EDIT 17 Nov 2022: Retracted due to someone reminding me that both is not merely an option, but one with at least some precedent. Oops.

The following is just here for historical purposes now:

Context: In a recent interview with Kelsey Piper, Sam Bankman-Fried was asked if his "ethics stuff" was a front for something else:

[Kelsey:] you were really good at talking about ethics, for someone who kind of saw it all as a game with winners and losers

[SBF:] ya ... I had to be it's what reputations are made of, to some extent I feel bad for those who get fucked by it by this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths and so everyone likes us

One comment by Eli Barrish asked the question I'm now re-asking, to open a discussion:

The "ethics is a front" stuff: is SBF saying naive utilitarianism is true and his past messaging amounted to a noble lie? Or is he saying ethics in general (including his involvement in EA) was a front to "win" and make money? Sorry if this is super obvious, I just see people commenting with both interpretations. To me it seems like he's saying Option A (noble lie).

Let me be clear: this is an unusually important question that we should very much try to get an accurate, precise answer to.

EA as a movement is soul-searching right now, and we're trying to figure out how to prevent this, or something similar-but-worse, from happening again. We need to make changes, but which changes are still unknown.

To determine which changes to make, we need to figure out if this situation was: A. "naive utilitarian went too far", or B. "sociopath using EA to reputation-launder".

Both are extremely bad. But they require different corrections, lest we correct the wrong things (and/or neglect to correct the right things).

Note: I'm not using "sociopath" in the clinical sense, at least not checking for that usage, but more as the colloquial term for "someone who is chronically incapable of empathy / caring about others at the level of 'feeling sad when they feel sad'".


New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

4 Answers sorted by

I want to push back against the question itself - I think it might be a false dichotomy. I understand we like to put people into boxes, but it is likely things are more complex than that. For example, being a naive utilitarian and being a sociopath is not mutually exclusive, or he could be neither. I would like an honest discussion about what happened to consider these possibilities, too.

My thoughts on "both": in that case, I wonder if it's more like a merge, or more like a Jekyll/Hyde thing

I feel less strongly that this is an "unusually important question" that needs an accurate / precise answer.

It seems like both A and B are bad scenarios that the EA movement should be more robust against, and it seems clear that regardless of which scenario (or some other possibility/combination) was true, the EA movement has room to improve when it comes to preventing / mitigating the harms from such risks.

I think, rather than over-indexing on the minutiae of SBF's personal philosophy or psyche, it's probably more useful for the EA movement to think about how it can strengthen itself against movement-related risks generally going forward. It's probably more useful for those steering the EA movement to consider things like more transparent systems and better governance, to find ways to reduce the risk of any one individual or small groups of people taking actions that bring risks to the entire EA movement, to try work out what else might lead to large gaps between what the "EA ideal" is and what "EA-in-practice" could end up looking like.

[written hastily, not very confident]

I just read the interview on Vox and he sounded very cynical. I didn't and still don't know SBF very well, so don't know if this is a usual tone for him or not, but the conversation leading into the quoted bit was him saying that people take good/bad perspectives unfairly. Given the situation that happened with CZ (rival, possible back stabber) it sounded like a bitter moment to me rather than a genuine comment on his stance about ethics. The commentary about him in the crypto world is so negative and demonising that I can see why he might be cynical about it, esp for those who supposedly shared his vision but turned their back on him as soon as there was rumour of an issue. Not defending him, but just saying he may be fixated on the recent turn of events, and may be feeling defensive rather than compassionate about the losses during the interview. His portion of the DMs were not very coherent anyway. 

All this to say: I don't know how much this reflects his views. The quote itself read like the 2nd option to me (a lie to win reputation (edit: not necessarily money)), but it also just sounds like commentary about his rival's tactics on him that set the catalyst for his bankruptcy, that he's hung up on.  

I don't know what you mean by "naive utilitarian." Do you mean someone with genuine good intent for altruism?  So that option A is SBF had good intent and used fraud as a tool for altruism.  And option B is SBF had bad intent and used altruism as a tool for fraud.

I think it's option B. First, he has a lot of other characteristics of a sociopath with bad intent. These types are typically extremely charismatic and skilled at leadership, group mind control, and manipulation. Lots of people are saying they were enthralled by him and impressed by his charisma. Same as a cult leader who are typically sociopaths. 

Second, he was blowing a ton of money on personal extreme luxury like high end real estate. That money could have been donated instead of spent on himself and wealthy family/friends.