How to fix effective altruism after Sam Bankman-Fried


When cryptocurrency exchange Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX imploded in November, and accusations spread that he had lost at least $1 billion in client funds after secretly transferring them to a hedge fund he owned, it read: A big blow to effective altruism.

Effective altruism is a social movement that revolves around using reason and evidence to achieve the greatest benefit for most people. Bankman-Fried (or SBF, as it’s known) was one of its brightest stars and its biggest financier. However, he seems to have done a lot bad to many people. In December, he was arrested on charges of wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering and more. he Not guilty for each one of them.

Effective influencers are now Rethink their convictionsAnd they ask themselves: Did the logic of effective altruism itself lead to such a bad outcome? Or is effective altruism just part of the scam? Is the movement replaced?

To get these questions, I spoke to Holden Karnofsky, who is seen as a leader in the EA movement. Co-founder of an organization called give okwhich conducts research to find the most effective charities, and is currently co-CEO of the Open charity. Much like EA, Karnofsky began focusing on helping people in the here and now—mainly the poor in poor countries with problems like malaria and intestinal parasites—but he became increasingly concerned with protecting humanity’s long-term future from threats like rogue AI.

We talked about ways to sell it and not sell it long-term trend, Whether EA overemphasized utilitarian thinking, and whether EA’s next act should look like. An abbreviated version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below. You can hear the full version at This episode of gray area Podcast:

For the sake of transparency, I should point out: In August 2022, the SBF Family Foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect award Grant For draft reporting for 2023. This project is now on hold.

Segal Samuel

When the SBF scandal broke, how surprised were you, on a scale of 1 to 10? With 1 “Yeah, that was totally expected” and 10 “I’m totally amazed, how the hell did this happen?!”

Holden Karnofsky

Way on the high end of this scale. I don’t know if I wanted to give it a 10 or not, but I wasn’t expecting it.

Segal Samuel

What is your general impression of SBF?

Holden Karnofsky

I think there are signs that there are things to worry about with regard to SBF and FTX. He ran this Alameda company, and there were a number of people who worked there who left very upset that things had gone wrong. I have heard from some of them about what went wrong and from their point of view what they were not happy about.

There were things that made me say… I certainly see some reasons to be concerned, of which one can imagine low, less than honest and careful behaviour. At the same time, I don’t think I knew of anything that rose to the level of expecting what happened or to be in a position to get around his denunciations.

Now it looks a little different in hindsight. And some feel sorry for it too late.

Segal Samuel

The SBF is highly influenced by effective altruism, which comes with a heavy dose of expediency. The general idea of ​​utilitarianism—try to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, try to maximize the common good—at first might sound rather bland. But it can lead to a strange “the ends justify the means” mentality.

Do you think this line of thinking might mislead the SBF? As in, maybe he thought it was a good idea to do this alleged scam because he could make billions of dollars that way and then donate it all to amazing charities?

Holden Karnofsky

I think there are a bunch of ideas here that sit very close to each other but are actually very different ideas. There is utilitarianism, which is the idea that doing good is all in ethics. Then there are the ends justify the means, which could mean that you believe you can do arbitrarily dishonest, coercive, or hateful things as long as you come up with the numbers and they do a lot of good. Hence I think effective altruism is none of those. It’s the third thing we can access.

So I honestly don’t know if SBF is motivated by “the ends justify the means” logic. That’s probably what prompted him, and I think that’s a problem. The fact that this is possible alone bothers me.

Segal Samuel

Beyond just the SBF question, has EA in general slid too hard into expediency? I know EA and utilitarianism aren’t the same thing, but there is a very strong flavor of utilitarianism among a lot of the big EA thinkers. I wonder if you think this creates a significant risk that members will apply this philosophy in naive and harmful ways?

Holden Karnofsky

I feel that it is a risk, and I have written a Plot About this called “EA is about maximization and maximization is risky.” This was in September, before anything [SBF scandal] Stuff came out.

I said in this article, this is something that makes me nervous. EA is “doing it best”, maximizing the quantity of the item. Anytime you exalt something, it’s risky. Life is complex, and there are so many different dimensions that we care about. So if you take something X and say to maximize X, you’re better off Is that true I hope you have the correct X!

And I think we’re all very confused about that. Even for effective altruists who are lifelong philosophy professors, I don’t think there’s a good, coherent answer to what we’re supposed to maximize.

So we have to pay attention. I wrote that and then this happened, and then I said, well maybe we should pay attention more than I thought we should pay attention. Knowing what I know now, I would have worried about him more. But all the worrying I do has costs because there are so many things to worry about. Then there are many things that you don’t have to worry about and move forward to try and help a lot of people.

Segal Samuel

Are you basically saying that “utility maximization” is a recipe for disaster?

Holden Karnofsky

Effective altruism, in my opinion, works best with a strong dose of moderation and pluralism.

Perhaps this is the right time for me to talk about what I see as the difference between utilitarianism and effective altruism. They both have the idea of ​​doing as much good as possible.

Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory, and it says do good, and this is the same thing as ethics. Ethics means doing the best thing. So if you did the best of it, you were a good person, and if you didn’t, you weren’t, or something. This is an intellectual point of view. You can get this view without doing anything. You can be a utilitarian and never give to charity and say, well, I should give to charity, but I haven’t. I’m a utilitarian because I think I should.

And effective altruism is kind of the opposite of what I just said, saying, hey, doing the best thing — that’s, for lack of a better word, cool. We should do that. We will take action to help others as effectively as possible. There is no pretense that this is what morality is all about.

But this is confusing, and not entirely shocking if a group of utilitarians is very interested in effective altruism, and a group of effective altruists is very interested in utilitarianism. Those two things are going to be stuck in the same place, and you’re going to have this risk… Some people will say, “Hey, that’s all I want to do with my life.” I think this is wrong, but there are people who think this way and those people will be drawn into the effective altruistic community.

Segal Samuel

I want to put in front of you a slightly different way of reading an EA’s movement. A few smart guys like Will MacAskill, and some in Oxford in particular, who wanted to help the world and give to charity, basically looked at the philanthropy scene and thought: This sounds kind of stupid. People donate millions of dollars to their collector, L.L Harvard or Yale, while it is clear that money can be more useful if you use it to help the poor in Kenya for example. They basically realized that the philanthropic world could use a utilitarian style of thinking.

But then they over-patched and started bringing that utilitarian mentality into everything, and that over-patch is now more or less EA. What would you say about a reading like this?

Holden Karnofsky

I definitely think there are people who take EA too far, but I wouldn’t say EA equals overcorrection. What effective altruism means to me is basically, let’s be ambitious in helping a lot of people. … I feel like that’s fine, so I think I’m more in the camp of this being a good idea in moderation. This is a good idea when combined with versatility.

Segal Samuel

So you would like to see more moral pluralism, more adoption of other moral theories—not just utilitarianism, but also commonsense ethics like deontology (the moral theory that says an action is good if it obeys certain clear rules or duties, and bad if it isn’t). like that). Is it permissible to say that?

Holden Karnofsky

I’d like to see more of it. And the thing I’ve been thinking about is, is there a way to encourage or just make a better intellectual argument for pluralism and moderation.


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