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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
John Naughton

Longtermism: how good intentions and the rich created a dangerous creed

Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Sam Bankman-Fried on stage at the Crypto Bahamas conference in April this year.
Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Sam Bankman-Fried on stage at the Crypto Bahamas conference in April this year. Photograph: YouTube

In the past few weeks a photograph of Tony Blair and his buddy Bill Clinton sharing a panel with a scruffy kid wearing a T-shirt, baggy shorts and trainers has been doing the rounds. The April event was in the Bahamas and funded by an outfit called FTX – a supposedly “user-friendly crypto exchange” – owned by the scruffy kid, Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF from now on). Blair and Clinton are looking very pleased to be there, providing confirmation of the aphrodisiac effect of great wealth, because the lad who was playing host was apparently as rich as Croesus, or at any rate worth $32bn.

And this was real wealth, it seemed. After all, the venture capitalists at Sequoia – who had backed Silicon Valley success stories such as Google and PayPal – had given him the green light (as well as some of their investors’ money). A few months after Blair and Clinton made their pilgrimage to the sun-soaked and regulation-lite Bahamas, one of Sequoia’s partners offered a breathless endorsement of SBF and his crypto exchange. “Of the exchanges that we had met and looked at”, she wrote, “some of them had regulatory issues, some of them were already public. And then there was Sam.” And FTX, which, Sequoia felt, was “Goldilocks-perfect”.

And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. In fact it was effectively bankrupt. And it had been managed, said the administrator brought in to sort out the mess, using fraternity-house accounting principles – which kind-of squared with SBF’s sartorial style. The thousands of get-rich-quick schmucks who had invested their savings on various FTX exchanges, however, were not impressed and may even now be having to pawn their handmade suits.

All of which is par for the course for the crypto racket, except for two things. The first is that SBF is a proclaimed effective altruist, ie a believer that the most important moral imperative is to make shedloads of money in order that one can give it away to do good. The second is that he is a confirmed subscriber to “longtermism” – the idea that the far future should be given at least as much weight as the present in moral and political decision-making. In 2022 alone he had, according to the Economist, funnelled more than $130m into the movement via the FTX Future Fund, a non-profit organisation that provides grants to projects aiming to secure humanity’s long-term future.

This strange convergence of a philosophy of philanthropic giving with a concern about existential risk to humanity’s future is intriguing. The philosophical roots go back to Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher who teaches at Princeton and now describes himself as a “hedonistic utilitarian”. He is famous for (among many other things) a 1972 essay, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, in which he argued that that affluent people are morally obliged to donate far more resources to humanitarian causes than is considered normal in western cultures.

Singer’s article had a life-changing impact on William MacAskill, a philosophy student at Cambridge and, as a New Yorker profile of him puts it, shunted him “on to a track of rigorous and uncompromising moralism” – which, translated, means very challenging to live with. As a postgraduate student at Oxford he gave away most of his stipend, lived very frugally and started a moral crusade called “effective altruism” (EA), the idea that people ought to do good in the most clear-sighted, ambitious, and unsentimental way possible. So, for example, if you’re a young well-intentioned graduate wondering whether to take a job working for a charity or become a trainee in an investment bank, then the latter is the effective altruistic way of doing good, because in the end you will have far more loot to distribute.

There are various ways of looking at this. At one level, it could just be conscience-salving ethics-washing: making one feel good while earning colossal amounts of money financing the burning of the planet. But at a deeper level there’s a hard-headed edge to it. Instead of having to be cruel to be kind you need to be rational to maximise the benefits of your charity. That, presumably, is what motivated some young hedge fund guys at Bridgewater to set up GiveWell, a nonprofit group that tries to identify the most effective giving opportunities using hard data rather than emotions or moral sentiment. “We search,” says their website,” for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar.”

If you wanted a posh term for this mindset you’d say it was an offshoot of utilitarianism called consequentialism – charity based not on explicitly moral principles, but on pragmatic assessments of the consequences of a gift. What will do the greatest good for the greatest number? And this, it turned out, was catnip to the current crop of young tech billionaires who have become obscenely rich while still in their 30s or 40s and love to flaunt their credentials as super-rational technocrats. These are folks who don’t necessarily want to have their names on boring old university buildings or make donations to established foundations and art galleries. Instead they want to be involved in some way and to see their money getting results and making a measurable impact. Nerds with hearts, you could say.

