Effective altruism solved all the problems of capitalism – until it no longer did


Photo: Reuters (Reuters)

It’s hard to argue with the principles of effective altruism. The movement, which started in the UK in 2009 and has spread quickly, especially among the tech glitter in America, believes that we should spend our entire lives trying to help as many people as possible, in the most effective way possible. must be spent on So far, so commendable.

But the collapse of crypto exchange FTX and its founder Sam Bankman-Fried, one of its most influential philanthropists, has exposed some issues with the thinking behind the philosophy and how it is applied.

One method at the root of effective altruism (EA) urges its followers to earn as much money as possible so that they can spend a substantial portion of their wealth helping humanity., An idea called “earn to give”.

But while that mission may be purely altruistic, there’s another way to look at it: people who want Put the creation of enormous wealth at the center of your life. It allows such people to ignore, if they choose, the sinister sides of the neoliberal system: for example, the widening gap between rich and poor, or the destruction of the environment. And while they give away much of their wealth, they don’t do so at the expense of personal luxuries. Not only does ‘earn to give’ ignore the problems at the heart of today’s economic system, it also pokes fun at capitalism. This indicates that capitalism itself is not Best way of life, or Nothing but way of life, rather one straight away Way of living.

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EA gives a tempting message

EA believes that while we can’t solve all the world’s problems easily, we can certainly alleviate the greatest suffering if we choose wisely where we focus our efforts. And, of course, life has been improved by some of EA’s efforts. By 2022, the Against Malaria Foundation had received $58 million from Open Philanthropies, an EA-influenced fundraising campaign founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, former journalist Carrie Tuna. Providing anthelmintics to children in poor countries has been put on the agenda and largely funded by influential philanthropists. There is nothing flashy about these reasons. Here the currency affected the actual change.

EA’s ideological source is William MacAskill, who, as a philosophy student at Oxford in 2009, formed his first ideas on how best to do this. MacAskill’s dissertation led to the creation of several organizations, including the Center for Effective Altruism. MacAskill has written several books about the movement. In it, he advances another central idea: “long-term thinking,” a frame of mind in which effective philanthropists weigh up the good they can do. That’s in addition to the number of people who benefit from it – not just those who are alive now, but also those who are yet to be born. In that count, speculative concerns about the future – such as the risks of rogue AI – may outweigh clear and current threats such as cholera or deforestation.

A conversation between MacAskill and Bankman-Fried is said to have led the FTX founder to his later career in trading and then cryptocurrencies. MacAskill also worked for Bankman-Fried charities. After the collapse of FTX, MacAskill tweeted If it turns out that FTX has embezzled the money, it will have “a lot to think about”. He did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz.

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What’s next for EA?

The collapse of FTX raises practical and ethical questions about EA’s uncertain future. If taking great risks – for example with other people’s money – leads to great financial benefits for charities, are those risks justified? Are they just as long as they pay – largely as a result of charitable giving, for example – but unfair if they don’t?

There are other signs of rifts and divisions within EA. Scholars such as Carla Zoe Kramer at Oxford have expressed concern that EA’s biggest beneficiaries are other EA organizations. He also notes that influential philanthropists who receive money from people may be afraid to criticize EA or lose their support. Finally, there is a tension between long-term thinking and helping people today, with the movement as a whole possibly leaning towards speculative ‘anti-futurism’, even as some call for mitigating the suffering that actually exists. already happening.

What is EA’s alternative?

The challenge of getting it right is huge. Free market capitalism has failed. The world’s poor are now subject to the worst of climate change, caused by greedy growth and consumerism by the rich. As a result, many thinkers have proposed that we are something more communal than traditional capitalism, which considers all stakeholders along a long and complex chain.

But ‘earn to give’ promises something else. If our goal is to earn as much as possible, it doesn’t matter – you could say – whether we earn that money through cryptocurrency or roulette, or a combination of both. With the greed of massive personal money ingrained in the movement comes issues like huge emissions in the case of FTX and crypto, the very ones the EA is trying to solve. If the system you’re working with is primarily the problem, the EA’s logic doesn’t hold.

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