Alexander Zaitchik on Effective Altruism + Longtermism

As the news that thirty year-old cryptocurrency baron, Sam Bankman-Fried‘s, FTX empire suddenly collapsed, the residual effects reverberated in the spheres of business, politics and philanthropy. Bankman-Fried was one of the largest donors to and a huge proponent of effective altruism, a social and philosophical movement started by academics Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to author and journalist Alexander Zaitchik to learn more about the effective altruism movement and its offshoot known as “longtermism.” We discuss how longtermism sprung from effective altruism, how the downfall of Bankman-Fried might change the mega-philanthropy space moving forward, and how the movement all too often ignores the immediate threat of climate change.

00:01 Narrator –  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:25 Alexander Zaitchik (AZ) – Yes they have pretty strong recruitment at elite universities. Very ambitious people, but I don’t think it’s because those people are drawn to philanthropy so much as to the extent that I’ve had experience with them, it’s as much as anything, a veneer for ambition and it basically can offer sainthood to people who just want to make a lot of money.

00:52 Narrator – As the news that thirty year-old cryptocurrency baron, Sam Bankman-Fried’s, FTX empire suddenly collapsed, the residual effects reverberated in the spheres of business, politics and philanthropy. Bankman-Fried was one of the largest donors to and a huge proponent of effective altruism, a social and philosophical movement started by academics Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to author and journalist Alexander Zaitchik to learn more about the effective altruism movement and its offshoot known as “longtermism.” We discuss how longtermism sprung from effective altruism, how the downfall of Bankman-Fried might change the mega-philanthropy space moving forward, and how the movement all too often ignores the immediate threat of climate change.

02:02 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Alex Zaitchik. He is a journalist and author. His latest book is called “Owning the Sun. Alex, welcome to see change radio.

02:12 Alexander Zaitchik (AZ) – Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

02:14 Alex Wise (AW) – So you have a piece that was pretty prescient in the New Republic published in late October, entitled The Heavy Price of Longtermism, and I say it was a little prescient because this was before the Sam Bankman-Fried. FTX scandal really unfolded in full view, so you must have been working on this piece a little bit before that. I imagine why don’t you first kind of explain what longtermism means and why you decided to undertake this piece.

02:47 AZ – Well, longtermism is, as you hinted at a very popular parlor philosophy among Silicon Valley and adjacent new money. Billionaires Sam Bankman-Fried is one of many young tech billionaires who is lavishly funding this movement. Which is best described as an extension of another movement known as Effective Altruism which has about a decade long lineages, people might be more familiar with EA, but you can’t really talk about longtermism without talking about EA first.

03:24 AW – OK, so then why don’t we talk about effective altruism first?

03:27 AZ – Effective altruism was controversial is controversial as well, but it does sound very appealing at first. The idea is basically it was an attempt to rationalize and maximize the impact of philanthropic. Giving and it was an ethical system for organizing your life to maximize your ability to contribute to this efficient giving. Basically the idea was you should try to make as much money as possible and then donate a large portion of your income to EA approved nonprofits that can produce these outsized impacts by great simple interventions in under resourced areas like mosquito nets in Africa for example is a popular EA example.

04:15 AW – I read that example that you gave in the New Republic piece and I had just actually heard about mosquito nets from somebody and then researched it. And there’s an apocryphal tale there with that example, and so the quote was something to the effect of.. “it’s better to give $100 mosquito nets to these people in Africa, then give them $1000” but what happened with a lot of these mosquito nets was they were used as fishing nets by local fishermen. In some of these more fragile ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa. And because the mosquito nets were so fine. And they had such small holes. They had a lot of bycatch, very small fish that ended up dying and collapsing the whole fishery in each ecosystem. So these mosquito nets were really kind of an allegory for, you know, this paternalistic white knight colonial thing. We’ll give you all these mosquito nets and the mosquito Nets end up killing their livelihood.

05:20 AZ – Yeah, maybe that’s a good metaphor for the for the whole enterprise. Because the larger. Criticism of EA. The sort of most profound one, I think, is a structural one which was that by putting all of the emphasis on dollar value, you basically end up valorising people who can produce the most dollars and focusing very narrowly on giving as a metric to these philanthropy’s that have sort of single issue, focus and then, of course, what that means is you put no value at all into looking at the underlying causes of the issues you’re trying to address, i.e., poverty north-south India. Quality pollution, et cetera and the rap against EA was, it was letting a system off the hook that did not deserve to be let off the hook. And not only that, but making heroes of people like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who could launder their their billions through these philanthropic enterprises while also reinforcing. The system that’s reliably producing more suffering in poverty and in public health emerged. So there was a controversy around EA. The around effective altruism before longtermism emerged as its successor philosophy. I guess you could call it. Basically what happened was. Future generations was considered a subset concern of the effect of altruism. Movement, the idea was that whether someone is 10,000 miles away from you or 10 feet away from you, their suffering is of the same value their life is of the same value, and you can also project that temporarily so that somebody living 10,000 years into the future is worth as much as someone born or that someone alive at the present.

