helping to fund community centers, and why I paid for NPR membership when I lived in the US, and why I pay to offset carbon emissions to reduce the harms of climate change

My Giving

For donations deferring to cause-neutral experts, I usually give via Givewell, and split my giving between their top charities, focused on validated and known effective global health programs, and their all grants fund, which also includes a variety of more speculative and diverse programs, from funding randomized controlled trials of new projects in agricultural aid and support, to lead exposure prevention and water chlorination.

For donations that are not fully cause-neutral, I still prioritize impact, but give more weight to whether they are aligned with my views. That includes Givedirectly, which directly fulfills the imperative to give charity to those in need, and which I see as more empowering of individuals than other cause-neutral impactful charities. I also donate to climate change mitigation above the level of offsetting personal carbon emissions, especially because of my views about contractarian obligation not to harm others, moral offsetting the direct harms done by my emissions, and the distributional impacts of climate change - but doing so is tricky, so I often defer to experts on how best to support emissions reductions. 

Probably most controversially, while I view existential risk reduction work as tremendously important, I don’t donate any of the 10% of my income dedicated to effective charity in order to support this work. (I do view it as a critical global priority, which is why the vast majority of my time and effort are spent on it!) Principally, my lack of donations is because I don’t view the cause area as a charitable endeavor, rather than rational self-interest for myself and my family, which has obvious benefits to the broader world. This does not make it less important, but does, in my idiosyncratic view, make it less obviously charity in the sense that I have committed to giving.

Lastly, local organizations or those where I have personal affiliations or feel responsibilities towards are also important to me - but as with existential risk, this is conceptually separate from giving charity effectively, and as I mentioned, I donate separately from the 10% dedicated to charity. I give to other organizations, including my synagogue and other local community organizations, especially charities that support the local poor around Jewish holidays, and other personally meaningful projects. But in the spirit of purchasing fuzzies separately, this is done with a smaller total amount, separate from my effective giving. I have also occasionally supported political campaigns in the US, but again, don’t see this as quite the same as charity, even though I think it’s potentially very impactful.

Conclusion

I don’t view my ideas about giving as something to promote as a universal norm, and don’t think that others should copy them exactly. I do think that it’s important to point out that people can find a balance between their personal views and their commitments to the world which are sustainable and healthy for themselves. As it was put recently, keep your identity bespoke. Hopefully, this has contributed to the discussion of balancing personal priorities and altruism, even though I expect most people to disagree with my specific conclusions.

I'd like to thank Ben Schifman and Solly Silverstein for their comments on an earlier draft.

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Probably most controversially, while I view existential risk reduction work as tremendously important, I don’t donate any of the 10% of my income dedicated to effective charity in order to support this work. (I do view it as a critical global priority, which is why the vast majority of my time and effort are spent on it!) Principally, my lack of donations is because I don’t view the cause area as a charitable endeavor, rather than rational self-interest for myself and my family, which has obvious benefits to the broader world. This does not make it less important, but does, in my idiosyncratic view, make it less obviously charity in the sense that I have committed to giving.

This is quite surprising to me. It sounds to me like you are either:

  1. not convinced of the impartial altruistic case for spending on x-risk reduction
  2. trying to factor in motivations into your giving (e.g. penalising things that you are incentivised to care about for non-altruistic reasons - maybe this is important for your definition of charitable?
  3. don't think x-risk spending is cost-effective on the current margin (but your hours are)

Do any of those sound right to you?

Thanks for engaging. Despite the fact that I don't expect this to sound convincing or fully lay out the case for anything, I'll provide a brief partial sketch of some of my tentative views in order to provide at least a degree of transparency around my reasoning - and I'm unlikely to expand on this much futher here, as I think this takes a lot of time and intensive discussion to transmit, and I have other things I should be working on.

First, I think you're accidentally assuming utilitarianism in my decisionmaking. I view my charitable giving from more of a contractualist and rights view, where the deontological requirement to impartially benefit others is only one aspect of my decisionmaking. This goes pretty deep into fundamental views and arguments which I think are going to be hard to explain quickly, or at all.

Second, my initial commitment to charity, the one that led my to commit to giving 10% of my income, was to benefit the poor impartially, as one of several goals I had - embracing what Richard Chappell has called a benificentist view. I see the money I am putting aside as some degree of stewardship of money I have allocated to charity, which is given on behalf of others. Given that commitment, to the extent that I have goals which differ from benefitting the poor, there is a very, very high bar for me to abrogate that commitment and take that money to do other things. At the very least, having come to a personal conclusion that I care about the future and view existential risk as a priority does not do enough to override that commitment.

