Generosity & Tzedakah

So I was reading the comments on a post someone in the EA scene had made encouraging people to chip in and help out a friend financially, and went YIKES ALL THE CRINGES.1

It makes me feel even more strongly about multiple categories of “charity”, and the right terminology for myself crystallized as I was thinking about this. In my mind it’s the difference between “tzedakah”, which is a mitzvah/dedication I have to making the world better and where EA analysis is really important, and “generosity”, which is about being kind to the people around me.

Generosity is when my friend’s family has a health crisis and I come over with $100 worth of takeout and frozen food. It’s also generosity when I support my local arts and/or religious communities, and when I go out of my way to financially support free media. Generosity is good and we should feel good about it. It’s one of the ways we live our values. It can be personal and subjective and can be about feelings as much as ROI. In fact, it is inherently subjective, and the right specific generous acts should be different for different people, because they are distributed like tastes, interests, friendships, communities, and other personal attachments.

Tzedakah is deciding to donate 10% of my income to saving lives in the developing world, and doing my research to make sure it’s doing as much good as possible. Tzedakah is saying BED NETS BED NETS BED NETS. Tzedakah is a sense of urgency to make the world better for people I will never meet and who will never know or care about me personally.2 Tzedakah isn’t a corner I want to cut to buy something nice for myself.3

So for me, the important thing I learned from EA wasn’t “don’t donate to the arts”, it was”don’t let my generosity interfere with my tzedakah by confusing the two”. I give money to bloggers I respect because it’s one of the ways I live my values, but I’ve stopped thinking of it as tzedakah because it’s not in the same category as saving lives, and I don’t want to do the former instead of the latter. Some things that are called “donations” are in the same category as being generous with my friends and family. Acts of generosity come out of my general budget for spending money on myself, not at the expense of tzedakah.

Back to the situation that had me cringing: this was a call for generosity, and if people didn’t want to do this specific generous thing they should be able to just not do it. (That’s totally fine and they shouldn’t be shamed for not automatically making someone else’s generous cause their own.) But helping a community member in need is supposed to be subjective, and unless you think people should never be generous, saying very unkind versions of “but this isn’t as good as bed nets” in response to a call for generosity is just harmful and missing the point. If you don’t want to do it, just don’t do it.

I didn’t bring my friend frozen food because I thought it would save more lives than Bed Nets, so there’s no misunderstanding anyone needs to jump in and correct in the name of EA; I actually understood quite well that this was not the optimal lives saved per dollar, I just wanted to make the week easier for some people I love. Good thing it in no way diminished how much money I actually donate to Bed Nets. 4


  1. Maybe I am at least in part cringing because I’m just not wild about debating the ethics of someone else in public where they are reading it but not at all trying to be kind or aware of their reading? 
  2. Maimonides’ prioritization of anonymous tzedakah as more virtuous resonates with me here, because it’s not about the personal relationship. 
  3. I’m struggling to articulate this well so I’ll put it in the footnote: It has the emotional resonance of justice, not kindness
  4. Afterthought: Personally I think both generosity and tzedakah are genuinely giving acts but also ones that can be motivated by ego, identity, status, etc, and even if there are empirical differences of degree they are in the same ballpark as each other in this respect. So I don’t think one of them is the “real” “altruism”, but I do think they are two different impulses that should be thought about different ways. 
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