07:10 AW – And these philosophies were kind of set forth. We should mention by academics, right? William MacAskill and Toby Ord were kind of the the godfathers of the effective altruism movement. And then MacAskill has this book called what we owe the future, which sounds a little more like the the Bible of longtermism. Is that right? I haven’t read it.

07:29 AZ – Yeah, Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill were sort of the three faces of effective altruism, and there were other figures who we can get into who sort of took the the football and ran with it with long term. But basically what happened was this idea that future people matter became the emphasis of this other strain known as longtermism and slowly the value of those future people increased to the point where they were not equal to present day human beings in their suffering but greatly exceeded the value. Based on this notion of expected value, because the future could possibly be inhabited by hundreds of billions or trillions of people. Then you know 6 billion people today. Suddenly don’t matter so much and it basically inverted one of the core insights of effective altruism and dramatically changed its equalizing assumption that everyone suffering is equal. And once it did that, it opened the door to what critics say is a justification for not only ignoring suffering and injustice and pollution in the present, but justifying those things as necessary cost of enabling this future spacefaring civilization to take place. Because in order to reach that civilization we have to supercharge economic growth. That’s the key problem, I think that doesn’t get talked enough with people thinking longtermism is really about thinking about the future and it’s somehow dovetails with an environmental and ecological awareness. It’s actually an enemy of an ecological approach to politics because it requires economic growth be supercharged at all costs. It’s to ensure technological progress accelerates to the point where we can do all of these things that Elon Musk wants us to be doing in the next two or 300 years and Musk. By the way, it’s worth noting is a big fan of this book that you mentioned, which is the latest sort of mass audience facing Bible of longtermism called what we are the future. Musk said that, it was basically his own philosophy on paper.

09:57 AW – So you’ve outlined longtermism, defined effective altruism, kind of given us the original faces, the ideas behind it. But now connect the dots to the billionaire class that it’s embraced, Alex.

10:10 AZ – Right, well, they have been funded very, very well by the the sort of new tech elite I mentioned Dustin Moskowitz, the founder of Skype. Sam Bankman-Fried who you mentioned at the top. There’s a long list of these people who have been funding institutes and research agendas and books and papers, and it was their money that basically. Took effective altruism and made longtermism the dominant. Strain and concern. And it wasn’t about helping people who are equal on planet Earth in the present, but it suddenly became all about prioritizing people in the future, this sort of weird cosmic enlargement of what amounts to a kind of pro-life argument. You know, people who say the unborn are paramount in in the abortion debate. They’re basically saying billions of unborn people who it’s worth noting are not going to be human beings in the traditional sense, but they’re going to be disembodied AI intelligences. They are essentially trumping the suffering of homeless sapiens as we know them today because there will be so many of them and their ability to consume and produce pleasure will be so large. The value of all of that future pleasure is really the draw. Driving sort of organizing principle for these people, and that is something that you kind of have to be a billionaire to be obsessed with, or an intellectual on their payroll. It’s not something that most people understand how to think about the future. Most people think in terms of their grandchildren. They think of you know the IPCC. Reports that give us ten 20-30 years to make fundamental changes to ensure something like a hospitable planet for the next generation. This is what people think of as the long term for good reason. But when you’re, you know, building space bunkers in Mars and reading science fiction, and you’re able to indulge your ego and thinking. You can download your brain and maybe you’ll survive in 3030 thousand years or whatever time frame these people are thinking of. And it does go out. Hundreds and thousands of years, millions of years. This is the kind of politics that you end up with. And the fact that it’s been mainstreamed to the extent that it has is a testament to the funding behind it, and really nothing else because you take away the funding and it’s just it’s really just whack job stuff.

12:51 (Music Break)

13:53 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and journalist Alex Zaitchik. His latest book is owning the son of People, history of Monopoly medicine from aspirin to COVID-19 vaccines, and we’re discussing his piece for the New Republic dated October 24th – “The heavy price of longtermism.” So Alex, the idea of effective altruism I I mentioned that it sounds benign and if we remove the billionaire element of it, if we remove the longtermism element of some of these things and just look at the idea of people pledging to give more and to look into how they give and closer spend more time and devote more of yourself to giving and make that something you’re passionate about. I don’t think that has people upset.

