For the Greater Good
I have a new piece up at Discourse on “The Altruist Billionaire’s Philosophical Con.” This is my analysis of the scandal around Sam Bankman-Fried, an advocate of “effective altruism” who graced magazine covers as a visionary philanthropist and was presented in viral videos as “the most generous billionaire in the world”—right up to the point when he swindled billions of dollars from cryptocurrency speculators.
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To an Objectivist, this is a slow, fat pitch up the middle. As I point out in the article, the Bankman-Fried case reads like you took all the villains from an Ayn Rand novel and tried to cram them into one story.
It’s the distinctive combination of loud altruist pieties and underhanded wheeling and dealing…. [T]his was part of Rand’s critique of altruism as a philosophy. By the standards of altruism, what is good for the collective—and by extension, what is good for the self-appointed representatives and guardians of the collective—justifies the sacrifice of actual individuals. If you set out to make money purely for your own well-being, you would be expected to show that you are offering value in return, providing a useful good or service for your customers. But if altruism is your justification for getting rich, if you are acting for the greater good to save the world—well, that’s an excuse that can hide a multitude of sins. That is certainly how it worked in practice, preventing a lot of people, particularly in the media, from asking tough questions.
Interestingly, though, the “effective altruism” creed that Bankman-Fried adopted is an attempt to answer a common criticism of altruism.
Effective altruism naturally implies the existence of ineffective altruism. The idea is that most of what people do in the name of helping others is done with excessive sentimentality: People are swayed by flattery or heart-tugging stories, and they give in ways that make them feel good about themselves. But in doing so, they don’t carefully weigh the most effective options and measure the real-world results. The effective altruists, by contrast, would actually run all the numbers to justify their decisions. They would be willing to fund creative and counterintuitive programs, “disrupting” the stodgy business of charity.
You can see how well this would play in Silicon Valley. It promises to do for do-gooderism what the tech bros think they are doing for everything else.
The problem, though, is not with the “effective” part but with the “altruism” part.