- A chief architect of the effective altruism philosophical movement
- Mentor of FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried
- Philosophy professor at Oxford
As the world picks through the wreckage of the collapsed crypto exchange FTX and its sister trading firm Alameda Research, scrutiny has fallen largely on founder Sam Bankman-Fried and his close circle of allies. But one hugely important figure in the immense financial catastrophe was never a part of Bankman-Fried’s corporate leadership circle: the 35-year-old Scottish philosopher William MacAskill.
Instead, MacAskill is the thinker perhaps most associated with the moral philosophy known as “effective altruism,” which was profoundly influential on Bankman-Fried, Alameda CEO Caroline Ellison and others in their intimate circle. MacAskill is currently an associate professor in philosophy and a research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute at England’s University of Oxford. He is the author of several books, including a 2016 introduction to effective altruism called “Doing Good Better” and a recent follow up called “What We Owe the Future.”
See also: Who's Who in the FTX Inner Circle
Those books, and MacAskill’s broader body of work, may be due for a reassessment after the FTX debacle. Some have argued that MacAskill’s ethical views helped nudge Bankman-Fried to take the risks that ultimately led to the implosion of the Alameda/FTX empire. And according to people, including one of Bankman-Fried’s most prominent financial backers, MacAskill wasn’t just a philosophical influencer: He played a direct role in guiding Bankman-Fried along the path that led to the creation, and ultimately implosion, of Alameda Research and the FTX exchange.
After Bankman-Fried established the philanthropic Future Fund, MacAskill became an adviser, helping distribute funds for maximum impact. After the collapse of Alameda and FTX, MacAskill announced that he had resigned, saying the role had been unpaid. Staff of the Future Fund have also resigned, announcing that many grants already promised to organizations will now go unfulfilled because of the blowup.
While many moral systems maintain that human suffering could be best alleviated by spreading both wealth and power more democratically, effective altruism essentially argues the opposite: that the very smartest and hardest-working individuals should pursue wealth and influence, then leverage it to the greater good. Many if not most members of Bankman-Fried’s inner circle professed effective altruist beliefs. According to a recent profile of MacAskill in the New Yorker, effective altruists worldwide now control roughly $30 billion in philanthropic funds.
According to a fawning profile of Bankman-Fried published by Sequoia Capital, MacAskill had a direct and sizable influence on the founder’s worldview from very early on. (Sequoia has long been one of the most respected venture capital funds in Silicon Valley, and invested a reported $210 million in FTX. It has since written the investment down to zero – and deleted the profile of Bankman-Fried from its website.)
MacAskill, according to the Sequoia profile, was introduced to SBF through MIT’s Epsilon Theta, the “coed fraternity of supergeeks” through which many future members of the FTX leadership circle first connected. That led to a coffee meeting in which MacAskill pitched effective altruism to Bankman-Fried, years before SBF founded the crypto exchange.
During that initial meeting, MacAskill reportedly urged Bankman-Fried to adopt an “earn to give” approach to life. That mindset could be easily mistaken for a moral license to bend the rules, especially by someone who, like Sam Bankman-Fried, “would never read a book.”
But MacAskill’s influence was not merely to give Bankman-Fried an all-too-wobbly ethical framework. Also according to the Sequoia profile, it was MacAskill who suggested Bankman-Fried pursue an internship at the trading firm Jane Street, rather than more directly public-spirited options Bankman-Fried was considering, such as becoming a journalist or entering politics directly. Jane Street became a stepping stone that led directly to the creation, and ultimately downfall, of Alameda Research and FTX.
The global effective altruism community even reportedly played a direct role in the “kimchi premium” trade that is believed to have generated the capital for the creation of FTX. Again according to the Sequoia profile, a Japanese effective altruist helped Bankman-Fried set up the Japanese banking needed to arbitrage the premium on the price of bitcoin in South Korea.
Bankman-Fried’s behavior, which increasingly appears to have included not just mismanagement but substantial fraud, has triggered a wave of vexed soul-searching in the effective altruism community. But critics of MacAskill’s ideas have for years insisted they founder on basic questions, such as: Who determines the right people to (altruistically) pursue wealth and influence? The answer would seem to be a hyper-capitalist tautology: The people who make the most money are inherently the most deserving, because they’re the smartest and therefore also know the best ways to improve the world.
An implicit version of this type of “altruism” was arguably baked into the “change the world” narratives that for a time fueled excitement around tech companies like Facebook (now Meta). That isn't a surprise: This philosophical frame is an ideal way to make boatloads of money doing things like selling user data without having to feel bad about it, as long as you give a lot of the money away. In practice, that’s not so different from the charitable efforts of old-school robber barons like John D. Rockefeller.
To his credit, MacAskill wrote in the aftermath of the collapse that “if those involved deceived others and engaged in fraud … they entirely abandoned the principles of the effective altruism community.” He also seems to have taken his principles more seriously than many of his adherents. According to the New Yorker profile, in his youth MacAskill cut his own expenses to the bone so he could donate money to help people in need, to the point of relying on homemade bread for his dinners.
But that more onerous side of the effective altruism seems fairly flexible for some, including Bankman-Fried: a luxury penthouse in the Bahamas shared with 10 friends is, after all, still a luxury penthouse in the Bahamas.
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