14:42 AZ – I wouldn’t underplay the controversy around effective altruism because the cost of that focus, which you just described, which does sound good on its face, is a disregard for structural analysis systems critiques.

14:57 AW – Yes, it’s very data-driven, right?

14:59 AZ – It’s very data-driven, it’s very narrow. It’s very sort of technocratic. Top down these NGO’s will do their thing and the global S will be happy for it.

15:11 AW – But that’s the movement I think I I when I was explaining. I think the idea is benign. I think the movement is what you’re talking about, where it’s taken on this other, less benign area where it has to be technocratic.

15:24 AZ – Yeah, I mean, rationalizing philanthropy is fine as far as it goes. But if it comes at the cost of any larger thinking about the world or more profound thinking about why these problems are so persistent and getting worse in many cases, then I don’t know if that’s a good trade.

15:41 AW – No, no, I agree. And then when you look at how long termism sprung from this, you mentioned the IPCC report and the messaging that the climate movement has a problem with is that it seems so vague it seems so in the future. But longtermism takes this to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

15:59 AZ – Yeah, they basically are concerned with risks to humanity’s survival slash technological advancement if something ends up wiping out three billion people, especially if they happen to be poor and live in countries. Without a whole lot of chasity. That’s kind of a detail along the lines of Stalin’s comment about, you know, one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic that’s kind of how they view human history. It’s all about generating velocity for our conquest of the stars by our distant, digital descendants.

16:45 AW – And the ends justifying the means.

16:46 AZ – Very much so. This utilitarian movement and so was effective altruism, so is effective altruism, and they share that philosophical DNA if it’s good according to their values as they in their goals as they define them. If it furthers those goals, then it’s good by definition, even if that means in their own words. Dispatching with very traditional long held enlightenment standards of morality, and where that goes is some very very dark places. Where the effective altruists would say, look whether you’re in sub-Saharan Africa or suburban New Jersey, your life has an equal value. Longtermism does the exact opposite. And it says if you know all those people in sub-Saharan Africa have to die to ensure that these future people can not only live, but continue humanity’s acceleration. Into this kind of like permanent expansion growth state that they think is going to be possible because they have no understanding of physical limits or systems or basic biophysical laws.They just think it can just keep going on forever and ever first on Earth and then on other planets. Uhm, then yeah it is a recipe for basically being willing to sacrifice most of the people who are alive today because they can’t contribute to this project and in utilitarian terms, they’re not worth much. They’re not. They don’t have much value, and it’s this very slippery slope that these guys have laid before us, and they’re teaching in major universities. They’re in government, they’re running these big funding arms, although luckily not the FTX. Future Institute for Foundation. And anymore so that funding world is shrinking with with their most recent crypto collapse, which I guess is another good thing about that. And you know, I also, I just think it’s important to expose these guys for what they are because on the on its face. And if you know you just read these articles on Vox which are basically. Carrying water for for the long term missed funders. It can sound like it’s just thinking about the future and trying to protect, you know future generations, but it’s it’s really anything but it’s it’s a recipe for sacrificing anyone that could possibly remember you in in the sort of course of the three or four generations that we usually think about as as the future.

19:32 AW – Yes, I saw the movie don’t look up before I do anything about this longtermism. I didn’t actually enjoy the film very much, it seems so far fetched the character. I don’t know if you saw this, but like the Steve Jobs kind of character now it kind of connects in my mind as a more compelling parody.

19:50 AZ – You know, I haven’t actually made that connection, but I’m glad you mentioned it, because now that you do mention it that he would absolutely be one of these long term institute. Funding types, that’s him exactly.

20:02 AW – So I think we split hairs sometimes and we give the billionaire Class a little bit of leeway when we say, “well, they’re giving it all away,” and that was one of the things. That sounded so righteous about Sam Bankman freds perspective is this was a guy who was making tons of money but he was going to give it all away. But then I just heard he went broke. And he’s putting his @40 million penthouse in the Bahamas up for sale. So this is a guy who was giving it all away but he was living in a $40 million penthouse so these people who are talking about giving it away or not giving it away to the effect that they’re not going to live like modern emperors.

20:38 AZ – These claims are never what they seem. Bill Gates, his wealth has only grown since he started, quote UN quote, giving all of his money away, which has been basically a laundering operation for his funds. His reputation, his name, and the amassing of massive unparalleled political power in public health and and other areas, increasingly agriculture, which is something I’m starting to look into more, for now, after spending some time on his role in public health and in the pharmaceutical industry. I don’t think there’s anything modest about any of these people who make those claims when they, when they’re still worth 10s of billions of dollars and in control the commensurate power that comes with that.

