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13 December 2022

Sam Bankman-Fried exposes the moral conceit of effective altruism

For tech CEOs, the suckers of the present come second to people of the technocratic future.

By Will Dunn

Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the now bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX, won’t be making his scheduled appearance at the US House Financial Services Committee today (13 December), having been arrested by police in the Bahamas at the direction of the US Department of Justice. Had he attended the meeting, he would (according to a transcript of his planned testimony obtained by Forbes) have begun by saying: “I would like to start by formally stating, under oath: I f***ed up.”

“When all is said and done,” he reportedly planned to continue, “I’ll judge myself primarily by one metric: whether I have eventually been able to make customers whole.” 

The phrase “I’ll judge myself” is good fun, because however harshly Bankman-Fried planned to judge himself from his luxurious residence in the Bahamas, he will also now be judged by a real judge, in a criminal court, in America. But it also reveals the tremendous arrogance of his moral position: he is unlikely to accept the judgement of a criminal court because he appears to believe in his own higher authority.

Bankman-Fried is a former director of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charity set up by the Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. The charity describes itself as focusing on “maximising the good you can do through your career, projects, and donations”. Bankman-Fried’s claim is that his work at FTX was part of an aggressively utilitarian project to make as much money as possible, in order to donate it as effectively as possible for the future of the happiness of humanity. 

Effective altruism and “longtermism” have become the credos of people like Bankman-Fried and Elon Musk, who have contempt for the authorities of government (“f**k regulators”, Bankman-Fried messaged a Vox reporter) because they see themselves as more capable of building a successful future for humanity. Ethical norms are the wimpy rules of the present; for Bankman-Fried they amounted to “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths [sic] and so everyone likes us”.

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But what Bankman-Fried and co believe in is not philosophy; it’s religion. Like religion, effective altruism finds the living world irrelevant, and preaches that what matters is the unknowable future beyond our deaths. Like religion it is based on the worship of power: it is not enough only to be right, but to force rectitude upon the world. And like a religious movement it gives its members license to do what they like in the present, because in the future their superior morals will be proved right. 

As he has explained in ten lengthy interviews over the past week, Bankman-Fried still thinks this can be the case. He claims that his dearest aim is to build a new business and use its proceeds to reimburse all the creditors (of whom there are more than a million) of FTX, Alameda and the over 100 affiliated businesses that have been declared bankrupt. 

It suggests a pretty tenuous grip on reality that Bankman-Fried, having lost a million people’s money, thinks he’d be able to put together not only another business that would generate sufficient profit to reimburse his former customers’ missing billions, especially now that the force that created the crypto boom (quantitative easing by central banks) has dried up. 

Either that, or the plan to reimburse customers is just another example of what Bankman-Fried called, in a previous conversation about business ethics, “dumb shit I’ve said” that was “not true, not really”. After all, the effective altruism of tech CEOs dictates that the suckers of the present come second to the people of the technocratic future. We’ll see how that stands up in court.

[See also: Effective altruism: Elon Musk’s useful philosopher]

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