EA Sports, Utilitarian Sorts
Are billionaires cost effective?
In the real world, these just people with ideas,
They just like me and you when the smoke and camera disappear
—Dead Prez, Hip Hop
Several weeks back the cryptoverse was shaken to its core by the summary evaporation of the FTX empire (to the extent that there can be a core within the utopia of ‘decentralized’ finance, or defi, where all are masters and none servants). In short, it was discovered that the company, known for its pathbreaking innovations in blockchain finance, had in fact cobbled together a fairly old fashioned, almost pedestrian, financial scheme—i.e., steal depositor funds to make speculative bets and live well. Of course, the central figure is this modern day Greek tragedy—whereby our code wielding hero is himself unceremoniously decoded via global public spectacle—is one Sam Bankman-Fried aka SBF.This epic unraveling has been well covered by others, especially over at Molly White’s Substack, so I am not looking to retrace this well-trodden ground.
Similarly, the goal here is not to join in the (certainly well-deserved) pile-on directed towards SBF and his gaggle of whiz kids. Rather, given SBF’s close association with effective altruism or EA,these ongoing disturbances in the (crypto) Force provide an excellent point of entry into the EA world. Of course, as with the investigations of FTX’s collapse, EA and the (again well-deserved) criticism of SBF’s weapons-grade hypocrisy have been much discussed. But here I do feel I have something to add to the discourse by conducting an ideological excavation of this moment.
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As such, I am hoping to offer some critical reflections on EA in a manner that pushes beyond the admittedly captivating erasure of a vast fortune and A-list public persona in a matter of days.
Thus, rather than going with the overly simplistic formulation: SBF was a major EA player, SBF sucks, therefore EA sucks, I am hoping to sketch out some arguments that plug the EA movement into the broader web of historical intellectual circuitry that created the conditions that abetted its rise. Indeed, EA first popped on my radar some months back when SBF was still the toast-of-the-town and spraying money all around. Yet even then, I felt significant misgivings about the enterprise.
What is EA?
As opposed to terms like ‘neoliberal’, ‘hipster’, or ‘woke’ that (whatever their origins) have morphed into near universal linguistic cudgels of aspersion, EA has a fairly sizable and influential set of adherents that, like SBF, embrace the term and promote its virtues. I point this out to contrast it with terms like neoliberalism which given the near total absence of people claiming to one, leaves the critic shadow boxing with a term that accumulates pejoratives such that it starts to simply stand in for all bad stuff.In this sense, we have have an actual well-formulated positive explication of EA and its values to hold up to the light of contemplation and critique.
At its core EA springs from a set of fairly straightforward propositions regarding how to apportion money donated from relatively well-off people to those that are relatively unwell-off. Per the brand name, EA looks to make a person’s or organization’s altruism as effective as possible. To fill out the picture a little bit more I will add Matt Yglesias’ tidy summation of EA’s more worthwhile claims.
The typical middle-class or richer resident in the developed world is a pretty privileged person, all things considered, who could be doing tremendous good in the world by being somewhat more charitable.
An extremely large share of philanthropy goes to causes that cannot be even remotely described as maximizing benefit for humanity. If society were inclined to demand just a little bit of rigor in terms of “why are you supporting this?” we could unlock a lot of good.
Direct cash transfers to the poorest people in the world seem like a good cause with scaling potential; there also appear to be several interventions related to health and nutrition that are even more valuable at the margin than cash.
There are a number of important U.S. policy areas that are relatively neglected by mainstream U.S. political advocacy spending, including housing supply production, international labor mobility, and macroeconomic stabilization.
At first glance, these propositions may strike one as largely unobjectionable. I mean, all things being equal, if you asked me if I would prefer a billionaire spend their money on a new building on Harvard’s campus or supporting efforts to reduce the scourge of malaria, I would choose the latter. Likewise, there is certainly something to be said for the fact that a mismatch often exists between the most dire afflictions affecting people and the allocation of limited funds. Nonetheless, such agreeable formulations conceal important assumptions about the nature of the social world, ethics, and the intellectual (or ideological) dispositions driving our age.
