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    The philosopher and the crypto king: Sam Bankman-Fried and the effective altruism delusion | Audio Long Read

    enSeptember 23, 2023

    Podcast Summary

    • Unconventional Business and Philanthropy StrategiesBusinesses can challenge industry trends by lowering prices and offer unique value, while philanthropists should ensure their actions align with moral principles to maximize positive impact

      Mint Mobile, a wireless company, goes against industry trends by lowering prices instead of raising them. Meanwhile, Sleep Number, a mattress company, focuses on individualized comfort for better sleep. In the world of morality and effective altruism, the story of Sam Bankman Fried, a crypto king, illustrates the potential risks and rewards of unconventional philanthropy. While Fried's approach to earning money to donate led him to significant wealth, his actions ultimately led to allegations of fraud and a call for integrity and honesty in philanthropy. Effective altruism emphasizes the importance of considering the long-term impact of actions and the potential for unintended consequences. In business, this could mean defying industry norms to offer lower prices. In philanthropy, it could mean ensuring that actions align with moral principles.

    • The Intersection of Morality, Politics, and Effective AltruismEffective Altruism's commitment to doing the most good possible has led to incredible achievements, but also created a culture that can overlook ethical concerns or provide ideological cover for harmful behaviors. The movement's leaders must confront these challenges and work towards creating a more inclusive, ethical, and effective organization.

      The intersection of moral principles, politics, and the corruptive influence of power and money can lead to complex and unforeseen consequences, even in the context of a philosophical movement like Effective Altruism (EA). The case of Bankman Fried, a disgraced crypto entrepreneur, and his involvement with EA serves as a reminder of the importance of transparency, accountability, and ethical standards within any organization or community. The idea that it's our moral obligation to help others, as argued by philosopher Peter Singer, can be challenging for some. However, for effective altruists, taking morality seriously is a way of life. They've always been the ones to volunteer, donate, and go the extra mile to make a difference. But the recent crises within the EA community, including the Bankman Fried scandal and allegations of racism and sexual harassment, have tested their commitment and raised important questions about the movement's values and leadership. Effective altruism's foundational principle of doing the most good possible has been both a source of inspiration and a double-edged sword. While it has led to incredible achievements and innovations, it has also created a culture that can overlook ethical concerns or even provide ideological cover for harmful behaviors. The EA community, led by its thought leaders like philosopher Will MacAskill, must confront these challenges and work towards creating a more inclusive, ethical, and effective movement.

    • Effective Altruism: Making Informed Charitable DecisionsEffective Altruism is a movement that encourages strategic charitable giving based on potential impact, using tools like QALYs to make informed decisions, and has gained traction through organizations like Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and the Center for Effective Altruism.

      The effective altruism (EA) movement, founded by Will MacAskill and Toby Ord, encourages people to make informed and strategic charitable decisions based on the potential impact of their donations, rather than emotional attachment. MacAskill, who demonstrated moral zeal from a young age, co-founded Giving What We Can in 2009, encouraging members to pledge 10% of their income to charity. In 2011, they founded 80,000 Hours to promote jobs that enable graduates to make a significant impact. In 2012, they established the Center for Effective Altruism, which aims to build the movement and prioritize charitable causes based on their potential to improve quality-adjusted life years (QALYs). While the use of QALYs to quantify the value of a life is controversial, MacAskill argues it's a useful tool for making informed decisions. However, it raises ethical questions about prioritizing certain lives over others based on their perceived value. The EA movement has gained traction in both the UK and the US, with organizations like GiveWell, Good Ventures, and the Open Philanthropy Foundation. It also appeals to the rationalist movement, which aims to eliminate cognitive bias and apply probabilistic reasoning to life decisions. Despite the controversy, the EA movement's emphasis on evidence-based decision-making and strategic charitable giving has led many to reconsider the impact of their donations.

    • Effective Altruism's Criticisms and DebatesEffective Altruism faces criticisms for prioritizing certain causes, potential alignment with the status quo, and neglecting political action. Debates include Singer's argument on animal lives vs human lives and the focus on high-impact interventions.

      The Effective Altruism (EA) movement, which encourages individuals to use evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to do good, has faced criticisms regarding its prioritization of certain causes and potential alignment with the status quo. Peter Singer's argument in his book "Animal Liberation" about the value of animal lives versus human lives sparked debate, and EA's focus on high-impact interventions, such as bed nets and deworming treatments, has been criticized for neglecting political action. Additionally, the significant financial contributions from wealthy donors, including Sam Bankman Fried, have raised concerns about the movement's accountability and potential for unchecked power. Despite these criticisms, EA continues to encourage robust debate and adapt to new challenges.

    • Effective Altruism's Intellectual Elitism and Blurred Professional BoundariesThe pursuit of intellectual elitism and blurred professional boundaries within Effective Altruism led to a lack of oversight, large expenditures on estates, and a disconnect from reality, potentially misaligning with the movement's original mission.

