To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Brandeis Professor co-authors article on effective altruism and FTX

Assistant Professor and specialist in Russian music and literature at Brandeis University, Emily Frey and Assistant Professor of Math and Data Science at Bentley University Noah Giansiracusa recently co-authored an article in The Boston Globe highlighting the moral failings of Sam Bankman-Fried, former owner of FTX and advocate for the Effective Altruism movement. 


The article outlines the general principles held by the movement, most notably espoused by one of its creators, Sam MacAskill, and how those principles might in turn have encouraged  Bankman-Fried to cut corners in terms of the ethical considerations of his business. 


The fluctuations in the growth of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum in the last decade have been massive. The emergence of a completely new market for the collection and trading of vast amounts of untraceable and electronic cash has been disruptive. This comes at a time the top 1% have been redefining what being wealthy should mean in a modern society. With huge amounts of money collected into the hands of a few people, personal philosophies and ideologies have come to dominate the discussion of how these individuals are set to shape the future of our societies. With regards to Bankman-Fried, his most notable influence has been the effective altruism movement which, along with other beliefs, advocates for the analytical distribution of an individual’s energy and donation funds on utilitarian lines, sending their money wherever it appears it would make the biggest difference.


In the article, the authors observe how the ideology naturally focuses around donating the most money you can to the most effective organizations, cultivating what is commonly called an “earning to give” mentality. Bankman-Fried was by far the most successful person to have adopted the philosophy, having been inspired to become wealthy as to help those in need from one of the creators of effective altruism itself, Sam MacAskill. This turned out to be an opportune partnership, as both gentlemen used the success of each other to grow awareness of the overall movement, with Bankman-Fried growing to be worth an estimated $26 billion by 2022. However, his empire containing both the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and his personal crypto investment firm Alameda Research soon fell, losing over $8 billion in his customers’ money. During the aftermath, Sam MacAskill took the time to tweet out a condemnation of Bankman-Fried’s actions, accusing him of engaging in fraudulent activity and completely abandoning the principles of effective altruism. 


However, the authors of the article point out how those very same principles MacAskill exalts end up relying on an abiding trust in quantifications and “rationalistic pose” which those who follow effective altruism call “impartiality”. The authors state how “taken to their extremes, these two precepts have led many EA types to embrace “longtermism,” which privileges the hypothetical needs of prospective humanity over the very material needs of current humans.” This then leads into a discussion of the ethical problems which can arise from this line of thinking. Frey transitions into explaining the alignment problem, the hypothetical scenario in which a hyper-intelligent A.I. [artificial intelligence] does not recognize the harm which its actions cause in the pursuit of its goals. “For example, tell a super-powerful AI to minimize society’s carbon emissions and it may deduce quite logically that the most effective way to achieve this is to kill all human beings on the planet.” This kind of thinking, which advocates openly for the prioritization of human suffering, is also similar to the rationale, we are told by the authors, of the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment.” The main character, a young idealistic man, seeks to end the life of a horrible, nasty older woman and redistribute her wealth she would have hoarded, “and so the general good clearly outweighs the individual harm, right?”


The authors draw a comparison here; in the same way that the young man’s lesson was to learn that his act of malice would not be able to be outweighed by the good he achieved, FTX’s grandiose plans of changing the world were completely undone by the thoughtlessness and criminality of their leadership. The article finishes by reiterating how attempts to “fix” the world from above through abstract ideals leads to a frame of mind which excuses unethical and harmful practices, and how it was these contradictions which eventually lead to the downfall of both Bankman-Fried and FTX.

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