Hi Quartz members,
It isn’t often that Quartz writers find themselves in the thick of the news. This past week, though, William MacAskill has bobbed along in the slipstream as details of the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX have tumbled out.
Between 2013 and 2016, when he was rotating through universities as a philosophy scholar, MacAskill wrote a series of pieces for Quartz revolving around his pet idea: effective altruism. It isn’t difficult to sum up. Rather than taking a noble but poorly paid job—as a health worker, say—you can do more good, MacAskill believes, by getting rich and giving away part of your wealth. Earn to give, so to speak. Give to what, though? Here, too, MacAskill has suggestions. He urges effective altruists to think of the maximum good they can do for humanity, encompassing not just the people living today but the people yet to be born.
To the Silicon Valley elite—including Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced founder and former CEO of FTX—MacAskill’s tenets have come as sweet music. As Cassie Werber writes in Quartz, effective altruism (or EA) offered a “get-out-of-jail-free card to people who want to put vast wealth creation at the center of their lives.” Elon Musk plugged MacAskill’s book, What We Owe The Future, as “a close match for my philosophy.” Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, helped start Open Philanthropy, which aims to give away more than $100 million annually after researching the best possible uses of this money.
And certainly some of the efforts of EA have improved lives. As of 2022, Against Malaria Foundation had received $58 million from Open Philanthropy. Providing deworming medicine for children in poor countries has been put on the agenda and funded, in large part, by effective altruists. There’s nothing glitzy about these causes. Here, money aspired to effect real, immediate change.
But the crash of FTX has also exposed some of the moral failures of EA—which critics have been pointing out for years now.
10,000: Approximate number of “inner-circle” effective altruists, up from 100 in 2009, as of September. The 10,000 included Bankman-Fried.
$31,000: What MacAskill lives on per year, after giving the rest of his income away.
80,000: The number of hours an average person works in their career, according to 80,000 Hours, the website that advises people on best finding an EA-suitable career.
$140 million: The amount that the FTX Foundation claims to have given away, as of October 2022.
$26 billion: Bankman-Fried’s estimated net worth, in spring 2022.
$991 million: Bankman-Fried’s estimated net worth, as of mid-November 2022.
❌ “Earn to give” is a slogan that sits comfortably within modern capitalism (motto: “Earn”). It not only ignores the problems at the heart of the prevailing economic system, it legitimizes that system. EA argues that capitalism isn’t only the best way to live, or the only way to live, but also a just way to live. But the logic of EA doesn’t hold up if the system in which you’re operating is the problem in the first place.
❌ Critics of Bill Gates’s philanthropy argue that a billionaire shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which of society’s priorities prosper under his funding and which wither. (Governments should be making these choices—and taxing Gates’s ample wealth to fund them.) The same goes for EA billionaires, and in their hazy calculus, techno-futurist worries—such as the risks of rogue AI—often trump clear and present dangers like cholera or deforestation. Nick Bostrom, a pillar of “longtermism,” reckons that 1029 potential lives are lost for each second that we fail to settle the galaxies in our neighborhood. One EA forum obsesses over the morality of insect pain. Things get absurd while real people suffer and die.
❌ In an exchange of messages, a Vox reporter asked Bankman-Fried if his earlier statements—about refraining from doing “unethical shit” in order to fund the greater good—were sincere. They weren’t, Bankman-Fried admitted. (“Man all the dumb shit I said,” he wrote, “it’s not true, not really.”) Considered charitably, EA sets up just this kind of hazard: the temptation to resort to any means possible, in order to earn wealth and give it away. Considered cynically, EA offers a refuge to people who always plan to be unethical, and who wish to clothe themselves in a veneer of integrity.
After FTX’s collapse, the future of EA is uncertain. FTX’s implosion has exposed how risk is a big part of the EA philosophy. This raises practical and moral questions: If taking huge risks—for example, with other people’s money—leads to huge gains, are those risks justified? Are they justified so long as they pay off—meaning massive financial gains for charity, say—but unjustified when they don’t?
