Nov 19, 2022 - Economy & Business

The hit to effective altruism

A tweet saying "is this effective altruism?"

Via CasPiancey/Twitter

The downfall of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) hit the effective altruism (EA) movement particularly hard.

State of play: SBF was one of the largest donors in the EA ecosystem, and that source of funds has dried up forever.

  • Other believers in EA are reconsidering their prior beliefs in light of what they've learned about SBF.
  • Even SBF himself turns out to have professed his belief in EA largely for selfish reasons.

The big picture: One of the central debates in philanthropy is when and whether to make risky investments that might have zero positive effects.

  • The so-called "worm wars" are a prime example. Oversimplifying massively, EA-adjacent philanthropies like GiveWell can support deworming programs even if they think they probably don't work, if the cost is low enough and the benefits (if they do exist) are high enough.

Where it stands: The weakness of pursuing low-probability outcomes with positive expected value has become very obvious — especially within the EA community, which is small and very focused on the FTX fiasco.

For the record: In a Twitter DM conversation, Vox's Kelsey Piper put it to SBF that he was "really good at talking about ethics, for someone who kind of saw it all as a game."

  • "Ya," SBF replied. "hehe."
  • "I had to be. It's what reputations are made of."
  • SBF talked about how "we woke westerners" play a game — where "we say all the right shibboleths and so everyone likes us."

In other words: By talking at length about EA, SBF gained exactly the credibility he needed within Silicon Valley and the broader culture.

The bottom line: EA did more for SBF than SBF did for EA.

  • EA should have been much less reliant on SBF. Now it's paying the price for being too closely associated with him.
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