Written as tomorrow's public blog post in part as a reaction to this, but given what I see on this forum and what I hear from otherwise level-headed individuals, I'm sharing it here now:

As anyone who has read my blog or Losing My Religions knows, I have my disagreements with some effective altruists (EAs). I also have some fundamental philosophical differences. But after this FTX fiasco, some non-EAs are taking one person's failures as an excuse to mock and condemn the entire idea of effective altruism. (And some EAs are losing their minds and questioning their very identity and "purpose" in life.)

Think about it. Fine, SBF seemingly had lots of money. And he said he was pursuing money for EA causes. But he is just one guy! His money doesn’t make him any more important than anyone else; even less so because his thoughts and ideas are not central to EA.

Just because one Effective Altruist did things we don’t like doesn’t mean we throw out utilitarianism or toss Peter Singer under the bus, just as we don’t become Republicans because Bill Clinton was sleazy or give up on meditation because some teachers were predators.

The EA community is a lot of people. Some of them are bad. Some of them are mentally unstable. Some of them are crazy. We don’t judge all of EA on one person – that is lunacy.

Let’s think about this from first principles.

These people are altruists. In short, they care about others, not just themselves. They want others to not suffer but instead thrive. 

But they also know:

  1. Some individuals are suffering more than others. My hands and back hurt and my tinnitus is screaming, but I can say with absolute certainty that many people out there are suffering worse, such that they wish to die. So if you are a rational altruist, you recognize differences in need, regardless of any other factors.
  2. Efforts and money have different impacts in different situations. An additional million dollars to Harvard has a different impact than a million dollars in Polio eradication. (And both have a different sign compared to a million dollars to the homophobic Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints.)

Now there is a lot more to say about effective altruism, and no one knows this more than EAs. But this is the bottom line: They want to be as effective as possible in helping others.

Is this true of the critics? 

Or do the critics simply not want to feel guilty? 

Guilty about buying a fancy car, owning several houses, taking lavish vacations? Giving to their church, their alma mater, their kid's soccer team? Caring infinitely more for their kids than every non-human animal on the planet?

Before you pile on along with those attacking effective altruists, ask yourself if doing so is the best way to help the less fortunate. 

And note: If you are sure that you know what EAs should do and how they should do it, I am willing to bet all my savings that you are wrong. These questions are simply too complex to have certain questions. 

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:37 AM

I agree that in many cases, when bad-faith critics say "EA should not do X" and we stop doing X, the world would actually become worse off.

But making SBF the face of the EA movement was a really bad decision. Especially given that he was unilaterally gambling with the whole EA movement's credibility.

There are robust lessons to be learned in this saga, which will allow us EAs to course-correct and prevent future catastrophic outcomes (to our movement and in general).

But making SBF the face of the EA movement was a really bad decision. Especially given that he was unilaterally gambling with the whole EA movement's credibility.

 

This might not be too big of a thing to flag, but my guess now is that SBF basically unilaterally decided to promote himself publicly as an EA, likely for marketing purposes.

That said, I think no one else pushed back too much (in part because he was one of the main funders), and that that shows a systematic failure, which is still pretty bad.

Agree strongly with this. SBF should have nearly zero implications for the broader EA movement. Most EAs have nothing to do with cryptocurrencies or FTX. Nothing about EA philosophy depends the success of cryptocurrencies or FTX. 

To the extent there are lessons for the movement here, EAs should learn not to become overly reliant on one person, financially or reputationally. EA needs stand on its philosophical merits rather than its association with individuals. There is some chance Will MacAskill or Toby Ord will do something embarrassing at some point. EA institutions should work to build a broad enough coalition and a deep enough base of financial support that this wouldn't be catastrophic.