This article was originally published on the Sierra Club website by Emma Marris.
First, the good news: The much-maligned tech bros want to be ethical. But, being tech bros, they want a shiny, new ethic—one that’s iconoclastic, counter-intuitive, and algorithmic. Their ideal system is one that allows them to keep making lots of money as long as they give some of it away. The latest philosophical trend, called effective altruism, hits the spot nicely.
Effective altruism is an ethical approach based on figuring out the best way to reduce suffering in the present and future. Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz is a proponent; Elon Musk has dabbled. Last year, Oxford philosopher William MacAskill published a book-length argument for effective altruism, What We Owe the Future, which immediately hit the New York Times best-seller list and was greeted by (mostly) glowing reviews. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said the book made him weep. Bill McKibben blurbed it. Before he lost his fortune and got slammed with a raft of criminal indictments, former crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried was the poster child for “earning to give” as he amassed a huge fortune that he said he planned to give to charities.
The bad news is that effective altruism is flawed—and not just because its most prominent adherent is an alleged con man.