EA for Jews

Effective altruism for jews

Cause areas

People in the EA movement have thought hard about how to do the most good.  There are so many problems; what causes do we think are best to work on?  

Ea for jews

There are many problems in the world

Around 700 million people live on less than $2 per day. Millions die from preventable diseases like malaria. Climate change and disruptive new technologies have the potential to harm billions of people in the future. Billions of animals, who may deserve serious moral concern, spend their lives suffering in factory farms. 

There are so many problems that we need to think carefully about which ones we should prioritize solving. The cause that you choose to work on is a big factor in how much good you can do. If you choose a cause where it’s not possible to help very many people (or animals), or where there just aren’t any good ways to solve the relevant problems, you will significantly limit the amount of impact you can have.

How do those in the effective altruism movement figure out which causes we should focus on, either to donate to or to work on directly through your career or volunteer work?

How do those in the effective altruism movement figure out which causes we should focus on?


How many lives are affected?


How much will extra resources help solve the problem?


How many others are already working on the problem?

Ea for jews

Three-factor framework

Researchers have found the following framework to be useful: Working on a cause is likely to be high impact to the extent that it is:

  • Great in scale (they affect many people’s lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly tractable (extra resources will do a great deal to address the problem), and
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing them).

On the basis of this reasoning, there are several cause areas that appear particularly likely to be high-impact. These choices are not immutable. They simply represent best guesses about where we can have the most impact, given the evidence currently available. As new evidence comes to light that suggests different causes are more promising, we should consider working on those instead. It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if a person is motivated to choose a good cause rather than the best cause, their impact can still be much larger than it might have been.

We’ll discuss three main areas. We start with the more intuitive area of global poverty, then turn to work to improve animal welfare. Finally, we look into less intuitive, but possibly more impactful, work to improve the long-term future.

Ea for jews

Fighting extreme poverty

Many in the effective altruism movement are focused on reducing extreme poverty and the public health challenges that the poor face.  Though we have made much progress in fighting poverty in the last few decades, unfortunately, preventable diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and parasitic worms, kill millions of people every year. Also, poor nutrition in developing countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects and growth stunting.

Much of this suffering can be relatively easily prevented or mitigated. Antimalarial bed nets cost around $2.50 each. But GiveWell, an independent charity evaluator, estimates that they can significantly reduce malaria rates. Even simply transferring money to people who are very poor is a relatively cost-effective way of helping people.

Not only does improving health avert the direct suffering associated with sickness and death, it also allows people to participate more fully in education and work. Consequently, they earn more money, and have more opportunities later in life.

The importance of helping the poor is also a central tenet in Judaism. The Torah instructs us: “do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” and includes the command “open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.” Deuteronomy 15: 4, 11.  And if our poor brothers reside “in any of your towns within your land which God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them, and lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever they may be.” Deuteronomy 15: 7-8.

Ea for jews

Reducing animal suffering

There is a long history of concern for the welfare of animals in Judaism, beginning with the Torah itself which calls for animals to be allowed to rest on Shabbat alongside humans (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).  The Torah also prohibits dismembering a living animal, cooking a kid in its mother’s milk and taking eggs or chicks from a nest while the mother bird is present (Deuteronomy 22:6) as well as unduly cruel methods of slaughter. Within the Talmud, this prohibition against unnecessary cruelty is called tza’ar ba’alei chayim: the suffering of animals.

Preventing cruelty to animals is of such importance that the Talmud allows a person to break certain laws of Shabbat in order to prevent the death of an animal that has fallen into a pool of water (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 128b).  The 12th or 13th century Sefer Chasidim states: “Be kind and compassionate to all creatures that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in this world. Never beat nor inflict pain on any animal, beast, or bird, or insect. Do not throw stones at a dog or a cat.” The 16th century Code of Jewish Law (Schulchan Aruch) clearly states that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature….” 

Anyone concerned with unnecessary suffering of animals is likely concerned about the advent of industrialised agriculture. With the rise of factory farms, tens of billions of animals are kept in profoundly inhumane conditions and killed in inhumane ways–many in fact never make it to slaughter but die due to disease and neglect.  Many effective altruists believe reducing the suffering of animals should be a priority. Because of the huge numbers of animals involved, making progress on this issue could avert a very large amount of suffering.

Especially given the scale of the problem, animal welfare also seems extremely neglected. Only 3% of philanthropic funding in the US is split between the environment and animals, while 97% goes toward helping humans. And even within the funding spent on animal welfare, only about 1% goes towards farmed animals, despite the extreme suffering they endure. 

Ea for jews

Preventing catastrophic and existential risks and improving the long term future

Jews are more familiar that most with thinking about catastrophic and existential risks–as the overused joke goes, all Jewish holidays (or at least Hanukah, Purim and Passover) are based on the same premise: “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat”.    

Climate change and nuclear war are well-known risks that could manifest into truly massive catastrophes, even threatening the very survival of the Jewish people–and all other peoples.  But unfortunately these aren’t the only such catastrophic or existential risks–there are many ways that humanity’s long-term future could be in jeopardy.  Many researchers believe that risks from emerging technologies, such as advanced artificial intelligence and designed pathogens, may be even more worrying. Of course, it’s hard to be sure exactly how technologies will develop, or the impact they will have. But it seems that these technologies have the potential to radically shape the course of progress over the centuries to come.

Because of the scale of the future, it seems likely that the best opportunities in this area will be even more impactful than those in the the previous two cause areas.  And yet, existential risks stemming from new technologies have been surprisingly neglected. There are probably just a few hundred people in the world who work on risks from AI or engineered pathogens.

US households spend around 2% of their budgets on personal insurance, on average. If we were to spend a comparable percentage of global resources on addressing risks to civilization, there would be millions of people working on these problems, with a budget of trillions of dollars per year. But instead, we spend just a tiny fraction of that amount, even though such risks may become substantial in the decades to come.

If we value protection against unlikely but terrible outcomes individually, as our insurance coverage suggests we do, we should also value protection against terrible outcomes collectively. After all, a collective terrible outcome, like human extinction, is terrible for everyone individually, too. For this reason, it seems prudent for our civilization to spend more time and money mitigating existential risks.

Ea for jews

Many other causes

There are many other potentially promising causes (see here and here) that, while not currently the primary focuses of the effective altruism community, are plausible candidates for having a big impact. And of course the effective altruism community is not dogmatic about causes but as discussed above always seeks to use reason and evidence to continuously evaluate which causes are most pressing at the moment.  Causes that many in the effective altruism community also seek to work on include:

Of course, it’s likely that we have overlooked some very important causes. So one way to have a huge impact might be to find an opportunity to do good that’s potentially high-impact, but that others may have overlooked. For this reason, global priorities research is another key cause area.