21:23 (Music Break)

22:12 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and journalist Alex Zaitchik. So Alex, if we can just stick to the climate change in the environment as a parallel to the long termism movement, we’ve had several guests on Sea Change Radio over the years talking about we need to have an end of growth. That growth is the problem. We need to have different metrics for measuring success as societies and governments and get rid of GDP and and focus on things like the Global Happiness Index. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that movement. That sounds almost too far fetched for a good water cooler conversation, but the messaging of longtermism is one that I think that from my conversations with people who understand it better than me, they tend to say “well, you got to watch this Ted talk or you have to read this book” and it requires a decent amount of investment to “get it.” I don’t think that is going to lead to a mass movement. It’s going to lead to an elite movement. Is that fair to say?

23:18 AZ – In terms of the growth issue and environmental. Limits and ecological limits of a closed system like planet Earth. I can save you a whole bunch of time on YouTube and tell you they don’t mention those things at all.

23:31 AW – They don’t even seem to be aware of them, right? It’s not just like these technological silver bullets that they want to perpetuate things.

23:37 AZ – No, they just dismissed it out of hand McAskill in his book says look to the extent climate change is real and he’s not climate denier. But he says, look, we could go 15 degrees higher and you know we’ll still be able to grow food somehow and the rich countries will adapt. And it’s not going to be an extinction threat.

23:53 AW – So he dismisses climate change.

23:55 AZ – Yeah, and nuclear war too because they think as long as enough of the wealthy countries can survive and continue to power technological advancement, it’s not really a disaster for them.

24:09 AZ – The real disaster would be some sort of equal steady state economy, in which there was World Peace and happiness. We weren’t completely devoted to economic growth and hyper technological change for then that would be the real disaster. It’s exactly backward from what most people think is the only way out of our current mess they want to basically, keep going down the same path only. To step on the gas and whatever the you know consequences of that are, it’s worth it. Slowing down and trying to rebuild the civilization along different lines and different values. That’s the one thing that they cannot allow because it risks the colonization of the Galaxy by these hyper intelligent growth obsessed super machines that they think are going to be all over the universe in 50,000 years because they had the foresight to make sure that they could happen and nobody else understood what had to be done, and nobody else had the fortitude to make the sacrifices that this requires.

25:26 AW -Sticking with the parallels of the climate change movement, I can’t help but think that similar to how we pooh-poohed some of the evangelists of global warming like Al Gore. I remember talking to a friend who was like, well, he’s flying around in private jets. His carbon footprint is enormous. “He’s a hypocrite.” A lot of people would say, “well, what’s the point? We’re all heating up the planet, and if Al Gore can take a private jet, then I I can buy a Ford F-150 and burn as much gas as I want.” Similarly, I see that being maybe a problem for philanthropy on a granular scale where somebody who isn’t a billionaire but should be considering giving more of their net worth away decides not to because you see the bad behavior that’s stemming from effective altruism or longtermism. This billionaire class that might be perverting a basic human good, will mega philanthropy, and its flaws, that you’re writing about in the New Republic. Will that inform basic, altruistic principles that we’re all taught that you know it’s better to give than to receive?

26:37 AZ – I mean, I would hope not. I mean I hope people would still, you know, want to contribute to a food kitchen. I don’t know if there’s too much of a connection between this sort of lofty futuristic academic complex and you know people doing community level things, which is where most people are at in terms. Of giving or you know, national environmental organizations. Or whatever.

26:59 AW – But aren’t there some people involved in effective altruism who aren’t millionaires?

27:04 AZ – If they’ve basically yes they have pretty strong recruitment in elite universities. Very ambitious people, but I don’t think it’s because those people are drawn to philanthropy so much as to the extent that I’ve had experience with them. It’s as much as anything a veneer for ambition, and it basically can offer sainthood to people who just want to make a lot of money. And it allows you to think that you’re not only ascending to the 1% in terms of career success and income, but you’re also one of the best people in the world, it’s a weird kind of double benediction and it offers a kind of absolution for a certain kind of ambitious college kid. So yeah, they speak directly to those people.

27:53 AW – He’s an author and journalist. His new book is called “Owning the Sun,” Alex Zaitchik. Alex, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 AZ – Any time, thanks for having me.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Vulfpeck, Anders Osborne, and Bob Dylan. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin. Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.