If you want to help those who suffer, would you go with your heart in choosing the causes you support or would you accept a more rational calculation so that your impulse would benefit the maximum number of people? Oxford philosophers William MacAskill and Toby Ord developed the second option. They called this way of thinking, in which the cost-benefit calculation and the number of beneficiaries prevail over feelings, effective altruism.
It all started in 2009, when MacAskill and Ord created an organization guided by the philosophy of earn to give (earning to give). Its members committed to donating 10% of their salary to philanthropic activities. The movement caught on in elite universities and among techies Californians. The leaders encouraged their followers to take up positions in organizations and occupy good jobs. Donors were judged not by their behavior but by their ability to benefit the maximum number of people. Better an investment banker than a bank employee.
Effective altruism was an ethic tailored to Silicon Valley. A philosophy that solved everything with equations. That allowed them to continue making money and continue thinking that only technology solves the problems of this world. The move sparked interest from Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. And it caught Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
In 2022 MacAskill published What we owe the future (What We Owe to the Future), a book in which he stated that it is not enough to worry about the living. We had to think about future generations. In the millions of beings that could not be born due to today’s errors. The idea, known as long-termism, reflected the unusual mutation of the movement. The new altruists increasingly disdained the present. The climate crisis or diseases in poor countries became insignificant next to the threats that could lead humanity to extinction. In particular, artificial intelligence and biological risks.
But that same year the accident occurred. The number one believer, the ideal donor, the most famous, was involved in a financial scandal that seemed to prove right the critics who feared that the rules of effective altruism could lead its members to antisocial behavior.
Sam Bankman-Fried was the son of Stanford law professors, people who didn’t take vacations or celebrate anniversaries. At eight years old, Sam thought Santa Claus was a ridiculous idea. He soon learned that the world could be wrong and only he could be right. He studied at MIT and entered a venture fund ( trading high frequency). He was skilled in risk calculation. And he brought those techniques to cryptocurrencies, where he founded FTX.
Effective altruism cares more about the unborn generations than the living.
Bankman-Fried was in tune with MacAskill from day one. And as he confessed to journalist Michael Lewis, the new philosophy gave meaning to his life.
FTX went bankrupt in November 2022. It left an $8 billion hole. Today the financier awaits a prison sentence that can reach 115 years for fraud and conspiracy in what appeared to be a pyramid organization. At trial, he was described as an unscrupulous manipulator. But the worst thing was the suspicion that the “earn to give” philosophy could explain his recklessness. Bankman-Fried had funneled billions of dollars into the organization.
Another Sam, Sam Altman, was also born into a liberal-minded family and had a nerd . He studied computer science at Stanford. At the age of 19 he created a geolocation company and his talent impressed everyone. When she founded Open AI (creator of the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT) in 2014, she was already a star: “I hate to say it, and it sounds arrogant, but before Open AI, what was the last real scientific advance that came out of a Silicon Valley company?”
He had read the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, the predecessor of long-termism. He was never a member of effective altruism, but he was surrounded. Three Open AI advisors had ties to the movement. The company had been created on a non-profit basis to minimize the “destructive potential” of artificial intelligence.
But when Altman took a more commercial turn to Open AI a few weeks ago, the altruists expelled him. They considered that he was going too fast and had become a threat. In the end, after three days of factional warfare on the council, Altman regained control.
It has been a victory of money over the cautious side. And also a painful defeat for the new altruists in a field in which they have become very influential. The war for control of Open AI has put them in the spotlight again. It has revealed his ability to penetrate and the appeal of his ideas, especially among the most powerful people. Bostrom has been a consultant to the CIA and the European Commission. Toby Ord has advised the British government and the WHO and works on risks for the UN.
The bankruptcy of FTX and the war for control of Open AI has revealed its capacity for influence
Effective altruism is today a well-organized and widespread movement (with groups in Barcelona and Madrid). It has woven a web of research centers and foundations that compete with traditional NGOs in attracting resources. Its members are young people (under thirty), idealistic, educated and convinced that they will save humanity. Their priority are beings that have not yet been born and that may do so in thousands of years. It looks like a science fiction movie.