Sam Bankman-Fried and Elon Musk just killed effective altruism

November 11, 2022

Effective altruism, we hardly knew ye.

Following the collapse of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried’s crytocurrency exchange that was once valued at $32 billion and is now effectively worthless, the founders of the company’s philanthropic arm resigned Thursday. Reporter Teddy Schleifer tweeted the resignation letter cosigned by the FTX Future Fund founders, in which they also announced that they would regrettably no longer be able to process already promised grants. Because, well, there’s no more money.

It could be something of a death knell for effective altruism (EA), the philanthropic concept that evangelizes that people should donate to the causes that tackle the world’s biggest issues and that make the most effective use of their charitable dollars. Developed by founder William MacAskill, a Scottish philosophy professor at Oxford, the movement empirically calculates the optimal charitable causes, promoting ones that target global poverty, factory farming, and pandemics.

But in recent years, what seems on its face a logical concept has become fanciful, evolving (devolving?) into “longtermism”: the idea that we have just as much of a duty to end suffering for those millions of humans who will live millions of years in the future as we do our fellow beings on Earth in 2022. And that shift has been bought into and bankrolled by some of the most notorious billionaires of our time.

Onetime cryptocurrency prodigy Bankman-Fried pledged billions into longtermist causes, which include restraining the overreach of artificial intelligence and averting nuclear war. The entrepreneur said there’d be no ceiling on his political spending, and could contribute more than $1 billion to reelect a Democrat over Donald Trump in 2024, ostensibly to fend off a future pandemic. But on Thursday, his FTX Future Fund founders, including MacAskill and Nick Beckstead (who’d written in 2013 that “saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country” because wealthy nations have more potential to innovate), formally resigned, explaining that they simply could not do their work without the money.

“We have fundamental questions about the legitimacy and integrity of the business operations that were funding the FTX Foundation and the Future Fund,” the letter reads. “To the extent that the leadership of FTX may have engaged in deception or dishonesty, we condemn that behavior in the strongest possible terms.” Crucially, they stated they’d be unable to honor committed grants. “We are so sorry that it has come to this.”

In distancing themselves from him and his business practices, it’s a u-turn on Bankman-Fried, who resigned Friday as CEO of FTX, and who now appears, in retrospect, a mere charismatic gambler with the resources to recruit Tom Brady and Steph Curry for fun brand building rather than a philanthropic trailblazer. A movement like EA, which relies on making the most of dollars, needs, well, dollars, to apparently save populations from an array of disasters and technological stagnation eons into the future.

Sam Bankman-Fried and Elon Musk just killed effective altruism

Longtermism has also been on the mind of the villain of the moment, Twitter’s new CEO (and free speech lover and parody hater) Elon Musk, who has said EA aligns closely with his ideology. Musk seems especially attentive to the more fantastical elements of the movement: starting Martian civilizations and transhumanism, as well as the idea that humans should strive to reproduce to their full capacity to save humanity, a cause to which he seems to have personally volunteered.

His rationale for buying Twitter was suffused with tinges of EA. “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square,” he wrote in a tweeted statement. “I did it to try and help humanity, whom I love.”

Perhaps it’s this altruistic, long-term thinking that shields Musk from the guilt of laying off 3,700 people, pushing the remaining staff to build a new verification platform within days, while removing their rest days, and demanding they return to the office immediately. He’s not shown grace to his employees or customer base—let alone the Speaker of the House’s husband after he was attacked with a hammer—which raises the question of how committed he really is to humanity. Rather, he appears to jump erratically at whatever new thing takes his fancy, like a dog easily distracted by a squirrel.

Where does all this leave EA, the charitable philosophy du jour? Is it all over, and if so, what happens to insect welfare and the robot apocalypse? But, also, to such worthy causes as vaccine development, criminal justice reform, and climate action?

In order to do the work that effective altruists want to achieve, they need those big bucks. The movement has more backers, notably ex-Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna. (Musk has reportedly not actually donated to EA causes.) But perhaps now EA rebrands itself and returns to its roots of a people-led movement, of encouraging everyone to “earn to give,” through organizations like GiveWell, which prescribe the most impactful charities for our checks—because, as MacAskill notes, those of us who can afford to do so are all privileged and part of the top 3%.

To maximize that giving potential is why MacAskill still lives with roommates, a leaky shower, and no car, reportedly on $31,000 annually. After 13 years of developing the EA brand and releasing a series of books about the movement, it likely won’t die with FTX. Philosophies may dim in popularity, but they’re never truly extinguished. If EA does return to its humble beginnings, will it shy away from Muskian dollars, if offered up? Perhaps a cash-strapped effective altruist movement will have no choice but to accept the investment. As a magnanimous humanitarian recently said: “Let that sink in.”

Fast Company