Will synagogues shun ‘effective altruism’ movement after Sam Bankman-Fried scandal?
Maximum-impact giving to save lives in the developing world has caught on among Reform Jews in particular, but the scandal involving one high-profile supporter is tainting optics
JTA — A few years ago, Adam Azari was frustrated over how little he could do to alleviate suffering in the world with his modest income as a writer and caretaker for people with disabilities.
He kept thinking about a set of statistics and ideas he had encountered during his graduate studies in philosophy. For example, he remembered reading that for the price of training a guide dog for the blind in the United States, one could prevent hundreds of cases of blindness in the developing world.
This hyper-rational way of thinking about doing good was called effective altruism, and it was growing into a movement, known as E.A. for short. Some proponents were even opting to pursue lucrative careers in finance and tech that they otherwise might not have chosen so they would have more money to give away.
Azari, meanwhile, had become a believer who was stuck on the sidelines. Then, one day, he had what he calls a “personal eureka moment.” Azari would return to his roots as the son of a Reform rabbi in Tel Aviv and spread the word of E.A. across the Jewish denomination and among its millions of followers.
“It suddenly hit me that the Reform movement has this crazy untapped potential to save thousands and thousands of lives by simply informing Jews about effective giving,” he recalled.
He badgered his father, Rabbi Meir Azari, and, for a moment, thought of becoming a rabbi himself. But he abandoned the idea and focused on pitching E.A. to the Reform movement’s international arm, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Azari found an ally in WUPJ’s president, Rabbi Sergio Bergman, and the organization soon decided to sponsor his efforts, paying him a salary for his work.
Over the past year, Azari’s Jewish Effective Giving Initiative has presented to about 100 rabbis and secured pledges from 37 Reform congregations to donate at least $3,000 to charities rated as the most impactful by E.A. advocates and which aid poor people in the developing world. Per E.A. calculations, it costs $3,000 to $5,000 to save a single life.
“Progressive Judaism inspires us to carry out tikkun olam, our concrete action to make the world better and repair its injustices,” Bergman said. “With this call we not only do what the heart dictates in values, but also do it effectively to be efficient and responsible for saving a life.”
This charitable philosophy appears to be gaining traction in the Jewish world just as one of the figures most associated with it, who happens to be Jewish, has become engulfed in scandal.
Sam Bankman-Fried built a cryptocurrency empire worth billions, amassing a fortune he pledged to give away to causes such as artificial intelligence, combatting biohazards and climate change, all selected on criteria developed by the proponents of effective altruism.
A few weeks ago, Bankman-Fried’s fortune evaporated amid suspicions of financial misconduct and revelations of improper oversight at his company, FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange that was worth as much as $32 billion before a run of withdrawals ultimately left it illiquid. The situation has drawn comparisons to the implosion of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and authorities investigating the situation have said Bankman-Fried could face criminal penalties over his role.
In the wake of FTX’s collapse, Bankman-Fried has suggested that his embrace of E.A. was insincere, a tactic to bolster his reputation.
But Azari and the organizer of another initiative, a growing reading and discussion group called Effective Altruism for Jews, are undaunted and don’t believe the scandal should taint the underlying principles of the movement.
Whether you call it E.A. or just directly donating to global health and development, it doesn’t matter. The basic idea is to support these wonderful charities, and I don’t think the FTX scandal changes any of that
“Whether you call it E.A. or just directly donating to global health and development, it doesn’t matter,” Azari said. “The basic idea is to support these wonderful charities, and I don’t think the FTX scandal changes any of that. Malaria nets, vitamin A supplements and vaccine distribution are still super cost-effective, evidence-based ways of helping others.”
Azari added that he has had several meetings with rabbis since the news about Bankman-Fried broke and that no one has asked him about it.
“I don’t think people are making the connection,” he said. “And to me, there is no connection between us and FTX.”
When talking to rabbis about why E.A. would make a good fit with their congregation’s charitable mission, Azari cites the Jewish value of tikkun olam, a mandate to “repair the world” often used to implore people to care for others. He explains that donating to charities with a proven track record is a concrete way to fulfill a Jewish responsibility.
That kind of thinking proved attractive to Steven Pinker, the prominent Harvard psychologist, who has endorsed Azari’s initiative. In a recorded discussion with Azari and others last year, Pinker recalled his Reform upbringing, which included Hebrew school, summer camp and synagogue services.