As an aside, I'll note that it is rational for those with fewer opportunities and less access to capital to make shorter term decisions; my prioritization of my children and grandchildren is in large part because I'm comparably rich. And so the refusal to reallocate my giving of money commited to others has a lot to do with respecting preferences, even when I think they are "mistaken" - because the bar for overrising other's views in choosing how to help them should also be very, very high. And that means I would be happy to defer to a consensus of those impacted if they preferred focus on existential risk reduction. It seems clear they currently do not, even if that is due to a lack of knowledge.

Third, as an individual, I am not utilitarian, and I don't think my single goal is impartial welfare improvement - it is instead to lead a fulfilling life, and contribute to my family, my community, and the world. As laid out in the piece, I think each of these is best prioritized individually. (This is slightly related to factoring in motivations, but is distinct.) If asked to make decisions on behalf of a community or larger group, I have a deontological responsibility to them that leads to something like utilitarianism over the people who are implicated. And when pursuing impartial utilitarian goals, as one of the things I prioritize, I largely defer to the consensus among those who embrace that goal.

When asked to make decisions for the broader world, these views lead to something very, very like impartial utilitarianism - so that I think it's correct for organizations with the goal of providing impartial benefit, including the one I currently run, to embrace that view as a matter of their goals, even if not everyone who would be affected agrees to the view, even if those goals do not match my own. And when acting in that capacity, I am fulfilling my deontological duty to be a honest representative, rather than a utilitarian duty to impartially benefit the world - though as a representative of the organization, those should almost exactly match.

Thanks David, it was really interesting to read your views!

You wrote that you don't want others to copy you exactly, but I think I'm going to at least draw very heavy inspiration, as it seems like our views align closely.

In particular, I'm now considering:

  1. Opening a separate account to transfer a part of my salary to. I'm not willing to commit to 10%, but it'll still help.
  2. Giving to the All Grunts fund and not just the Top Charities fund in GiveWell. It doesn't have that much to do with my views, and more to do with misunderstanding what this fund does.
  3. Donating some part to climate funds.

Dividing my donation between GW and GiveDirectly was something I had considered anyway, but I'm glad to see this idea supported.

Lastly, I'd be happy to hear your opinion: how would you think about donating to disaster relief? E.g. I've donated to helping people hurt by earthquakes in Syria (who were being neglected back then neglected relative to victims in Turkey), and Israelis displaced by the current war. Does this come out of the effective pocket or the fuzzies pocket?

First, I'm not opposed to other drawing inspiration from my views!

Second, every time there is a disaster, I try to remind people that disaster risk mitigation is 3-10x as effective as disaster response. If you really want to give, I'd say you could support work like IPRED, rather than the red cross response teams. I don't know where specifically to give for that type of work, however, and I'd love for someone to do a deep dive on the most effective risk mitigation for disaster opportunities.

Executive summary: The author discusses his personal approach to charitable giving, which balances Jewish law, effective altruism, and other considerations. He gives 10% of his income to effective charities and additional amounts to Jewish community organizations.

Key points:

  1. Jewish law requires giving at least 10% of income to charity, ideally 20% for those who can afford it.
  2. The author splits his donations between effective, cause-neutral charities and those aligned with his Jewish values.
  3. He limits his effective giving to 10% of income, donating the rest to community organizations and other meaningful causes.
  4. His approach balances universalist effective altruism with particularist Jewish conceptions of obligation to family, community, and those in need.
  5. The author's aim is to illustrate a sustainable way to incorporate diverse considerations into one's approach to doing good.

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

I find myself in a very similar situation. I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and although no longer, I still feel a part of the broader Jewish community which has implications on my giving.

Whenever I tell my Orthodox friends about EA, I always emphasize that it isn’t a zero-sum game, and they can separate their own community and egalitarian impulses by doing both sorts of charity, keeping in mind the effective nature of EA charities.

I just wished more people would be more effective even if in terms of their own community. I typically find myself talking to people once they realizing that they should be more effective in the egalitarian impulses, but the message doesn’t seem to come through as much within their own communities.

Agreed. I was very excited, a few years ago, that a friend was able to talk to someone about having the local Tomchei Shabbos offer to pay for job certifications and similar training for people out of work and living off of those types of charity, in order to help them find jobs - as the Rambam says, this is the highest form of charity. So I think that concrete steps like this are absolutely possible, and worth pursuing if and when you can find them.

Thanks for sharing your thinking, David!

