In Defense of Effective Altruism
SBF’s fraudulent empire was not motivated by this philosophy
In recent weeks Effective Altruism has made a somewhat unfortunate appearance in mainstream news as billionaire Sam Bankman Fried and his crew of crypto kids were exposed as (allegedly) incompetent fraudsters, who (allegedly) stole FTX customer funds to prop up their failing quant fund. Fried, who became famous as crypto’s golden boy for his image of being an aloof and philanthropic tech genius, was a big public supporter of the Effective Altruism movement. Political and financial pundits pounced on this like hungry sharks smelling blood in the water, describing the hubris and moral decrepitude of this “left wing, utopian ideology”. As so often happens, armchair psychotherapists began to publicly speculate about the ultimate reason for the fraud and crimes committed here, and arrived at a simple solution: Effective Altruism is a philosophy that justifies all manner of immoral behaviour, because its adherents are absolved of sin due to their efforts for “The Greater Good”. Thus EA becomes synonymous with an “ends justify the means” view, and is compared to the horrors of communism.
Problem solved; we’ve found our scapegoat. Now we must slay this imagined evil in order to achieve societal catharsis! Rene Girard is once again vindicated, showing that we are sometimes more spirited animal than rational agent. This scapegoating of ideology, cause, or group is expected, as it appears everywhere in human society, but I will try here to show that it is wrong. The scapegoat, Effective Altruism, does not deserve credit for the (alleged) crimes of Sam Bankman Fried, nor are it’s philosophical and moral underpinnings necessarily ‘utopian’, or ‘left-wing’ in nature.
Before I ever heard of Effective Altruism, I remember reading Peter Singer’s essays on moral philosophy as part of my studies. He made somewhat wild and often outrageous claims that were nonetheless very difficult to disprove. These essays ranged from discussions of animal welfare, to claims about our complicity in the preventable deaths of children far away. An example that stuck in my mind was that of a local art museum raising money for a new annex. We can imagine such a museum raising $100 million such that it may have more space to display modern art pieces. However, let us assume that we can save the life of a child in Africa for just $1,000. The money we spend on some local architecture could therefore save approximately 100,000 children. The question is at what point it becomes positively immoral to spend the money on a museum instead of these dying kids?
What Peter Singer very effectively shows is that most reasons typically given for why this example is flawed, are circumstantial and weak. People may object that giving money to charity simply causes corruption, or that the money never actually arrives at the desired location, or is stolen by officials. That is, people doubt the validity of the charity claim, rather than doubting its moral implication, because it is much easier to do so.
At the end of the day, we tend to think of ourselves are fairly moral agents, and this belief is difficult to square with the fact that we stand idly by while millions of innocent children suffer, when we in fact have the means to help them. We are confronted with our own moral blinders, which allow us to see only our immediate surroundings, rather than the larger community or the world.
It is easy to see why. First, we can tell a story about evolutionary psychology and how we are not designed to care about the woes of those outside of our tribe. Therefore, our capacity to care about millions of strangers on the other side of the world is vastly diminished. We are all psychopaths with regard to distant strangers, in that our empathy does not often reach further than our daily social horizon. Second, we are moral hypocrites and don’t like this realization. We therefore ignore it.
Nothing within our animal nature protects us from such internal contradictions, as long as those contradictions don’t disadvantage us in the process of procreation. Caring deeply about total strangers likely comes at a hefty evolutionary cost, and is therefore discouraged by natural selection.
What is Effective Altruism?
EA is a philosophical approach aimed at optimizing the effects of charity to produce the best outcomes. It asks: which charitable actions are more effective, on a per-dollar basis, than others?
Often society falls in love with sexy ideas, or certain causes gain the public’s attention more than others. Breast cancer research, for example, is a very attractive and successful cause that raises over $6 billion each year. Although breast cancer is an important issue, one must wonder what the marginal effectiveness of each additional dollar is. How many researchers can continue working, and how many cancer cases will be eventually put into remission, for another $100 bucks? Could that money go somewhere else and do more good?
The goal of EA is to answer these questions in a rigorous and scientific way, such that the most amount of good can be done with the resources at hand.
Several EA charities, such as GiveWell, have been set up to explore exactly these questions, and to compile rankings of causes and charities that deserve more attention than others, or which can achieve more successes on a per-dollar basis. For several years the most effective charities have been those targeting Malaria, as it kills over 600,000 people per year, and yet is cheaply preventable and/or treatable. Other top causes include deworming of children, treating vitamin deficiencies, and offering basic vaccinations. All of these are extremely cheap compared to the amount of good they can do. A single dollar given to a deworming campaign can, for example, drastically improve the quality of life of a child, leading to more school attendance, resulting in better jobs and greater contribution to societal GDP (sometimes estimated at $10,000 in additional GDP contribution per treated child).
From this rather simple base of evaluating altruistic action, the EA community then branches off into several sub-fields of sometimes obscure philosophies. For example, many adherents of the movement are passionate about animal welfare, because they view morality as concerning the wellbeing of conscious creatures, which includes many non-human species. Others are concerned with the effects of climate change, while still others discuss the ideas of “Longtermism” which seeks to explore the very long term future of humanity.
It is important to note that these ideas are actively discussed and debated in the EA community, and that there is no doctrine or orthodoxy related to them. The (vegan) meat and potatoes of EA philosophy is the scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of charity, and a serious, practical reflection on how to live a life that maximizes good in the world.
From SBF to FTX
It appears that the EA-kind of thinking is particularly attractive to the engineering and scientific mind. At least in my experience, most people involved in the Effective Altruism movement are scientists, coders and engineers. It is therefore no wonder that this philosophy is particularly present in Silicon Valley, and tech companies, while being relatively unknown in mainstream society.
However, there is little within the tenants of EA that would lead anyone to start a fraudulent company, to steal money or to embroil themselves in a Ponzi scheme, under the guise of doing good in the long run. Even given a rather strict utilitarian compass, the probability of succeeding in large scale financial fraud is unlikely, and therefore the harm done by such irresponsible or malicious action is usually greater than any imagined good the criminal had in mind. This is even if we believe the somewhat dubious claim that SBF acted solely for the betterment of the world.
It is much more likely that fraudulent people will disguise themselves as virtuous in order to fool others, and to serve their ends. Sam Bankman Fried did not commit crimes because of a philosophy of Effective Altruism that encouraged him to do so, he committed crimes (allegedly) because he is a psychopath who pretended to do good in order to boost his public image. In his own words, all his talk of ethics amounted to little more than
“… this dumb game we woke Westerners play where we say all the right shibboleths and everyone likes us.”
This does not sound like someone who cares about altruism, or the efficiency of charitable causes.