An honest appraisal of "effective altruism"

FTX is the latest and perhaps greatest of failings in the crypto world, setting billions of dollars on fire. The whole story is absolutely nuts, and the guy behind it all Just. Can’t. Stop. Talking. His lawyers must be loving this.

As I’ve argued for a long time, all crypto/bitcoin/web3/nft is a scam, all of it, a rubbish technology with no meaningful applications hyped by conmen for the purpose of doing crime.

The whole field is utterly rife with disasters and no sane person would touch it with a barge pole.

What distinguishes FTX, apart from sheer scale, is its close association with the so-called “effective altruism” movement through its intellectual leader, William MacAskill, a moral philosopher from Oxford. MacAskill is desperately trying to distance himself, but the fact remains, he showed cataclysmically poor judgment in not seeing this whole thing as a scam from the beginning.

In the top linked article, SBF (as the leader of FTX is known) explains how he never really believed any of the moral arguments but used them as a way of manipulating perception to get investors.

At last someone is telling it how it is.

7 Likes

@bhantesujato
Pierre Poilievre, Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada has stated “Government is ruining the Canadian dollar, so Canadians should have the freedom to use other money, such as bitcoin,”
“Canada needs less financial control for politicians and bankers and more financial freedom for the people. That includes freedom to own and use crypto, tokens, smart contracts and decentralized finance.”
Poilievre said that, if he’s elected prime minister, he’ll “keep crypto legal and reject a China-style crackdown.” The Chinese government has banned cryptocurrencies because it says bitcoin and products like it could destabilize existing financial systems and fuel fraud and money laundering.
Poilievre said he wants to foster “a new, decentralized, bottom-up economy” by creating a more permissive regulatory environment.
“Choice and competition can give Canadians better money and financial products. Not only that, but it can also let Canadians opt-out of inflation with the ability to opt-in to crypto currencies. It’s time for Canadians to take back control of their money and their lives by making Canada the freest country on earth,” Poilievre said.

I just love what you wrote!

1 Like

That text exchange is so cynical it’s just gross… That guy truly believes everything described as “woke” is purely performative and no people actually feel empathy and compassion for strangers they’ll never meet. What a sad way to live.

3 Likes

Yikes! At least it helps you to identify the grifters.

This is pretty much the textbook definition of a sociopath. I wonder what percentage of the people pushing this stuff are genuine sociopaths.

3 Likes

I don’t know much about the FTX debacle, but the original purpose of blockchain is privacy, security, and to prevent someone from shutting it down, it doesn’t matter what the application is, whether currency, communication, etc… So the main function of blockchain is decentralization.

I think it’s rather naive to assume that what the government allows you to use is “ethical”. Governments can flip on a dime, as we’ve seen countless times around the world, and what are you going to do when they block access to your money because you’re not on their side of the fence? What are you going to do when they hinder your ability to communicate?

It’s really a game of cat and mouse, everytime one group tries to catch the other, the other finds a better way to escape.

Also, there are sociopaths everywhere, in charities, governments, corporations, religious organizations, medicine, etc… maybe even your favourite organization is runned by one, there’s a documentary about this called “I am fishead”

On the subject of “effective altruism,” it may be helpful to separate out the scammy side of corporate greedsters from those that study the philosophy and application of charitable efforts and endeavors. "Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that advocates “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis”.[1][2] People who pursue the goals of effective altruism are labeled effective altruists.[3]

Common practices of effective altruists include choosing careers based on the amount of good that the career achieves, donating to charities based on maximizing impact, and earning to give. Popular cause priorities within EA include global health and development, animal welfare, and risks to the survival of humanity over the long-term future."

One example of effective altruism is an approach whereby one studies the best way to, say, use humanitarian funds of $10,000. One might use the funds to pay for medicines and doctors to treat a small village in Burma that has 5 children deathly ill with malaria. Or, one can take the $10,000 and purchase 200 treated bed nets that effectively prevents the deaths of 100 children that would have contracted malaria or dengue. The idea behind some of these studies is to determine how to most effectively use charitable funds to save lives; the approaches are often not intuitive.

When I think about EA, I prefer to use the term “ethical altruism.” The ethics component requires us to ask questions beyond simply maximizing income so as to maximize donations.
[

William MacAskill

@willmacaskill
](https://twitter.com/willmacaskill?
Replying to @willmacaskill

If FTX misused customer funds, then I personally will have much to reflect on. Sam and FTX had a lot of goodwill – and some of that goodwill was the result of association with ideas I have spent my career promoting. If that goodwill laundered fraud, I am ashamed.