For donations deferring to cause-neutral experts, I usually give via Givewell, and split my giving between their top charities

Have you considered donating to Rethink Priorities? I would say it is much more cause-neutral than GiveWell, which only focusses on global health and development.

I think David means "giving motivated by impartiality" instead of giving to places that themselves are "cause neutral".

Thanks for the comment, Caleb. That might be the case. On the other hand, the sentence I quoted seems to suggest people at GiveWell are "cause-neutral experts", and I think this applies more to people at Rethink Priorities, which works across multiple areas, and has a Worldview Investigation Team.

I both like and deeply respect people at Rethink, and I think they are certainly worth supporting, but supporting their work is much more a form of pursuing value of information and viewpoint diversity than directly benefitting the world. (Also, I do not believe that they represent a consensus about what a cause-neutral viewpoint would be, as opposed to a principled but idiosyncratic view.)

If I were giving tens of millions of dollars, I would view non-trivial investment into VoI as a priority, but as an individual small dollar donor, I do not think that I can justify that type of investment as rationally maximizing the impact of my giving. (But there are some very interesting arguments about value of information with and without control of the decisions being made and the outcomes. See, for example, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211675322000161 and https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1584523

Yeah that seems very possible.

  1. Thought-provoking post; thanks for sharing!

  2. A bit of a tangential point, but I'm curious, because it's something I've also considered:

putting 10% of my paycheck directly in a second account which was exclusively for charity

What do you do with investment income? It's pretty intuitive that if you're "investing to give" and you have $9,000 of personal savings and $1,000 of donation-investments and they both go up 10% over a year, that you should have $9,900 of personal savings and $1,100 of donation-investments. But what would you (or do you) do differently if you put the money into the accounts, donated half of the charity account, and then ended up with $9,900 in personal savings (a $900 annual gain) and $550 in savings-for-giving (a $50 annual gain)?

I have heard at least three different suggestions for how to do this sort of accounting, but am curious what you go with, since the rest of your perspective self seems fairly intentional and considered!

That's a really interesting question, but I don't invest my charitable giving, though I do tithe my investment income, once gains are realized. My personal best guess is that in non-extinction scenarios, humanity's wealth increases in the long-term, and opportunities to do good should in general become more expensive, so it's better to put money towards the present.

Makes total sense not to invest in the charitable side -- I'm generally off a similar mind.[1] The reason I'm curious is that "consider it as two separate accounts" is the most-compelling argument I've seen against tithing investment gains. (The argument is basically, that if both accounts were fully-invested, then tithing gains from the personal account to the charity account leads to a total 4:1 ratio between them as withdrawal_time -> ∞, not a 9:1 ratio.[2] Then, why does distribution out of the charity account affect the 'right' additional amount to give out of the personal account?)

Another way to count it is, if you believe that the returns on effective charity  are greater than private investments returns  and so always make donations asap, then tithing  at the start and  after  years is worse for both accounts than just giving say  up-front (and giving  of the further investment gains).

Probably this is most relevant to startup employees, who might receive "$100,000 in equity" that they only can sell when it later exits for, say, 10x that. Should a 10% pledge mean $10,000 up-front and $90,000 of the exit (10% when paid + 10% of gains), or just $100,000 of the exit (10% went to the charity account, then exited)?[3]

(Sorry, don't mean to jump on your personal post with this tangent -- am happy to chat if you find this interesting to think about, but also can write my own post about it on my own time if not

  1. ^

    The one case where I do think investment can sense is where I want to direct the funding to accelerating the program of a for-profit company, eg in biotech, and the right way to do so is via direct investment. I do think there are such cases that can be on the frontier of most-effective in EV terms (and for them I only count it as effective giving if I precommit to re-giving any proceeds, without re-counting it as a donation for pledge purposes).

  2. ^

    Consider receiving $1,000 in salary, splitting it $100 : $900 between the accounts, investing each so they grow 10x and become $1,000 : $9,000, then realizing the personal investment gains and tithing $800 on them. Now the accounts are $1,800 : $8,200, which seems a lot more like "giving 18%" than "giving 10%"!

  3. ^

    If the correct baseline is "10% of the exit", should this be any different from the case of a salary worker who makes the $100,000 in cash and puts it in an index fund until it [10x]s? Or what about a professional trader who "realizes gains" frequently with daily trading, but doesn't take any of the money out until after many iterations?

This is a super interesting point, and I'm completely unsure what it should imply for what I actually do, especially since returns are uncertain and prepaying at a discount under possible bankruptcy / extinction risk at an uncertain rate is hard - all of which (probably unfortunately) means I'm just going to keep doing the naive thing I've done so far.

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