Ineffective effective altruists and fake accounts in fiction
— So when did you realize that philanthropy was for you?
Jules was working on micromicrotransactions. Microtransactions
are small payments for small things; instead of subscribing to an
online paper, you pay a small amount, say 25 cents, for each article
you want to read. Similarly, you buy songs instead of albums,
episodes instead of box sets, and so on.
Jules’s thought was to go one level lower: to get people to sign up
for his site 1010 (said ‘one oh one oh’), and pledge to make a
micromicrotransaction to a charity for every microtransaction one
made. The suggested value was 10 percent, like a contemporary
equivalent of tithing. The thought was that these transactions would
be so small that people wouldn’t notice or care, and so they’d find
themselves doing good despite themselves, indeed constantly being
tiny forces for good in the world.
— Yeah, but not everybody does anything about it. What made
you do something about it?
— CS302, Computers and Society.
— Oh. So it’s just for a grade?
— I mean, no, I really think it’s good, if it would work, that it
would work. I mean, that’s obvious, right? That helping people is
good … but it’s like, maybe I don’t like really feel it on a deep
visceral level like I think you maybe do … But that’s not bad. There’s different ways you can help people. For me, it’s like, I’m good at patching. Do you know what that is?
— Like … sewing?
— No, no … say you’ve got a piece of code that’s meant to do
something, and it doesn’t work. Just doesn’t work. You type it out
exactly like in the textbook, say…well, basically sometimes a program won’t work, but you can play with it so it does, and it doesn’t do it like it’s meant to … wait, this is easier — say your chair has one too-short leg, and you
put something under it to steady it. That’s like patching it, getting it to perform its function in a different way, mending it, and like, the way I see it, this micromicrotransaction stuff is like a patch. Like humans should be good, but for whatever fucked-up reason they’re aren’t, so I patch ’em up, make ’em be good in a weird way, sort of like trick ’em by making being good psychologically unrecognisable … you think that’s weird?
— Well … it’s different. But I can see it, I guess. But, do you not
think that it should come from within, that people should be good
because they want to be?
— Nah. I mean how’s that been working out so far in human
history? If there were such things as forced labour camps where the
labour was to be good, I’d be down with them. (citation: me, book mentioned below)
The internet, or at least one unrepresentative part of it, is focussed on two stories. One is the story of Sam Bankman-Fried, the effective altruist-turned-crypto-billionaire turned criminal. The other is the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and his attempt to remove fake accounts. My 2018 book Coming From Nothing has these twin themes — effective altruism reduced to absudity and the scourge of fake accounts — as central themes, and the following post is essentially an advertisement for that book (not an advertisement to induce you to buy it; it’s available for free in the internet’s many good online libraries.)
Banman-Fried first. He, as far as we can tell, criminally used funds of the crypto exchange he used for his own purposes, one of which was doing good better.
He is or was or aspired to be an effective altruist. An effective altruist aspires to change the world for the better in the best way they can. At least some effective altruists are hardcore utilitarians: the right thing to do at a given time is simply whatever leads to the best consequences for the world.
While this sounds prima facie unobjectionable, a little thought reveals it isn’t. The everyday rules of morality become mere recommendations. If lying at a particular time will produce the best overall consequences, you should lie. If murdering someone will produce the best overall consequences, you should murder. If defrauding your crypto-buying customers is best, that’s what you should do.
Of course, few do murder for this reason, and few moral philosophers, even utilitarians or consequentialists more broadly, think that this simplified ‘consequences only’ view is an adequate one.
It seems possible that Bankman-Fried holds an ‘consequences only’ utilitarianism. The narrative that has arisen, based on some evidence from interviews, is that he really did think the ends of effective altruism could justify at least some rather extreme means.
In particular, at least one theory of his behaviour is that he defrauded customers in order to donate more money to EA charities. If this were so, Bankman-Fried himself constitutes something like a real-life philosophical thought experiment — an outlandish case used to show the implausibility of a view by showing how it fails to handle edge cases. Interesting, right? Well, if you’re interested, I have something for you…
Coming From Nothing is about a computer nerd would-be effective altruist who, in his quest to improve the world, is drawn into (weird) criminality, with eventually bad consequences. Having read Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, he attempts to force people to be good and to make money by any means necessary, the details of which I won’t spoil.
It’s not the first such book. A slightly more famous example one that does roughly — and which was my inspiration — the same is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, concerns a would-be altruist avant la lettre. Encountering an old and mean pawnbroker, the starving student comes to think that her money, if not held onto by her, could do better for the world. And it wouldn’t be held by her were she murdered, and murder is acceptable, for Raskolnikoff, for at least some people. Some people are gifted or saddled with the opportunity to ignore conventional morality to make the world better, and Raskolnikoff thinks he is one such person. The book (and mine) plays out this dilemma of whether acting according to a “consequences only”-view of morality can be tolerable on a personal level (a point quite familiar from the philosophical literature, which has often been concerned, albeit with less lurid examples, of how utilitarianism can lead one into becoming the sort of person one wouldn’t like to become — such as a murdered or a fraudster.)
The other theme of the internet these days is Musk’s takeover of Twitter. In response to his ill-thought out idea to make verification (formerly a means of identifying that a real and significant person used a given account) buyable, the last week has been among the funniest on the platform, with people buying verification, changing their display name to ‘Eli Lilly’ and their handle to something believably a pharma company’s handle, and tweeting that insulin is free. Twitter has (or had) become to a large extent untrustworthy, filled with malicious fake accounts.
Of course, this is all just trolling. In my book, the other protagonist, Carrie, makes fake accounts pretending to be alt-right, tweeting hateful things entirely contrary to what she believes, for reasons she herself isn’t entirely clear on. Unsurprisingly that doesn’t end up entirely happily for her (It was written in the summer of 2016 when ‘alt-right’ has not entirely entered our collective conscious.)
In addition to effective altruism and fake accounts, my book has front and center a bit of software that sounds really like Rewind AI. So if this sounds interesting, and bearing in mind it’s a couple of clicks away, maybe check it out.