The Problem With EA
As I mentioned above, the flaws I find with EA have pretty much nothing to do with the downfall of its poster boy SBF. In fact, I would contend that in an alternative world where he and FTX are still thriving, the critiques I plan to lay out would remain operative. Further, it’s worth adding here that this is not intended as a rebuke of any individual purveyor of EA but rather its flaws as a model and what it lacks as an effort to address the mounting crises besieging humanity at present.
In the broadest sense, I take issue with EA’s tendency towards what I like to call en media res thinking. For those unfamiliar, en media res is a literary term drawing from the Latin phrase for ‘in the middle of things’ to describe a story that seemingly jumps right into the midst of ongoing actions.
To me, this captures the essence of EA in as much as it takes a world of inordinate concentrations of wealth coupled with vast expanses of poverty as a starting point. This immediacy is alluring in that it holds the promise of sweeping away dense ethical frameworks in favor of actionable guidelines for the real world.
In this way, I find EA to be kindred with a facile pragmatism that touts data driven solutions as a means maximizing effectiveness. It reminds me of the many students I have encountered over the years who tell me that they are not political or ideological and thus primarily interested in things that work or get positive results—all the while, seeming to overlook the fact that establishing what constitutes working or positive results is itself the product of political engagement and/or the employment of political power.
Indeed, the mere claim that one’s goals are not political often represents one of the purest political gambits as it implies that they reside outside the bounds of contestation and debate. Such stances tend to carry the implicit corollary of being objectively reasonable, making any criticism unreasonable by definition.
All this said, the allure of transcending metaphysical questions of ultimate values and ‘just getting on with it’ is understandable. But again, herein lies the rub, who decides what the E in EA represents? Put differently, how do EA proponents decide what is optimally effective to ensure that they are maximally harnessing the forces of the wealthy’s altruism? Indeed, within some realms of the EA camp there have been efforts to come up with units of measure that allow the EA-inclined to do just that.
For instance, a post on a popular EA forum pointed to something called the Nines of Safety formulated by renowned UCLA mathematician Terrence Tao as a potential way to measure effectiveness.Beyond such abstract calculations of risk to human well-being, some EA advocates provide more straightforward assurances like the one mentioned in a 2020 Washington Post exposé. The piece alludes to EA's
obsession with converting dollars into saved lives, or even “quality-adjusted life years,” each one equaling one year of living in perfect health. GiveWell, the movement’s main charity evaluator, crunches the numbers and makes a very rough estimate that, for instance, a donation of $2,300 to the Malaria Consortium’s seasonal malaria chemoprevention program…will save one life.
To be honest, I find that ‘calculations’ such as $2,300 to save a life producing a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion within the sea of my sentiments. It is admirable in that these are good people working upon a sound moral basis. Further, they are almost certainly motivated by a well-founded intransigence at the inhumanity of our world and the extreme disparities that fuel them. At the same time, the romantic always lurking within me cannot help but be repelled by the reduction of these ongoing tragedies to price tags like $2,300 per life.
Indeed, from what I have gathered, this willingness to challenge such sensibilities in the name of doing the most good is one of the central hallmarks of the EA movement. Nor am I so naïve as to not understand that in a world where needs far outstrip funds, hard choices and calculations are necessarily part of the process. Rather, I find such an emphasis on quantification and calculation reinforces a wrong-minded definition of the problem. Or maybe better said, works to shepherd our thinking down some definitional avenues rather than others.
Simply put, if the problem is defined en media res, then the framing reduces to something along the lines of: We have people and areas that are vastly rich and those that are languishing amid a dearth of funds and basic resources, so how do we effectuate an optimal transfer from one to the other? Again, this hardly seems like a sinister proposition.
However, when we consider that to emphasize one framing represents a choice to deemphasize others, an important line of critique becomes much clearer. In a sense, we could think of this as some sort of ideological or ethical opportunity cost. More importantly, this perspective allows us to reformulate the problematic such that the questions become:
How did the vast chasms separating the fortunes of human communities emerge in the first place? How do the underlying political, economic, and ethical dispositions of our age facilitate their persistence? What social forces allow one to be positioned as a purveyor of EA and a another as a potential receptacle for such altruism to be poured into? How can we go about producing a world where rampant deprivation (both absolute and relative) wane to the degree that EA is made redundant?
