Fantastic piece. A lot to think about and digest. Thank you for writing this.
How can we best follow your work? Do you have a social media handle or email list we should subscribe to?
The FTX episode reminds me of Theranos, in that if I try to take a charitable view of what the founder was doing in each case, I could postulate they believed they needed to "fake it till you make it." In fact, this is advice I have even heard successful entrepreneurs give other aspiring entrepreneurs: "fake it till you make it."
Starting a new company is such a daunting and overwhelming task that those who attempt to do it are going to self select for certain traits. They will tend to be over confident in themselves, they will start endeavors without being sure of their ability to execute on them, they will be reluctant to give up in the face of evidence that they should, they will be charismatic salespeople who can convince others to join them in their efforts and customers to buy their products, and they will believe the ends justify the means in making the company succeed.
The biggest lesson of FTX (for me) is that given who entrepreneurship self selects for, and given the inherent challenges in entrepreneurship and the incentives that it creates, the ground is perhaps fertile for fraud and other immorality.
Obviously entrepreneurship is still important and I do not mean to discourage anyone with a good idea from pursuing it, but we should all be aware of the pressures it creates and the vulnerabilities to bad behavior.
Thank you for putting this together!
I don’t even think we are disagreeing anymore.
Obviously I agree that there can be disagreement on what are the best interventions. That is not a criticism of EA. The world is messy.
But let’s take a thought experiment in which once you decide that you wanted to use your limited resources to improve the world as effectively as possible, you could know exactly how to do that. In that world, I don’t think it should be controversial to do that thing.
To me, that is what EA philosophy is: a goal of improving the world in the most effective way possible. And that is why I say EA should not be controversial.
In the real world we don’t know what the best interventions so we have to make judgements and do research, etc. But to me those are all tactical issues.
The whole point is that to turn it into an either/or question is ridiculous.
The drowning example you give is good because it’s a real one. Drowning is actually the leading cause of death amongst 1-4 year olds (https://www.cdc.gov/drowning/facts/index.html) in the United States. Which is why people with backyard swimming pools have to put fences around them.
But if you saw a child drowning in a swimming pool and refused to save it because you could save more lives in the long run by addressing the systemic issues that make drowning the leading cause of death amongst 1-4 year olds in the United States, well…that’s what Crary’s argument is.
The basis for a lot of utilitarian arguments is the drowning child example (https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/child-in-the-pond/).
Alice Crary’s argument seems to suggest that if you pass a child drowning in a pond, you should let the child drown, because your resources and energy would be better directed at addressing the systemic issues that cause drowning. For example, why is there no fence around the pond? Why aren’t parents more diligent about keeping their toddlers away from ponds. It would be better to hurry past the pond and let the child drown so you can focus on these root cause issues.
I agree EAs aren’t original and weren’t the first.
I do think it makes sense to separate tactics and philosophy.
There are people who say it would be to leave money in a savings account than donate it to a de-worming charity or AMF. One of the most prominent ones is Alice Crary. Here is a recent sample of her argument: https://blog.oup.com/2022/12/the-predictably-grievous-harms-of-effective-altruism/
None of those seem like critiques of the broad idea “I will attempt to think critically about how to reduce the most suffering.” Rather, they take issue with tactics.
So, they aren’t criticisms of EA as a philosophy, they are criticisms of EA tactics.
Also, as Peter Singer recently pointed out, no one ever said EA work was “either / or.” If someone has a systemic solution to global poverty, by all means, pursue it. In the meantime, EAs will donate to AMF and Helen Keller, etc.
So, the question then is whether we should sit on our hands and leave our money in savings accounts while we wait for a solution to systemic poverty, or should we use that money to de-worm a child while we are waiting.