Apr 27, 2023

Effective Altruism’s Problems Go Beyond Sam Bankman

Sam Bankman-Fried made effective altruism a punchline, but its philosophy of maximum do-gooding masks a thriving culture of predatory behavior.

Ellen Huet

Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants for Bloomberg Businessweek

Subscriber Benefit


Sonia Joseph was 14 years old when she first read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a mega-popular piece of fan fiction that reimagines the boy wizard as a rigid empiricist. This rational Potter tests his professors’ spells with the scientific method, scoffs at any inconsistencies he finds, and solves all of wizardkind's problems before he turns 12. "I loved it," says Joseph, who read HPMOR four times in her teens. She was a neurodivergent, ambitious Indian American who felt out of place in her suburban Massachusetts high school. The story, she says, "very much appeals to smart outsiders."

A search for other writing by the fanfic's author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, opened more doors for Joseph. Since the early 2000s, Yudkowsky has argued that hostile artificial intelligence could destroy humanity within decades. This driving belief has made him an intellectual godfather in a community of people who call themselves rationalists and aim to keep their thinking unbiased, even when the conclusions are scary. Joseph's budding interest in rationalism also drew her toward effective altruism, a related moral philosophy that's become infamous by its association with the disgraced crypto ex-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. At its core, effective altruism stresses the use of rational thinking to make a maximally efficient positive impact on the world. These distinct but overlapping groups developed in online forums, where posts about the dangers of AI became common. But they also clustered in the Bay Area, where they began sketching out a field of study called AI safety, an effort to make machines less likely to kill us all.