It is important to highlight here again that I seek neither to impugn the motives nor rebuke the activities of any particular EA-centered individual or organization. Further, it bears pointing out that the EA model is reflective of broader trends in the fields of development theory and practice as well as international politics more generally.
To me, these ideological and programmatic migrations are encapsulated by what I see as a movement towards capitulation. Capitulation in the sense that the current abhorrent state of the global political and economic structure is reduced to some sort of immutable force like gravity that can only be navigated and not altered at a fundamental level. The essence of this framing is well-articulated in the eminent social theorist Max Horkheimer’s estimation that
the superficiality which has been achieved through depth in the last few decades, the passage from critique to the positivistic stance and to concreteness—all this is proof not of an advance but only of resignation. [my emphasis]
Though we have seen some recent cooling of the data-driven-liberation impulses that have come to define and shape our present age, these approaches still tend to dominate the discourse, if only by default and the dedicated diminution of alternatives.
Our age is one where those positing the need to foment ruptures (though not necessarily revolutions) in the very sinews binding the various pieces of our desultory order together are often dismissed as utopian hacks or disconnected dreamers. Within the confines of the dominant ethos, critiques centered on cutting off the political and ideological fuel propelling the machine of injustice onwards are downplayed in favor of those emphasizing ways to tweak its operations and turn the steering wheel.
I point this out because I believe that in many ways EA is better understood as being symptomatic of a broader flaw in the social, ideological, and political toolkit we (including myself) commonly resort to in the face of our accumulating crises. As such, it is essential to contextualize the shortfalls of EA within the wider parameters of what it means to exist within a utilitarian age.
Our Utilitarian Epoch
On the one hand, utilitarianism encompasses a massive intellectual domain that would be hard to fully capture in a one-hundred-thousand word work, let alone this short(ish) essay. On the other hand, its vastness grows out of a very tidy, almost trite, formulation that our ethics—and by extension policy choices—should be guided by the aspiration to ‘do the greatest good for the greatest number’.
For a fuller, and therefore fairer, explication, we can look to one of utilitarianism’s most articulate proponents, John Stuart Mill.In his seminal work, Utilitarianism, Mill writes of the greatest happiness principle as
the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), and an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality…This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality…
For Mill and his many disciples, utilitarianism had the supreme virtue of clarity (maximize pleasure; minimize pain) which held out the promise of breaking through the impasse forged by metaphysical philosophical systems. Alas, as with EA, the theoretical maneuvers advanced by Mill and the utilitarian school seems merely to close off questions of ultimate ends rather than resolve them.
For example, in the same work Mill points out that:
Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof.
What’s particularly interesting about this argument is that it acknowledges an ultimate agnosticism about the Good within the context of expounding an ethical framework that is geared towards making the world a better place.So if we lack the ability to produce concrete evidence for what constitutes the Good, what then should guide our actions in terms of pursuing happiness? Indeed, Mill has a quite a bit to say about this, much of which I am broadly sympathetic to.
But for our purposes, it is helpful to highlight another brief, but weighty, passage. Here he takes on this thorny issue of seeking the greatest good while at them same time remaining committed to the ultimate Good’s unknowability concluding that when seeking to account for the ‘quality’ of some action vis-à-vis the public’s welfare:
The test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. [my emphasis]
I interpret this to indicate a subtle but important distinction such that while we may (or must) remain agnostic about the ultimate Good, some people may indeed be in possession of an elevated capacity to valuate, or measure, what is (small g) good.
This very impulse can can be identified in the perspective of contemporary utilitarians such as Peter Singer, a philosophical lodestar for the EA movement.As Katrina Forrester points out in her exceptional book, Singer holds the view that
[i]n the absence of perfect societies regulated by complete principles…‘moral expertise’ of the kind possessed by philosophers was required to show individuals their duties and how to discharge them—individually or through associations, the state, civil society, or the market. [my emphasis]
This observation takes us a good ways towards understanding how utilitarian principles work in practice and the significant problems that accompany them. Furthermore, it sheds light upon the proverbial ghost in the EA machine. In sum, though utilitarianism may eschew any specific formulation of the Good, its ethical system does require some concrete notions of what is ‘good’ or ‘better’ that must come from somewhere.
