Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
When Elon Musk’s text messages were released as part of a court filing over his proposed purchase of Twitter, the world’s richest man was found to be corresponding with tech billionaires, other CEOs and bankers.
Among those business leaders were some messages that did not seem to match that profile at all, they were from a Scottish moral philosopher.
The philosopher, William MacAskill, was acting as a go-between for billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, who “has been very interested in buying it and then improving it for the world for some time,” he wrote in March, referring to Twitter.
MacAskill’s appearance in that batch of messages, along with other TV appearances and magazine profiles, has helped create a sense of his unlikely sudden omnipresence. His latest book, “What We Owe the Future,” became a bestseller after it went on sale in August.
His rising profile parallels the growth of the donor community he helped found, Effective Altruism. Once a niche for serious vegans and kidney donors living modestly to have more money to give away for cheap medical interventions in developing countries, it has emerged as a force in philanthropy, particularly in giving from millennials and the generation Z
In just a few years, effective altruism has become the giving philosophy of many Silicon Valley programmers, hedge funds, and even tech billionaires. That includes not only Bankman-Fried, but Facebook and Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, who donate much of their fortune to the cause.
“Ultimately, I never imagined that I would be in the business of advising billionaires on how to give away their money and encourage them to give more,” MacAskill, a philosophy professor at Oxford University, said in an interview. But he sees it as useful work, one based on the central commandment of effective altruism to do as much good as possible.
At its core, effective altruism addresses the question of how you can do the most good with the money and time you have.
If the movement has a manifesto, it would be Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s article, “Hunger, Affluence and Morality,” published in 1972.
The essay, which argues that there is no moral difference between the obligation to help a dying person in front of your house and the obligation to help people dying elsewhere in the world, became a kind of “unexpected success” in the last twenty years, according to Julia Wise, a community liaison for the Center for Effective Altruism, which MacAskill helped fund.
“When there was no Dustin and no Sam Bankman-Fried, I was a major donor to the Center for Effective Altruism as a social worker,” Wise said.
Effective altruism used to focus on finding the least-cost interventions that would do the most good. The classic example is insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria.
As the title of his latest book suggests, MacAskill argues that humanity now has a responsibility not only to half the world, but also to future generations.
The rise of this kind of thinking, known as long-termism, has seen effective altruists increasingly commit to causes that have a sci-fi feel to them, like sending people to distant planets to increase our chances of survival as a species.
Not everyone agrees with this twist. Joshua Pederson, who teaches ethics at Boston University, is among those who have criticized the turn the community has taken.
“One of the downsides of positive altruism is the idea that you can get the right answer,” Pederson said. “Then, arrogance or didacticism or preaching comes into play: ‘You donated to the wrong cause’”.
The relationship between MacAskill and Bankman-Fried is an important piece to understand the evolution of the community. The two men met in 2012, when Bankman-Fried was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and interested in utilitarian philosophy.
Over lunch, Bankman-Fried said he was interested in working on animal welfare issues. MacAskill suggested that he could do more good by entering a high-income field and donating money to the cause.
Bankman-Fried contacted the Humane League and other charities and asked if they would prefer her to donate her time or money based on her anticipated income. They opted for money, and he embarked on a paid career, when he founded cryptocurrency exchange FTX in 2019.
The experiment with the young man’s career was, by all accounts, a success. Bloomberg now estimates Bankman-Fried’s estate to be worth $10.5 billion, even after the recent drop in cryptocurrency prices.
Bankman-Fried said he expected to give away most of his fortune in the next 10 to 20 years.
Moskovitz and Tuna’s net worth is estimated to be $12.7 billion. These men founded their own group, Good Ventures, in 2011. The group has claimed to have donated $1.96 billion since its founding.
These two huge fortunes, along with donations from dozens of highly paid engineers at tech companies, mean that the community is exceptionally well-funded.
So let’s just say it’s not like they need Musk. But it doesn’t hurt either.
With an estimated fortune of $220 billion, Musk could single-handedly turn effective altruism into the leading philanthropic movement. Musk participated in the EA Global conference in 2015 and appeared on a panel about the risks posed by artificial intelligence.
MacAskill first met Musk at that conference, and that’s how these text messages ended up appearing in the legal controversy over Twitter.
Bankman-Fried did not join Musk’s offer. “I don’t know exactly what Elon’s goals are going to be with Twitter,” Bankman-Fried said in an interview. “There was a bit of ambiguity in that.”
The Twitter deal has been volatile in its own way anyway, as Musk had tried to get out before recently announcing his intention to go ahead with the deal.
In August, Musk retweeted MacAskill’s book announcement to his 108 million followers with the observation: “It’s worth a read. This coincides with my philosophy.”
Instead of accepting that endorsement, however, MacAskill posted a detailed thread in response about some of the points he agreed with (and many he disagreed with) Musk.
For his part, MacAskill accepts responsibility for what he calls misjudgments about the community. “I take a significant amount of blame,” he said, “for being a philosopher who was not prepared for this amount of media attention.”