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.
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.
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
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.
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.