As illustrated above, from what I can gather, this somewhere tends to boil down to a constellation of elite opinion makers endowed with a more refined and sophisticated ethical palate. Now it is important to stress here that this is not to advance some anti-elite screed per se, as I do think person’s expertise is something to be taken quite seriously, as in I tend to want to go to a doctor that has spent a bunch of time and effort training to be a doctor or be in buildings designed by professional architects and engineers.
However, as opposed to these fairly straightforward examples, the situation becomes far murkier when we plunge into the realm of ethics. Put differently, the base of knowledge (though by no means complete) these professional fields rest upon is far sturdier than areas tied to human values and visions of the Good, or even what is good. I use murky intentionally as the utilitarian project, and its offspring like EA, seem in part dedicated to clarifying the waters surrounding ethics and morality, making it akin to the stuff doctors, architects, or engineers do.
It almost strikes one as a reformation, or perhaps distillation, of Plato’s philosopher kings for the mass politics of the industrial age. However, rather than going through the laborious training and education Plato envisioned for his enlighten rulers, we find ourselves increasingly beholden to the inclinations of those who have amassed vast fortunes to glean what is good. Point being, as even Mill acknowledges, some measure of guesswork about the Good will always be lurking in the background of seemingly ‘technical’ choices about what is effective, or even altruistic.
Returning to Mill, I think it is of great importance to highlight the fact that he spent the entirety of his working life in the employ of the East India Company that was deeply enmeshed in the British colonial project in South Asia. Mill found a way to square his genuinely progressive utilitarianism with enduring support for for both his employer and the colonial project more generally in part on the view that:
among the inhabitants of our earth, the European family of nations is the only one which has ever yet to show any capability of spontaneous improvement beyond a certain low-level
Furthermore, he concluded that ultimately:
…despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement…
I raise this not to besmirch Mill, nor in anyway imply that present day utilitarians or EA folks endorse Mill’s views on colonialism (though indeed some may, if in slightly altered form). Rather, I think they are of interest precisely because how radically progressive Mill was on a host of issues including women’s equality and the duty to minimize the suffering of animals. Similarly, he rejected any notions of innate, or biological, racial hierarchies common among his contemporaries. Nonetheless, as forward thinking as many of his ideas were (and are), he was simply unable to escape these particularly dastardly assumptions of his age and most importantly his position within it.
And this is what I hope is one of the main takeaways here, that all logical formulations, especially in the realm of ethics, rest upon assumptions. Further, these sizable assumptions are necessarily wedded to the essential being of the person making them. Lastly, this essence of one’s mode of thought is in some part a function of the position they occupy in the social world.
Thus, for Mill, the formative assumption of European civilizational superiority led him to ‘calculate’ that the native peoples of colonized lands would be, on balance, ‘better’ off under the dominance and tutelage of ‘objectively’ superior societies. It does not take much of an imaginative leap to surmise that the millions of people who endured the depravities bound up with the colonial enterprise would proffer much different calculations.
To be clear, I am not forwarding these propositions to advance some sort of loose, quasi-nihilistic relativism as an alternative to utilitarianism. We live in a world with very real problems and we must do ‘something’ to address them. And those somethings have to be driven by active and concrete assessment of the situation.
However, the formulation of those somethings can and should be democratized to the greatest extent possible. We cannot allow ourselves to be mystified by advanced metrics and calculations such that the underlying assumptions about the world and what is possible remain concealed and unchallenged.
Perhaps the ever insightful philosopher and author Iris Murdoch puts the matter best with her formulation that:
Some form of utilitarianism is probably now the most widely and instinctively accepted philosophy of the western world. What this view lacks, and needs, as some of its critics point out, is a positive conception of virtue. This should not be thought of as a ‘refutation’ of utilitarian insights, which must always travel with us, but rather as a moral light in which to understand and ‘place’ them.
Indeed, it does seem that life in a modern mass society does somewhat compel us to carry the baggage of utilitarianism with us along our journey. The real question, as outlined by Murdoch, is what shall we pack our bags with? And, who shall pack them?