2 Likes

This seems more like a review of the FTX scam and SBF than an appraisal of effective altruism. The vox article saying EA “gave rise” to SBF also seems highly sensational. How exactly does a philosophy about giving create a billionaire fraudster? Seems more like he pretended to be an effective altruist to get people to like him (essentially his words).

I’m just curious how one could actually criticize a philosophy a philosophy about wanting your donations to do the most good? It seems a bit like saying Buddhism is scam because there are monks who steal, do drugs, etc.

3 Likes

I scarcely know anything at all about “effective altruism”, but if it’s a form of utilitarianism then I suppose the criticisms would be much like those levelled against act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism in general.

Standard philosophical objections

Less well-known (but more amusing) objections

1 Like

It was, kind of, but not any more. It basically started as an inquiry by Peter Singer into how we can justify allocating our generosity more effectively. In recent years it has morphed into something much wilder and much stranger.

It has become infected by the notion of longtermism, which ends up arguing that what really matters is the existence of trillions of humans in the galaxy in millions of years, which outweighs anything happening now. This is being heavily funded and pushed by the usual alt-right fanatics (Musk, Thiel, et al). They’ll happily tear down governments and burn the planet if it gives them a chance to achieve immortality in the stars.

So it’s not even a matter of a genuine ethical philosophy that is subject to meaningful critiques, not any more. It’s a weird-ass Rayndian cult.

All these approaches have the same fundamental problem: they assume you can quantify the unquantifiable. It is the naive worship of morality as physics. These guys can’t even see that the people they are handing money over to are obvious hucksters, yet they expect their abstract rationalizations about effectiveness to be taken as a meaningful guide to conduct.

The Buddha said “give where your heart is inspired”. That’s a better piece of advice than anything you’ll get from a rationalist dudebro shilling crypto.

The reason why FTX collapsed taking billions is because the entire crypto world is anything but decentralized. It all runs through centralized exchanges run by crooks and scam artists. The only thing that distinguishes FTX is the sheer scale of the collapse.

2 Likes

Totally agree with you there, but it’s still an important tool in the toolkit to have to move things around (money, communication, etc…) when you can no longer use or rely on traditonal methods like say bank transfers, credit cards, and paypal. That was the original intention of Bitcoin, as a failsafe, or another option to have in your back pocket against monopolies and cartels. Of course people will jump at the opportunity to profit off it and scam others, as we’ve seen with extreme NFT greed, but the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. It’s still an excellent utility for transferring things around.

1 Like

I like Stocker’s objection because I actually agree with the (alleged) utilitarian position: y’all need to go gaze at the stars more. Touch some grass for goodness sake. :rofl: The world would be a much better place if people looked after their own happiness and mental health more often

2 Likes

Sadhu! Aside from ethical concerns or utility, altruism should first be personal, and heart-centered. As you point out, Bhante, maybe making altruism a clubby practice (eg crypto) , or a rigid science the way physics is, strips altruism of the “selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Oxford Languages

2 Likes

I have many friends who lost a lot of money investing in crypto, and stocks like AMC and GameStop. It is mostly due to their obsession with the idea that one can do nothing and somehow become some rich person. The accumulation of money is not really that interesting to me, but to them, it has caused much suffering. Many of them used to bust on me for being so negative toward “investing” because I would tell them capitalism is simply a game of winners and losers, and if you think you are a going to be a winner, more or likely your fate as a loser is already set in stone. They thought this was cynical until they lost $$$$$$

I read a bit about EA and never really found it that interesting.

This is more my style! I just go out into the natural world away from glaring screens and techno dopamine hits and find that things are basically okay for me, even if I have very little money and 0 in my crypto wallet.

1 Like

Maybe I’m just out of the loop since I read about EA a few years ago. My understanding was just that the core principal was that given the suffering in the world, one should give as much as possible, and they should try to give where it’s most effective (which can be dubious, admittedly). Ie, avoiding charities that only actually use a small fraction toward the cause vs ones that utilizes most of it. It’s a shame if it has become more than that.

1 Like

Your understanding aligns with mine, from my short journey down the rabbit hole; which really only began because his accent was so strange to me.

Anyways, there is certainly a focus on longtermism, at least again from my understanding.

