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4 October 2023

Why Sam Bankman-Fried’s deluded world-view matters

His utilitarianism reflects the culture of Silicon Valley, which wields great power over how we relate to one another.

By Sophie McBain

As a child, Sam Bankman-Fried didn’t celebrate his birthday, or Hanukkah or Christmas. He and his family didn’t see the point. If Sam wanted something, he only had to ask for it and he’d receive it: after all it made no sense that his parents should be expected to guess what he might like as a gift.

There are lots of things that Bankman-Fried doesn’t see the point of, Michael Lewis writes in Going Infinite, a biography astutely timed to coincide with the crypto billionaire’s fraud trial, which began in New York on 3 October. Bankman-Fried doesn’t see the point of art, or religion, or caring about other people’s feelings, or facial expressions – though he eventually taught himself to smile when people spoke to him. It doesn’t seem coincidental that he has struggled for most of his life with a depression that manifests as anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. “My highest highs, my proudest moments, come and pass and I feel nothing but the aching hole in my brain where happiness should be,” Bankman-Fried wrote in a diary.

The son of two Stanford law professors, Bankman-Fried was raised a utilitarian, someone who thinks moral decision-making shouldn’t be primarily driven by instinct or by rules but by calculation. A utilitarian tries to maximise well-being. He became an effective altruist (EA), pledging more than a billion dollars to the neo-utilitarian movement, which over the past decade has taken root in Silicon Valley and elite universities in the US and UK. EAs pride themselves on choosing charitable causes in the manner of a crypto trader: they trust the numbers over their hearts and aim for maximal returns on their donations. They have grown increasingly preoccupied with averting the apocalypse. Bankman-Fried believes his isolation makes it easier for him to act on behalf of humanity. “Not being super-close to that many particular people made it more natural to care not about anyone in particular but about everyone,” he told Lewis.

[See also: Sam Bankman-Fried and the effective altruism delusion]

In a tribal world, it’s fortunate that some people think this way. But utilitarians are wrong to present their philosophy as a universal moral principle. The utilitarian world-view can be dehumanising: it suggests that to live a moral life we should set aside our attachments and obligations to particular people. A utilitarian might calculate that you shouldn’t donate to your friend’s GoFundMe for last-ditch cancer treatment when your money would have more impact elsewhere – but is that a code you want to live by, or indeed that you would want others to live by? Our relationships, after all, make us who we are. We are not fungible tokens or even discrete entities, reducible to a number in a spreadsheet – we are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings, cousins, friends, inherently social beings embedded in complex networks, unable to define ourselves except in relation to others.

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Bankman-Fried may be a maths genius, but he’s too arrogant to recognise the limits of his intelligence. He tells Lewis that he doesn’t struggle to read other people, his problem is that others can’t read him – an assertion the biographer doesn’t question, perhaps because it enhances his subject’s mystique. But surely Bankman-Fried is simply suffering from the common tendency to assume that everyone else is less complex than you are. The crypto king isn’t even very good at reading himself. When he describes himself to his former girlfriend and colleague Caroline Ellison as someone who “doesn’t really have a soul” – a thinking machine rather than a feeling one – he forgets that automatons don’t suffer from depression. The idea that thinking and feeling are separate functions is undermined by modern neuroscience: we think because we feel. Yet Bankman-Fried seems tragically disconnected from his own emotions. Where Lewis sees a wunderkind, I see a confused boy.

This matters because these delusions are not unique to Bankman-Fried, but rather reflect the prevailing culture of Silicon Valley and the tech billionaires bankrolling effective altruism, people who also wield extraordinary power over how we work and relate to one another. They have grandiose ambitions for humanity and yet show little concern for individuals. They are lonely kids who struggled to connect with others, and yet now design the products and platforms that are becoming our primary source of connection. They value rationality and intelligence above all else and are building the world in their image. They are designing the AI they believe may overpower us.

[See also: “The biggest Ponzi of all time”: why Ben McKenzie became a crypto critic]

And they know that most of us will eventually buy into their vision, because we’ll do almost anything in the name of speed, efficiency and convenience, which is what Silicon Valley sells us. We’ll hand over our data and memories to be sold, we’ll take our social lives online and we’ll almost always opt for interacting with a machine over a stranger. The self-checkout doesn’t need you to say good morning; a delivery app doesn’t require you to smile.

But perhaps we all need more inefficiency, more interpersonal friction in our lives. Presents are the epitome of ineffective altruism. You might get given a book you’ve already read or a scented candle you don’t need, but what a delight it is to receive an unexpected, thoughtful gift, or to give someone something they didn’t even know they wanted. What a joy it is to throw a party, to stay up far too late with old friends, or to find new ones. And what a sad thing it would be to live without frivolity, to be so obsessed with living a rational life that you must convince yourself that you actually feel nothing at all.

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power