Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

Effective Altruism’s Moral Reckoning

The EA movement, aimed at “doing good better” through reason and evidence, has understandably been tainted by the meteoric fall of FTX which was headed by one of its biggest donors, Sam Bankman — Fried.

Nov 21, 2022

Most of us want to do good. But how do we ensure that our efforts are making the best possible use of the resources we can give? Enter Effective Altruism, founded as a movement from the base of Giving What We Can and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. The basis of the movement is that some ways of doing good achieve much more benefit than others and these differences should be rigorously examined to shape our own charitable behavior. Over the years, EA has spread throughout the halls of elite universities throughout the world, including at NYU Abu Dhabi, where it has grown rapidly as a Student Interest Group over the last few years. Large numbers of students have completed the Arete Fellowship, a rigorous introduction to the concepts and community of the movement. Amidst many anonymous posts on NYUAD community groups, the leadership of the SIG on campus has also become a subject of great controversy.
In its moral guidance, EA advocates for an unapologetic, rational approach to utilitarianism in the context of doing good. Under its principles of impartiality, saving a life in your immediate family has the same value as saving a stranger on a faraway continent you will never meet. Anyone who has attended a large number of EA related meetings has certainly heard about malaria bednets and their superior cost effectiveness compared to other causes. But what happens if we all invest exclusively in malaria prevention, ignoring anything that is deemed “ineffective?” The entire scope of giving becomes reduced to a cold rationality. A major part of the EA movement is “earning to give,” advocating that those in the developed world can most effectively help by pursuing high-earning careers and then donating a significant percentage of their income to “effective” charities.
There’s the backstory of the movement. Recently, cryptocurrency firm FTX collapsed catastrophically. FTX had allegedly been illegally laundering billions of dollars in its customers’ deposits to prop up another trading firm, Alameda Research. Central to both FTX and Alameda Research was the founder of both firms, 30 year old Sam Bankman — Fried, who is a key proponent and significant financial contributor to the Effective Altruism movement. In fact, Bankman — Fried himself had met the movement’s originator, William McAskill, in his youth and said he wanted a job to advance the cause of animal welfare. What he was told was that simply making a lot of money and donating it would far better alleviate animal suffering.
Bankman — Fried followed this path to the tee, beginning work at prestigious Jane Street and then founding the Alameda Research hedge fund. He exploited arbitrage opportunities in the cryptocurrency market to then found the FTX cryptocurrency exchange. Eventually, he was worth 26 billion U.S. dollars. Much of this money, likely propped up by consumer deposits, went into bankrolling the Center for Effective Altruism and related organizations. Now, many of the movement’s institutions are “suddenly broke.” The movement’s plentiful financial resources, which enabled NYUAD students to lavishly attend conferences in places like Singapore and Prague with all-expenses paid, were themselves generated through a caricature of “earning to give.” In an interview with another effective altruist, “SBF,” as he is often referred to, argued that investors in EA causes should have a higher risk tolerance than “ordinary rich people.” His bizarre financial philosophy did represent an abuse of EA’s tenets that few other leaders would advocate for, but nonetheless a leap that can be taken.
Effective Altruism talks of “existential risk,” threats that pose a risk of the “destruction of humanity’s long term potential.” Minimizing the risks of catastrophe, even those that seem more abstract like rogue AI, is also central to “doing good” within the movement. But Bankman-Fried’s FTX Future Fund, which directly supported many philanthropic initiatives, failed to even recognize the existential risks to itself. How is it appropriate to have confidence in the EA movement’s ability to project risk over long term time horizons when even immediate and proximate risks go neglected due to blind hubris? Bankman — Fried managed to style himself as an ethical financier, and the inner workings of his initiatives went unquestioned. However good a movement is, understandably, it is also concerned with its own growth — and how better to ensure that than through billions of dollars in questionable money?
This is not a place to say that EA is an inherently evil movement, or that it has done nothing good. It is merely important, in any movement, to engage in deep reflection and see where its worst impulses can lead. Taken to its extremes, EA creates an extreme ends justify the means mentality, and a cold utilitarianism that is palatable to few. The short term financial struggle the movement will face is a great opportunity for internal soul searching and a redefinition away from insular elitism.
Ethan Fulton is Senior Opinion Editor and Satire Columnist. Email him at
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