how sam bankman fried put effective altruism on the defensive

How Sam Bankman-Fried Put Effective Altruism on the Defensive

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“Earning to give” has its roots in the work of the radical utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, whose 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality” has been a foundational E.A. text. It contains his parable of the drowning child: If you’re walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning, you should wade in and save the child, even if it means muddying your clothes. Extrapolating from that principle suggests that if you can save a life by donating an amount of money that won’t pose any significant problems for you, a decision not to donate that money would be not only uncharitable or ungenerous but morally wrong.

Singer has also written his own book about effective altruism, “The Most Good You Can Do” (2015), in which he argues that going into finance would be an excellent career choice for the aspiring effective altruist. He acknowledges the risks for harm, but he deems them worth it. Chances are, if you don’t become a charity worker, someone else will ably do the job; whereas if you don’t become a financier who gives his money away, who’s to say that the person who does become a financier won’t hoard all his riches for himself?

Still, some people need to become philosopher-influencers in order to spread the word. “Will isn’t in finance,” Singer writes, referring specifically to MacAskill. “That’s because he believes that if he can influence two other people with earning capacities similar to his own to earn to give, he will have done more good than if he had gone into finance himself.”

Or maybe not. On Nov. 11, when FTX filed for bankruptcy amid allegations of financial impropriety, MacAskill wrote a long Twitter thread expressing his shock and his anguish, as he wrestled in real time with what Bankman-Fried had wrought.

“If those involved deceived others and engaged in fraud (whether illegal or not) that may cost many thousands of people their savings, they entirely abandoned the principles of the effective altruism community,” MacAskill wrote in a Tweet, followed by screenshots from “What We Owe the Future” and Ord’s “The Precipice” that emphasized the importance of honesty and integrity.

I’m guessing that Bankman-Fried may not have read the pertinent parts of those books — if, that is, he read any parts of those books at all. “I would never read a book,” Bankman-Fried said earlier this year. “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that.”

Avoiding books is an efficient method for absorbing the crudest version of effective altruism while gliding past the caveats. In the paperback edition of “Superintelligence,” which laid out a framework for thinking about a robot apocalypse, Bostrom delivers the equivalent of a warning label to “those whose lives have become so busy that they have ceased to actually read the books they buy, except perhaps for a glance at the table of contents and the stuff at the front and toward the back.”

But the books themselves may have incentivized blind spots of their own. For all of MacAskill’s galaxy-brain disquisitions on “A.I. takeover” and the “moral case for space settlement,” perhaps the E.A. fixation on “neglectedness” and existential risks made him less attentive to more familiar risks — human, banal and closer to home.