Effective Altruism and Ineffective Egoism

The collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire at FTX and Alameda Research has cast a shadow over the “effective altruism” movement, of which he was a major financer. Ironically, I would argue that in the end he failed at altruism because he was an ineffective egoist!

Consider the utter mess he’s made of his life: his company destroyed, his reputation ruined, his relationships in tatters, his future decidedly uncertain (he might be facing jail time), etc. Beyond and before these external goods, consider also what the ancients called goods of the soul: his lack of integrity, self-regulation, moderation, humility, good judgment, and other essential excellences of character.

Now, I think that drawing too sharp a distinction between egoism and altruism is an example of creating a false dichotomy, since the two phenomena tend to merge in any truly healthy marriage, friendship, team, or community. Indeed, SBF missed the mark (to put it mildly!) with regard to both enlightened self-interest and philanthropic benevolence.

Sadly, the rot goes much deeper than any one person. In What We Owe to the Future, the philosophic manifesto of the effective altruism movement, William MacAskill has put forth a position he calls longtermism, which at root is utilitarianism projected forward in time. What struck me most about MacAskill’s book is precisely that he too lacks a clear and complete conception of human flourishing (more on that in another post). Yet having a deep understanding of living well is the only sustainable foundation for helping ourselves and helping others, both in the far future and in the here and now.

Thus step one is to get our intellectual house in order and truly know ourselves as human beings. Thankfully, the required insights can be found throughout the great wisdom traditions. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, all we really need to do is polish the stones we find on the shores of the great ocean of truth. On the other hand, living up to these ideals might be slightly more challenging…

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