There are other signs of cracks and divisions within EA as well. Several scholars have raised concerns that many of EA’s greatest beneficiaries are EA organizations, meaning that a lot of the “good” being done is to develop the movement itself. They’ve also flagged a trend: Those in receipt of funding from effective altruists are scared to criticize EA, lest they lose support. Finally, there appears to be a tension between longtermism and helping people today, with the movement as a whole potentially leaning towards speculative “futureproofing,” even as some call for the mitigation of suffering that is actually already taking place.
MacAskill figured in another ongoing car-crash of a business venture as well: Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Back when Twitter was contesting Musk’s attempt to get out of his acquisition, court documents (pdf) showed that, over text message, MacAskill tried to get Bankman-Fried’s foot in the door. Beginning on March 29, the exchange went as follows:
MacAskill: Hey—I saw your poll on Twitter about Twitter and free speech. I’m not sure if this is what’s on your mind, but my collaborator Sam Bankman-Fried has for a while been potentially interested in purchasing it and then making it better for the world. If you want to talk with him about a possible joint effort in that direction...
Musk: Does he have huge amounts of money?
MacAskill: Depends on how you define ‘huge’! He’s worth $24B, and his early employees (with shared values) bump that up to $30B. I asked about how much he could in principle contribute and he said: “~$1-3b would be easy ~3-8b I could do ~$8-15b is maybe possible but would require financing.”
MacAskill: If you were interested to discuss the idea, I asked and he said he’d be down to meet you in Austin.
Musk: That’s a start.
MacAskill (in two messages): Would you like me to intro you two via text?
Musk: You vouch for him?
MacAskill: Very much so! Very dedicated to making the long-term future of humanity go well
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🦖 T-Rex for sale. There’s a multimillion-dollar market for dinosaur fossils, and commercial appetite is only growing. It all started in 1997 with Sue, a T. rex skeleton found in South Dakota that sold at auction for $8.4 million. The New York Times digs into the ensuing excavation craze, and the several face-offs between the US federal government and private dealers. Now, as fossil-hunters seek to cash in on old bones, the concern is whether academics are being outbid.
✒️ Jot that down. From Babylonian tablets to Egyptian pictographs, humans have a long history of keeping lists for record-keeping purposes. But there’s more to the humble list than meets the scribe’s eye. A piece on Literary Hub argues that the “listicle” might even be one of the oldest forms of writing, and foundational to the building of civilizations. Philosophy and science may owe the list a nod, as it marked the first step to systematically organize knowledge.
🐶 Bagging beasties. Juliet Tuttle, a 1930s Park Avenue society matron and a member of the Women’s League for Animals, was also a prolific pet murderer. Her weapon of choice was poison, and her targets were the stray cats and dogs of New York City. As The Atlantic uncovers, Tuttle would cruise around in her chauffeured limousine and take out what she saw as a plague of furry vermin. Despite a lengthy hit list, Tuttle somehow got away with it.
😤 J’accuse! In a class-action suit filed this month in Florida, 11 celebrities who promoted the now-collapsed crypto platform FTX were named as guilty parties, allegedly liable for securities law violations, false advertising, and even conspiracy to defraud. The question is whether the likes of Tom Brady and Shaquille O’Neal will be found culpable. Decrypt talks to legal experts to see what precedent exists, and whether the stars might land in the FTC’s crosshairs.
🤢 The anti-chefs. TikTok, which has more than a few head-scratching trends, is now host to one that roils the stomach: disgusting cooking recipes. Some criminally viral concoctions include hot dog water cocoa and Jolly Rancher-coated bologna, content that would likely cause Gordon Ramsay to burst into flames. The Verge explains that in a distracted attention economy, gross gourmet has become an effective formula for attracting avid hate watchers.
Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.
Have a legit-good weekend,
— Samanth Subramanian, global news editor; Cassie Werber, senior reporter.
Additional contributions by Julia Malleck