Philosopher MacAskill’s “Effective Altruism” Was Neither Effective Nor Altruistic

(p. B1) In short order, the extraordinary collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX has vaporized billions of dollars of customer deposits, prompted investigations by law enforcement and destroyed the fortune and reputation of the company’s founder and chief executive, Sam Bankman-Fried.

It has also dealt a significant blow to the corner of philanthropy known as effective altruism, a philosophy that advocates applying data and evidence to doing the most good for the many and that is deeply tied to Mr. Bankman-Fried, one of its leading proponents and donors. Now nonprofits are scrambling to replace millions in grant commitments from Mr. Bankman-Fried’s charitable vehicles, and members of the effective altruism community are asking themselves whether they might have helped burnish his reputation.

“Sam and FTX had a lot of good will — and some of that good will was the result of association with ideas I have spent my career promoting,” the philosopher William MacAskill, a founder of the effective altruism movement who has known Mr. Bankman-Fried since the FTX founder was an undergraduate at M.I.T., wrote on Twitter on Friday (Nov. 11, 2022). “If that good will laundered fraud, I am ashamed.”

Mr. MacAskill was one of five people from the charitable vehicle known as the FTX Future Fund who jointly announced their resignation on Thursday (Nov. 10, 2022).

. . .

(p. B5) Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, said that the issues raised by Mr. Bankman-Fried’s reversal of fortune acted as a “distorted fun-house mirror of a lot of the problems with contemporary philanthropy,” in which very young donors control increasingly enormous fortunes.

. . .

Mr. Bankman-Fried’s fall from grace may have cost effective-altruist causes billions of dollars in future donations.  . . .

His connection to the movement in fact predates the vast fortune he won and lost in the cryptocurrency field. Over lunch a decade ago while he was still in college, Mr. Bankman-Fried told Mr. MacAskill, the philosopher, that he wanted to work on animal-welfare issues. Mr. MacAskill suggested the young man could do more good earning large sums of money and donating the bulk of it to good causes instead.

. . .

A significant share of the grants went to groups focused on building the effective altruist movement rather than organizations working directly on its causes. Many of those groups had ties to Mr. Bankman-Fried’s own team of advisers. The largest single grant listed on the Future Fund website was $15 million to a group called Longview, which according to its website counts the philosopher Mr. MacAskill and the chief executive of the FTX Foundation, Nick Beckstead, among its own advisers.

The second-largest grant, in the amount of $13.9 million, went to the Center for Effective Altruism. Mr. MacAskill was a founder of the center. Both Mr. Beckstead and Mr. MacAskill are on the group’s board of trustees, with Mr. MacAskill serving as the chair of the United Kingdom board and Mr. Beckstead as the chair of the U.S. subsidiary.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas Kulish. “Collapse of FTX Strikes a Philanthropy Movement.” The New York Times (Monday, November 14, 2022): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 14, 2022, and has the title “FTX’s Collapse Casts a Pall on a Philanthropy Movement.”)

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