Effective altruism accounts for the post-Sam Bankman-Fried moment

Last weekend I attended Effective Altruism Global x Berkeley, one of the smaller effective altruism conferences held around the world by the Center for Effective Altruism—the core leadership group of the EA movement.

I attend two or three EA Global events a year, but this one felt a little different. It was the first such meeting since the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s multibillion-dollar cryptocurrency empire hit the influential altruism movement last month.

Bankman-Fried was perhaps EA’s most high-profile champion, pledging his fortune (once as high as $32 billion) to EA causes with a focus on sustainability and pandemic prevention. Now his company is in bankruptcy proceedings, missing $8 billion in customer deposits and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Department of Justice.

(Disclosure: This August, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for its 2023 report project. That project is now on hiatus.)

Effective altruism came under severe criticism after the failure of the FTX, including by those involved in the movement. Josh Morrison, who founded an organization promoting vaccine trials, told New Yorker writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus last week that “the EA community doesn’t care about the risks of tying itself to a predatory businessman in an illegal industry.”

So I wondered: How about EAG x Berkeley? Is the move in projectile shock? Angry? Mixed? Where does effective altruism go?

I’ve been involved with EA for 10 years, so take this with a grain of salt, but my overall impression from the conference is that the EA movement is much more robust than I gave it credit for. FTX was not on people’s minds; I gave a talk discussing what I had observed around the crisis, and it was well attended, reflecting the great interest in the issue. But the participants, they realized, were a little too busy to dabble in cryptocurrency. They wanted to focus on work.

I spoke with people advising on the national Covid-19 response, the founder of a maternal health non-profit working to improve women’s access to contraceptive options, and people developing new tools to understand the behavior of powerful AI systems. I moderated a panel on nuclear risks and the state of mitigation efforts, and when the panel concluded, the panelists were surrounded by college students who wanted to know more about pursuing careers in nuclear risk. In other words, this is exactly what happens when I usually attend an EA conference.

Some lessons from the cryptocurrency disaster

But the question remains: What could a movement centered around effective philanthropy do with one of its biggest donors and most public supporters blowing up his company, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers high and dry?

Significantly more than that – though less, perhaps, than many of its members would like to think.

In my speech, I argued that outside critics from EA or elsewhere would not be able to catch Bankman-Fried’s shady business practices, which it managed to keep secret even from its legal and compliance teams and most employees. own company. But critics, as Lewis-Krauss charges in her piece, could have helped the stories of Bankman-Fried’s past accounting incompetence and unwarranted appetite for risk emerge, even if rumors of ruthlessness or untrustworthiness had not taken over Bankman-Fried. down, they could help some of their customers be more cautious.

EA supporters could push back more on the wisdom of EA associating itself so closely with Bankman-Fried, and question more, like my colleague Dylan Matthews, whether it’s even morally good for a gambling company to air Super Bowl ads. if only everything were up and down.

While these are concrete issues, the Bankman-Fried saga also calls the more abstract ones into complete relief.

A small movement of idealistic, thrifty youth—donating to malaria networks, as EA did in its early days—doesn’t need to wrestle with big questions about political power, metaethics, risk appetite, or how their message might be interpreted. extremists or cover up wrongdoing.

The movement that effective altruism is today—large, well-funded (if less well-funded than it was before the collapse of the FTX), and operating in increasingly muddy waters—cannot avoid these questions.

As a formalized concept, EA is over a decade old and has yet to learn all the cautionary lessons it needs to. Current events are a bittersweet introduction to the fact that when things go wrong, there is a lot that can go wrong.

What lies ahead for effective altruism

I think that the affective altruism movement and its leaders and community institutions—especially those who rely on and vouch for Bankman-Fried like the Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill—are facing a reckoning with effects that have yet to be fully felt.

But I ultimately believe that EA, the people who do the work, will be stronger than it is now, if not for a management that seems to have let them down. Effective altruists are still driven to identify the world’s most important, under-addressed problems and then do something about them. This is a powerful motivator independent of the credibility of EA organizations or EA-affiliated billionaires. The young people I spoke to this weekend didn’t want money from EA, they wanted advice on how to live the most impactful life possible.

People turn to these things because they like the message that they can solve whatever matters most with their work and donations. It turns out that doing this is very important to people, and EA is where many gather to do it. Faced with a choice between a painful moral and institutional reckoning or quitting to get a normal job, many people will be held to account.

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