      The intellectual elitism and blurred professional boundaries within Effective Altruism (EA) led to a community that was afraid to criticize decisions and prone to justifying behavior that could potentially lead to corruption. As the movement received more funding, there was a shift towards prioritizing convenience and productivity, which while not inherently wrong, required strong character, good culture, and leadership to navigate effectively. This lack of oversight resulted in large expenditures on estates, which raised concerns about the optics and potential misalignment with EA's principles. The community's focus on intellect and impact made it difficult for individuals to question decisions, leading to a potential disconnect from reality and the movement's original mission.

    • Considering the impact of our actions on future generationsThrough long termism, MacAskill encourages us to think beyond present circumstances and reduce the risk of catastrophic events for future humans and sentient beings, despite the speculative nature of future life estimates.

      That through his book, MacAskill encourages readers to think beyond their present circumstances and consider the moral implications of their actions on future generations, even those billions or trillions of years from now. This concept, known as long termism, suggests that the potential suffering of future humans or sentient beings is so immense that we have a moral obligation to take actions that reduce the risk of catastrophic events, even if the probability is low. MacAskill estimates that there could be up to 10 to the power of 45 future lives, making the potential impact of our actions enormous. However, critics argue that these estimates are speculative and that focusing on long-term issues diverts resources from immediate suffering. Effective Altruism (EA), a social movement that uses evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to do good, has faced criticism for directing a significant portion of its funding towards long-termist causes, such as AI safety. Critics argue that this is impractical and may be driven by the self-interest of tech donors who stand to benefit from influencing the development and regulation of AI. Despite these criticisms, EA continues to direct a substantial portion of its funding towards long-termist causes.

    • Controversies and Allegations in Effective AltruismEffective Altruism, once open to criticism, now faces controversies and allegations of undemocratic practices, questionable associations, and potential harm. Critics describe it as a dangerous cult, with some members advocating violent means and funding projects with little charitable purpose.

      The Effective Altruism (EA) community, once known for its openness to criticism and debate, has faced significant controversies and allegations of undemocratic practices and questionable associations. AI ethicist Timnit Gebru described EA as a dangerous cult, with some members advocating violent means to curb AI research. Researchers who criticized EA's approach to existential risk were urged not to publish their findings. In 2022, Sam Bankman Fried, a prominent EA figure, caused a major scandal when FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange he led, filed for bankruptcy, leaving many customers unable to withdraw their funds. The FTX Future Fund, which supported EA initiatives, was criticized for funding projects with little apparent charitable purpose, such as a book about human utility functions and YouTube videos about EA. Bankman Fried's plans to purchase a Pacific island to build a bunker for EAs in case of a global catastrophe were also revealed. Despite these controversies, MacAskill, a co-founder of EA, continued to promote the movement publicly without addressing these issues. These incidents raise concerns about transparency, accountability, and the potential for harm within the EA community.

    • EA leaders face criticism for ethical standards and handling of controversiesEffective Altruism community under scrutiny for alleged negligence, unethical behavior, and lack of transparency, accountability, and support for members

      The ethical effectiveness organization, Effective Altruism (EA), and its leaders, including Sam Bankman-Fried and William MacAskill, have faced criticism and scrutiny over their associations, ethical standards, and handling of risk. This includes past allegations of negligence, unethical behavior, and misreporting numbers from former employees. The community's focus on associating with wealthy individuals, like Bankman-Fried, and their perceived moral motivations has been called into question. The leadership's silence in the face of controversy has angered former members, who feel abandoned and betrayed. The movement's lack of support and safety net for its members, who often make significant personal and financial sacrifices, has also been criticized. The need for greater transparency, accountability, and care for members is emphasized. The extent of Bankman-Fried's sincerity and the motivations behind his actions remain unclear. The EA community needs to reevaluate its standards and practices to ensure the ethical integrity of its leaders and the well-being of its members.

    • EA community's internal issues and politicsThe EA community must acknowledge its role in the Sam Bankman-Fried crisis, address elitism and toxic ideologies, and reconcile anti-poverty idealism with Silicon Valley Millenarianism to thrive.

      The effective altruism (EA) community, which aims to use evidence and reason to do the most good, must confront its internal issues and politics, particularly regarding the influence of billionaires and the potential for elitism and toxic ideologies. A member of the community expressed frustration with the movement's tendency to idolize a few individuals, defend bad behavior, and overlook systemic problems. The author also highlighted the importance of acknowledging the role EA played in the recent crisis involving Sam Bankman-Fried, rather than portraying him as a rogue actor. To survive and thrive, the EA community needs to grapple with these challenges and find a way to reconcile its anti-poverty idealism with its Silicon Valley Millenarianism. The author's personal perspective was that of a vegan social worker who was committed to giving away a significant portion of her income and wanted to make the world a kinder, softer place. Despite her exhaustion and frustration, she planned to stay involved in the movement. This episode of the New Statesman was written and read by Sofia McBain, with commissioning by Melissa Deans and production by Katherine Hughes. The sponsor's message encourages listeners to consider UnitedHealthcare Insurance Plans for flexible, budget-friendly medical coverage that lasts for nearly three years in some states.

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