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The philosopher and the crypto king: Sam Bankman-Fried and effective altruism

Can the Oxford movement founded on anti-poverty idealism survive its romance with Silicon Valley’s darker side?

At the time of writing, the crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried is due to stand trial on 3 October 2023. He stands accused of fraud and money-laundering on an epic scale through his currency exchange FTX. Did he gamble with other people’s money in a bid to do the maximum good?

In this week’s long read, the New Statesman’s associate editor Sophie McBain examines the relationship between Bankman-Fried and the Oxford-based effective altruism (EA) movement. The billionaire was a close associate and supporter of William MacAskill, the Scottish moral philosopher who many consider EA’s leader. It was MacAskill who had persuaded him – and many other young graduates – to earn more, in order to give more. But how much money was enough – and what should they spend it on? Was EA just “a dumb game we woke Westerners play”, as Bankman-Fried told one journalist?

In conversations with EA members past and present, McBain hears how the movement was altered by its enormous wealth. As the trial of its biggest sponsor approaches, will effective altruism survive – or be swallowed by its more cynical Silicon Valley devotees?

Written and read by Sophie McBain.

This article originally appeared in the 22-28 September 2023 edition of the New Statesman; you can read the text version here.

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