Inherently a currency isn’t an investment. So a better term is gambling. Your friends were gambling, not investing. Investments are usually not liquid and have some form of real tangible scarcity attached to them, like say gold, a business, land, a building, etc. A currency is a terrible investment because it loses value to inflation whereas real investments go up with inflation.

Furthermore, you usually never want to sell an investment unless you’re retiring or in an emergency situation. This is one of Ben Graham’s (Warren Buffets 1940’s tutor) main lessons. Buy to keep forever, even pass it down to your kids, and never sell unless you must.

People who jump on bandwagons, usually to make a quick profit, often get burned.

1 Like

Of the ones listed in the second link, I think the philosophically neatest is M. Oreste Fiocco’s time objection. It’s such a clever and gadflyish retort to G. E. Moore’s claim that consequentialism is a necessary truth that I’m surprised it hasn’t garnered much attention from moral philosophers.

As summarised by T. R. Edward:

A utilitarian takes the value of an act to be determined by its consequences, specifically the amount of happiness that the act produces. But if the consequences do not exist at the moment of the act, the act has no value at that point. When a good consequence comes into existence, the value of the act improves.

So while we usually think that the past cannot change, the act done in the past now changes in one of its qualities – it now has a positive value that it did not have before.

And if a bad consequence comes into existence which outweighs this good consequence, the value of the act changes again – it now has a negative value.

But the utilitarian seems to think of the act as having a certain value at the moment it is done, determined by all the consequences, as if these consequences exist along with the act. (How can the value of the act be determined by X if there is no X?)

Utilitarianism therefore requires a conception of time according to which everything in time exists, including future occurrences, though not everything exists in the present.

Oreste Fiocco objects that this requirement means that utilitarianism is not a necessary truth or even a truth which is dependent only on the existence of individuals to whom morality applies. For if this conception of time is true, it is only contingently true. But it seems that an adequate approach to morality should not be contingent in this way; it should apply in a possible world where individuals perform the same actions but a different conception of time is true.

Here’s Fiocco’s paper.

Consequentialism and Time

4 Likes

And this is the tragedy, there is a genuine use case for something in a global world that transcends national currencies. We use the $US for that but it’s obviously problematic. I disagree that crypto is a “good” solution for this, but I admit it would be good to have something.

The fundamental problem is that crypto aims to strip value from context. National currency is worth something because governments build nations. Crypto builds bupkiss.

And there we get to the heart of it.

Yup!

Crypto investors are gamblers. They take their life saving and go to Vegas, convinced that they will beat the house. If they win, it is even worse for them, because they’ll get arrogant and take bigger risks.

The thing is, gamblers don’t lose their money on the roulette table. They lose it when they walk through the door; they just don’t know it yet. Same with crypto investors: they actually lost their money when they bought crypto, now they’re finding that out. If they think that they’ve lost money because of this or that crash, or because this exchange went down, then they still don’t get it and they will fall for the next scheme.

The difference is that the casinos themselves have a sustainable business model: people just want to have fun. Most people go to a casino to have a bit of a thrill and enjoy the night, they are not there in seriousness to make money. Only weirdos and addicts think they can win. In crypto, everyone takes themselves so very seriously. No-one is there just to have fun, only to win.

Yes, I believe that is where it started as an argument by Peter Singer.

The whole thing is such an object lesson in the middle way!

Haha I wrote the above before reading this!

So … Sarvastivada then?

It’s an interesting critique. One of the good things about utilitarianism is that it connects morality with something that is actually real: happiness and suffering. So it’s already heads and shoulders above “decree of God” or “absolute natural principle” theories. But, and I was struck by this when listening to Peter Singer a few years ago, it’s really hampered by a lack of a clear model as to what “happiness” really is or how it can be measured or calculated. Still, I think it remains the case that happiness has something important to do with morality, and in that there is a kernel of truth to utilitarianism.

4 Likes

If I apply a force to a particle in the three body problem, the exact position and velocity of the three particles is unknown at an arbitrary point in the future. However, I can say for certain the total energy of the system and even the particles’ combined momentum.

His argument requires assuming that the happiness created by an action can only be determined by the precise future conditions. This is a strong
assumption and one that need not necessarily be true.

There really is nothing new under the sun, huh? :joy:

1 Like

The deeper problem is that we cannot know the happiness produced even after all the consequences have manifested, as there is no way to know or measure or assess happiness.

1 Like