A Shiny New Billionaire (the Latest Model)
Such questions allow us to circle back to where we commenced, thinking about what to make of EA. As mentioned, I do realize that it is a subculture that includes many non-billionaires or even millionaires that truly wish to improve the world. Indeed, I think their call for even the typical member of the American middle-class to consider their relatively exorbitant wealth in the global context, is a good one.
Nonetheless, these thing can be true in a world where it is also true that the EA ethos has attracted a cadre of billionaires promoting the use of big data and advanced analytics to make the world a better place. So let’s home in on these billionaires (and so as not to disturb their fragile sense of worth, I am willing to include those with a mere hundreds-of-millions)who tout EA as a means for making their donated money do the most 'good'. From this vantage point, EA almost strikes one as a sort of networking app matching the super rich with those in the most dire straights.
This takes us back to the en media res dynamics and certain epistemological propensities of actors in the EA space, and utilitarianism more broadly. By epistemological propensities I mean a hyper-focus on the measurable or quantifiable as the gold standard or, in their view, perhaps the only standard for evaluating efficacy. In his important critique of this drive to quantify, Steffen Mau emphasizes that
The cult of numbers that masquerades as rationalization has momentous consequences: it changes the way we construct and understand value or desirability…The symbolic dimension of hierarchizing sociometrics is then reflected in acceptance of many of the criteria underpinning quantitative ranking. When those criteria come to be perceived as appropriate, self-evident and self-explanatory, then society said to have taken a major step towards the naturalization of social injustice. [my emphasis]
The problem of obsessive quantification does partly grow out of what Mau describes as a process that forms our values and valuations as much as it serves as a tool to measure things against them. But perhaps an even bigger problem stems from the vast terrain of social reality fundamentally at odds with any mechanism of quantification. Of course, measurement and quantification have a role to play in trying to improve people’s lives, but when it is reified and held out as the sole means for adjudication and comparison, huge pieces of the puzzle are necessarily discarded.
To some degree, this line of critique upends one of the EA’s core propositions. Whereas EA proponents contend that an issue’s salience with the public may lead to misallocation of philanthropic resources, the notion here is that the very emphasis on quantification generates a misapprehension of the very nature of the social problems we are facing from climate change to enduring widespread poverty. In sum, things that are more readily subjected to measurement take precedent over critical matters that elude precise quantification.
For example, what is the cost of producing a billionaire?
Of course, such a question may strike one as a touch odd given that it inverts the common framing of billionaires as the preeminent producers of stuff. But when framed differently, billionaires are a social output as much as, if not more than, they are fonts of output themselves. To give this more form, let’s select a few industries, consumer electronics and clothing.
What is the cost in terms of exploited and dehumanized labor (from the mines to the factories) required to produce billionaires in these industries? Not just in the Marxian since of having having one’s labor appropriated for profit, which is somewhat quantifiable. But the actual qualitative experience of being exploited or dehumanized. Further, how should we measure the certain toll it takes on their families, i.e., the experience of seeing one’s parents or siblings so mistreated?
How would we measure the cost on the backend of the production cycle for electronics in terms of the chemical stews emanating from landfills teeming with old phones and computers?
What price would we want to put on the countless human beings who have to persist amid the this refuse and suffer countless medical and emotional traumas as a result?
Again, not just in terms of negative health outcomes and other ‘externalities’, but the experience of being compelled to persist in a state defined but such wanton indifference to one’s well-being.
What if the most effective way for a billionaire to be altruistic is not for them to ‘smartly’ donate their fortunes, but to have never have accumulated such fortunes in the first place?
Maybe, to use EA parlance, producing billionaires is a net loss when the costs and benefits are weighed. And if this is the case, the most effective way to ‘help’ people is to create a social order that delimits the production of billionaires, or even millionaires. Of course, these is precisely the kinds of proposals that would not be on the agenda at your local EA conference because enlightened billionaires are the heroes of that arena. They are the calculators, not the calculated!
Moreover, scrutiny of this sort illustrates how a focus on the quantifiable operates as a convenient mechanism for sidestepping the most difficult features of the prevailing social order. I think most of us intuitively grasp the notion of dehumanization and perhaps have experienced it to varying degrees ourselves. Further, I think it would be a safe conjecture to posit that such experiences are deeply impactful upon our lives.