Not surprisingly, MacAskill’s little crusade started attracting serious money from them – maybe amounting, some think, to more than $30bn. Dustin Moskovitz was an early supporter. He was a co-founder of Facebook and an early contributor to EA, finding that MacAskill’s philosophy aligned nicely with Open Philanthropy, the foundation he set up with his wife to specialise in “strategic cause selection”. As Silicon Valley money poured in, so too did the tech industry’s engineering mindset, obsessed as it is with two things: efficiency and optimisation. But with them also came the valley’s obsession with humanity’s longterm future, whether it be on Earth, Mars or some other extraterrestrial location.

By this time MacAskill had a professorship at Oxford, which also happens to be a hotspot for interest in that long-term future. Among other things, the university hosts Nick Bostrom and his Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), and Nick Beckstead, a research associate at the institute who was also a programme officer at Moskovitz’s Open Philanthropy foundation and, along with MacAskill, a board member of FTX’s Future Fund (from which he, with Beckstead and others, quickly resigned when news of SBF’s implosion spread). This swerve to longtermism was then effectively sealed by the publication of MacAskill’s book What We Owe the Future, arguing that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.

“Strange as it may seem,” he writes at one point, “we are the ancients. We live at the very beginning of history, in the most distant past.” His argument is that even if the world population were to fall by 90%, and if we survive no longer than the average mammalian species (a million years), then 99.5% of all human experience has yet to be lived. So if we can dodge the aforementioned catastrophe – a big “if”, obviously – then a staggering proportion of humanity’s time on Earth is yet to come.

The interesting thing is that MacAskill isn’t as bothered by an impending climate catastrophe as the rest of us. What’s keeping him and his co-evangelists awake at night, it seems, are things like maliciously engineered pathogens or runaway “superintelligent” machines that don’t have our interests at heart, or whatever they have for hearts. The implication is that while we should obviously save the planet and avoid the other threats, the real reason for doing it is that the end of humanity would mean that trillions of potentially happy lives could go unlived.

At this point, two questions come to mind. First, what exactly has this guy been smoking? And secondly, what’s driving this focus on the infinitely-longterm future at the expense of more immediate and soluble problems? Whose interests are being served here? MacAskill has become the poster child for something; but what is it? Without us noticing it, longtermism has become a well-funded movement.

“It is difficult to overstate how influential longtermism has become,” writes one of its longstanding critics, Émile Torres. “Karl Marx in 1845 declared that the point of philosophy isn’t merely to interpret the world but change it, and this is exactly what longtermists have been doing, with extraordinary success. Consider that Elon Musk, who has cited and endorsed Bostrom’s work, has donated £1m to FHI through its sister organisation, the even more grandiosely named Future of Life Institute . This was co-founded by the multimillionaire tech entrepreneur Jaan Tallinn, who “doesn’t believe that climate change poses an existential risk to humanity because of his adherence to the longtermist ideology”.

If a coherent movement is indeed being constructed round this longtermist philosophy, then one reason for taking it seriously is that we have been here before – in what Philip Mirowski christened the “neoliberal thought collective”. When Hayek, Von Mises and co embarked on their project to realign the world along market-friendly lines, they were regarded as continental cranks. And now their ideas rule the democratic world. Keynes was wrong: in the long run we are not all dead.

What I’m reading

Lost in translation
Why Meta’s latest large language model survived only three days online. Lovely piece by Will Douglas Heaven in the MIT Technology Review on the incurable hubris of the tech industry.

Sobering up
Gone Bad, Come to Life”, a revelatory Substack post by Justin EH Smith on fermentation, distillation, sobriety — and “bucket lists”.

High point
Building Fast and Slow: The Empire State Building”, Brian Potter’s absorbing account on Substack of how the famous building was constructed — on time and within budget.

• This article was amended on 5 December 2022 to correct a misspelling of the surname of Dustin Moskovitz.

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