Effective Altruism: Down but not out


Charles Keidan


Looking back from the future, rather than forward to it as effective altruists tend to do, the year 2022 may come to be seen as both the apotheosis and nadir of the effective altruism (EA) movement.

When What We Owe the Future was published last summer, it stretched the moral scope of EA philosophy across time. Central to Will MacAskill’s controversial book was the idea that future risks to humanity from artificial intelligence, pandemics, even asteroid impacts, deserve more attention and funding. Despite the soundness of the observation, it created a trade off with EA’s signature focus across space on our moral obligations to people in extreme poverty today often physically distant from those of us living in relative comfort.

The philosophical innovation of longer-termism gave EA a new focus and made it attractive to futuristic minded billionaires like Elon Musk and Sam Bankman-Fried or ‘SBF’ as he’s become known. But, to some, that was when the movement lost its soul – shifting EA’s centre of gravity away from cost effective interventions to help poor people today.

The arrest and extradition on fraud charges of major EA donor, Sam Bankman-Fried, therefore became a symbol, almost a parable, of the corruption, unravelling and moral bankruptcy of a social movement. For a movement founded on moral and ethical principles of high philosophy, its trajectory looked particularly damning. One critic went as far as to label EA the dumbest idea of the century.

The charge of philosophical bankruptcy is not without merit. One of EA’s defining ideas was to encourage people to consider maximising the amount of money you can make in order to maximise the good you can do through donations to the most effective charities. ‘Earning to give’ helped produce Sam Bankman Fried. He was inspired by the EA’s leadership to pledge or donate a significant part of the fortune from his crypto-business, FTX, to both the infrastructure of EA and EA endorsed causes – until his empire came crashing down last November. On this reading, SBFs stratospheric rise was not so much an aberration but a product of the school of effective altruism and the earning to give philosophy.

But while earning to give is receiving deserved scrutiny, the EA movement itself may prove more resilient and perhaps emerge stronger for the experience – if, and only if, it can show the deep humility required to admit failures and make amends.

There are several reasons to believe that EA will survive its own existential crisis.

First, the central animating idea of EA is sound – that you should avoid cause agnosticism and ineffective giving and instead strive to do the most good with scarce resources. In its earliest and idealistic formulation, EA offered a genuinely positive and refreshing challenge to mainstream philanthropy, too often mired in parochialism and complacency.

Second, thanks to EA, smart well-educated people who want to do good have a channel, as they pass through elite universities, to think about their moral obligations and how they use their careers for the good of others. The EA organisation, 80,000 hours – so-called because of the number of hours in your career – has lots of resources. I hope some of them will be re-evaluated and re-purposed away from earning to give and towards a more holistic philosophically rooted careers advice. In 2001, I begun a postgraduate teaching degree at Oxford while staying up late into the night to research private equity finance with the aim of heading straight to Goldman Sachs to earn money before returning to the more socially good profession of teaching history – an early variant of earning to give on my part. Except that both efforts ended in loneliness and failure. I had nothing like 80,000 hours to provide a peer group and career navigation strategy to my younger self.

Third, the onset of long-termism damaged the EA movement because it had a distorting effect on its primary mission to help those in extreme poverty today. Worse, the appeal to donors like SBF and Musk of long-termist thinking locked EA leaders like MacAskill into raising funds along these lines and then trying to square the circle back to its original intentions – ones more seemingly aligned with earlier (and arguably more noble) donors like Dustin Moskowitz and Open Philanthropy. But for all EA’s failing, thinking about how to balance needs across future time as well as space is an important consideration. The issue was not the consideration itself, but the balance given to that consideration, unduly weighted by donors, and distorting its original mission. So this question might be resolvable through some careful re-balancing of priorities.

Finally, it’s worth remembering an old insight from American historian, Martin Malia: Empires don’t simply fade away; they tend to reform into new configurations. Malia was writing about the former Soviet Union, but could have been talking about EA.

It also remains to be seen how far the current reputational contagion will spread to the eco-system of EA backed charities. Give Directly an EA aligned charity which provides cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty may be an important test case. Fortunately for Give Directly, it is the largest recipient of funds from MacKenzie Scott – someone more typically associated with trust-based giving than effective altruism. In receipt of donations of well over $125 million, Give Directly’s future looks secure. Others, especially those reliant on pledges from Bankman-Fried may not be so lucky.

The future of EA and its contribution to the field of philanthropy will depend on a new collective leadership re-rooting EA in its first principles, taking time to undergo a reckoning with itself rather than continue with its business-as-usual newsletters and then, and only then, move on to serving generations of students with more humility than has characterised it in recent years.

Charles Keidan is Executive Editor at Alliance magazine.

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