But alas, how do you measure it?
Ditto the pain and emotional despair one must feel at being subjected to poisoning at the behest of processes ultimately bound up with the production of billionaires? Here too, I think all of us, (even if like myself you have never had to endure such debasement) can imagine it, and perhaps feel a pang of sorrow at the mere contemplation of such things.
But again, how would you measure it? What are the units of dehumanization and suffering? Maybe we can call them, hurts?
Having to wake in the morning knowing that a day of abusive and grueling labor making Gucci bags awaits you, 5.38 hurts?
Having you child become developmentally disabled from exposure to toxic chemicals is 16.108 hurts?
How many hurts does it take to produce your average billionaire?
As this thought exercise makes plain, the quantify and transfer approach embodied in the EA wards off any meaningful engagement with the depths of our present social pathologies and their foundations. However, this is not say that our present predicaments are beyond recourse nor are we lacking in realm of potential pathways forward.
For example, Tim Rogan’s recent penetrating account and analysis of a group of early twentieth century social theorists, which he dubs the moral economists, provides some excellent fodder when it comes to thinking about different courses that are readily available to us. Rogan’s notes that although our present
emphasis on material inequality seems unremarkable in our own time…in historical perspective it is extraordinary. It represents a radical truncation of the parameters of the critique of capitalism. An alternative critical tradition focused less on material outcomes then on moral or spiritual consequences has fallen into disuse.
And that a recentering of moral or spiritual aspects would work to
[destabilize] utilitarian orthodoxy by insinuating alternative understandings of what it means to be human in its place.
In this vain, we can turn again to Horkheimer who similarly pointed to the consequences of casting an overly corporeal lens upon the social world. He presciently observes that
when man is regarded as a spiritual being and not as a biological species, he is always a definite individual, not the dimensionless abstraction, distilled from the individuals of every social stratum, class, country, and age, such as those who ride in the antitheoretical train declared to be the concrete reality.
Here Horkheimer invites us to ponder how emphasizing an individual’s incorporeal features renders them in some sense more real, while approaches claiming to anchor themselves in the ‘real world’ tend to depict us as desiccated, ephemeral abstractions.
Alas, perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of human nature is the capacity to debate, formulate, and reformulate what human nature is. We all do indeed come into this world en media res, but we need not accept the social parameters that are our inheritance, if not our burden. To my mind, one extremely effective and altruistic path to follow would be a movement in line with the ideas of Horkheimer and the moral economists.
This may be first step towards permanently shuttering the billionaire-assembly-line that continues to churn out SBFs and all sorts of other models. According to my calculations, it’s simply not a net positive, too many hurts.
Thanks as always for reading, please be sure to check out the companion podcast to this essay, here.
My general annoyance with the ever growing phenomenon of three-initial-famous-sorts or TIFS, is only slightly surpassed by my disinclination to repeatedly type out Bankman-Fried, so SBF it is!
Ever since I heard someone deride a stand up set as neoliberal, I have kind of felt that the moniker has lost all its utility, to the extent that it ever had any.
This is an abridged version of the list he provides. But you should definitely check out the entire piece.
To be clear, it does not seem that Tao was necessarily positing this as a potential tool for EA. You can also find Tao’s original post here.
n.b. I shall not be using JSM as a stand in for John Stuart Mill as 1) ‘Mill’ works fine and saves me only one key stroke and 2) referring to him as JSM would rightly lead to my effective banishment from polite society.
In philosophy speak capital G, ‘Good’ stands in as a reference to some sort of ultimate ends or justice.
Interestingly enough, Singer has penned a recent piece arguing that the SBF-FTX meltdown does not discredit EA. I agree, but as argued here mainly because I found it to be discreditable well before SBF became a figure of significant disrepute.
These last two quotations from Mill come from The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill however I came across these particular passages while reading an article by Craig Grant Campbell published in the South African Journal of Philosophy.
To those with tens of millions, I am sorry but I just cannot, in good conscious, include in a grouping of the super rich. Simply rich you shall remain in my conceptual scheme!