“The thing I remember most is how much of my so-called religious education was like a university course in moral philosophy,” Pinker said. “We chewed over moral dilemmas.”
As an adult, Pinker returned to Jewish teachings on charity and, in particular, those of the medieval philosopher Maimonides, examining these ideas through the lens of E.A. He began to wonder about the implications of Maimonides’ focus on evaluating charity based on the motives of the donor. That focus, he concluded, doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes for the beneficiary.
“What ultimately ought to count in tzedakah, in charity, is, are you making people better off?” he said.
What ultimately ought to count in tzedakah, in charity, is, are you making people better off?
Also on the panel with Azari and Pinker was the man credited with authoring the foundational texts upon which E.A. is built. Peter Singer, who is also Jewish and whose grandfather died in the Holocaust, teaches bioethics at Princeton. Starting in the 1970s, Singer wrote a series of books in which he argues for a utilitarian approach to ethics, namely, that we should forgo luxuries and spend our money to save lives. The extremes to which he has taken his thinking include suggesting that parents of newborn babies with severe disabilities be permitted to kill them.
From Bankman-Fried to Singer, the list of Jews who have either promoted E.A. or lead its institutions is long. With their estimated fortune of $11.3 billion, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna have eclipsed Bankman-Fried as the wealthiest Jews in the field. There’s also popular philosopher Sam Harris and New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, who have each dedicated episodes of their podcast to the topic.
The website LessWrong, which defines itself as “a community blog devoted to refining the art of rationality,” is seen as an important early influence; it was founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky, an artificial intelligence researcher who grew up in a Modern Orthodox household but does not identify religiously as a Jew anymore. Two other Jews, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, left the hedge fund world to establish GiveWell, a group whose research is considered the premier authority on which charities are deserving of E.A. donations.
The prevalence of Jews in the movement caught the attention of E.A. enthusiast Ben Schifman, an environmental lawyer for the federal government in Washington, DC. About two years ago, Schifman proposed creating a group for like-minded individuals in hope of helping grow the movement. In an online post, he laid out the history of Jewish involvement and wrote a brief introduction to the topic of Judaism and charity.
Today, Schifmam runs a group called Effective Altruism for Jews, whose main program is an eight-week fellowship involving a reading and discussion group with designated facilitators. Schifman said about 70 people spread across 10 cohorts are currently participating. There’s also a Shabbat dinner program to bring people together for informal meetings with funding available for hosts.
Participants discuss how ideas that are popular in E.A. might relate to Jewish traditions and concepts, and also brainstorm ways to popularize the movement in the wider Jewish community, according to Schifman.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with regards to the Jewish community and sharing some of the ideas of Effective Altruism, like through giving circles at synagogues or, during the holidays, offering charities that are effective,” Schifman said in an interview that took place before the Bankman-Fried scandal broke.
Asked to discuss the mood in the community following the collapse of Bankman-Fried’s company and an affiliated charity, FTX Future Fund, Schifman provided a brief statement expressing continued confidence in his project.
He said, “While we’re shocked by the news and our hearts go out to all those affected, as an organization EA for Jews isn’t funded by FTX Future Fund or otherwise connected to FTX. We don’t expect our work will be impacted.”
Even if Schifman and Azari are right that their movement is robust enough to withstand the downfall of a leading evangelist, a debate remains about what impact E.A. can or should have on philanthropy itself.
Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, wrote about the question with skepticism in an article published more than two years ago. He argued against “uncritically importing the values and assumptions” of effective altruists, whose emphasis on the “cold light of reason” struck him as detached from human nature.
In a recent interview, Spokoiny echoed similar concerns, noting that applying pure rationality to all charitable giving would mean the end of cherished programs such as PJ Library, which supplies children’s books for free to Jewish families, that may not directly save lives but do contribute to a community’s culture and sense of identity.
He also worries that too strong a focus on evidence of impact would steer money away from new ideas.
“Risky, creative ideas don’t tend to emerge from rational needs assessments,” he said. “It requires a transformative vision that goes beyond that.”
But Spokoiny also sounded more open to E.A. and said that as long as it does not try to replace traditional modes of philanthropy, it could be a useful tool of analysis for donors.
“If donors want to apply some of E.A. principles to their work, I’d say that is a good idea,” he said. “I am still waiting to see if this will be a fad or buzzword or something that will be incorporated into the practice of philanthropy.”
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