Is the effective altruism movement in trouble?

Is the effective altruism movement in trouble?

By Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò and Joshua Stein

Sam Bankman-Fried’s recent alleged fraud raises familiar questions about the reliability and regulation of cryptocurrency. But it also calls into question “effective altruism”, an intellectual movement in philanthropy. If the movement doesn’t change course, one of the most ambitious charitable drives in recent history will end up like so many others: a lab and playground for wealthy donors.

Bankman-Fried was a junior at MIT when he first encountered William MacAskill, a founder of effective altruism. MacAskill pitched him about the “earning to give” strategy – trying to make as much money as one can in order to maximize one’s charitable donations. On MacAskill’s advice, Bankman-Fried began his career trading securities before being hired by the Center for Effective Altruism. Afterwards, he began FTX, an international crypto exchange. Alongside it were the FTX Future Fund and the FTX Foundation, philanthropic organizations committed to effective altruism and staffed by prominent effective altruists, including MacAskill.

The public image of Bankman-Fried’s effective altruism commitments helped attract investment. It also likely helped distract from Bankman-Fried’s description of his crypto approach, which sounded rather like a Ponzi scheme to industry insiders. His personal fortune of $16bn (£13.5bn) made him the wealthiest person in the effective altruism movement by far – until the revelation Bankman-Fried was secretly leveraging client’s funds to cover his own trades, leading to the collapse of his exchange and personal wealth.

What supposedly makes effective altruism different from regular charity is its embrace of statistical reasoning and metrics of efficiency to judge charity’s effectiveness. This focus led effective altruists to meaningful improvements on charity’s status quo: focus on unconditional cash transfers to poor people through campaigns like GiveDirectly, and global health including pandemic preparedness.

Nevertheless, the Bankman-Fried fraud illustrates they’ve built a political culture that practically invites the most egregious forms of capture by the rich.

Philanthropy has a simple power structure: the haves give, the have-nots receive. If organizations veer too far from the wishes of their benefactors, funders can withhold their money. Few meaningful guardrails exist to stop the rich from dictating what happens to the money hoarded in philanthropic organizations.

Effective altruism was supposed to be one such protection: discouraging wasteful, suboptimal spending. But they developed that culture in a way that fails to constrain funders’ control over philanthropy and hands them new tools to organize the world around their cynical aspirations and unhinged preoccupations.

Some have used effective altruism-style arguments to advance a peculiar conclusion: just like we shouldn’t discriminate based on where people are born, we should not discriminate based on when people are born. Bankman-Fried, MacAskill and some other effective altruist thought leaders advocate a view called “longtermism”, that we ought to prioritize mitigating low-probability but catastrophic possibilities in the far future. Whatever longtermism’s intellectual merits, it is a powerful rhetorical device allowing tech billionaires to sink money into pet projects under the guise of scientifically rigorous concern for humanity.

In 2021, Open Philanthropy donated $80m (£67m) towards the study of potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, the second-most of any issue the foundation targeted; by contrast, OpenPhilanthropy donated $30m (£25m) to the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticidal nets. We are uncertain about the impacts of artificial intelligence, but we know there were about 241 million malaria cases causing 627,000 deaths in 2020. Comparing investments in global public health infrastructure to a possible far future universe of billions of digital people is practically and morally dubious. Effective altruism organizations donate hills of cash to research that excites their donors, rather than focus on proven, efficient solutions to imminent needs.

Likewise, effective altruism’s “earn to give” approach appeals to those who successfully chased high-risk investments like crypto. Binance founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao has said that he plans to give away 99% of his gargantuan net worth of $33bn (£28bn) before he dies. He justifies keeping the wealth for now on the basis that by continuing to build wealth, he’ll have more to donate later.

When MacAskill recruited at MIT fraternities, promoted “earning to give”, and acted as a liaison between two of the richest men on the planet, he made choices with clear strategic value to a philanthropic movement: courting potential funders and leaders. He was also guaranteeing that the movement’s political agenda would hew closely to their interests and worldview.

At best, the fraud scandal calls into question the “effective” part of effective altruism. That an organization in the crypto space might be fraudulent – or that billionaires’ ulterior motives might dominate the movement’s genuine ones – is far more likely than a robot apocalypse or other speculative “tail risks” effective altruists pretend to be capable of managing.

At worst, the scandal calls into question the “altruism” part. The branding of the champion Bankman-Fried, alongside the collaboration of effective altruist organizations, makes its techno-utopian picture look much more sinister. Former effective altruists have proposed “structural reforms”, some of which echo broader calls for “participatory funding” – democratic control of philanthropic organizations by those who are impacted by the organizations’ endeavors. These criticisms seem to have been largely ignored in favor of a tech and capital-friendly research agenda – and a system controlled by the few with enough money or access to participate.

Maybe there’s some convoluted equation justifying effective altruism’s present structure and priorities. But we doubt it. Unlike the kind of people that would hand the reins of social progress to crypto billionaires, we aren’t suckers.

  • Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò is associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. He has written for publications including the Guardian, the New Yorker and the Nation
  • Joshua Stein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics, has written for Slate and Aeon