The Utilitarianism of “Effective Altruists”

The "Effective Altruists" like Samuel Bankman-Fried claim to want to help the world, but their underlying utilitarianism threatens to destroy it.

Reading Michael Lewis’ fascinating journalistic portrait of the disgraced cryptocurrency wizard Samuel Bankman-Fried, I was surprised to find a discussion of the ethics of abortion. It was taken from a blog the man wrote in his sophomore year at college.

Bankman-Fried’s parents are described as utilitarians who “continually wrestled with the tension, in American law, between individual freedoms and the collective good.” They did not marry, in solidarity with their homosexual friends who weren’t allowed to do the same, and they did not practice any religious faith, including that of their Jewish background. One year, they completely forgot Hanukkah. They did not celebrate Christmas and did not believe in God. Bankman-Fried said that he was shocked at ten years old to learn that people really believed in God. As he said to Lewis, “God was like a thing on TV. God came up. But I didn’t think anyone actually believed in God.”

Even Lewis was surprised at this, that a boy could grow up “in the United States without realizing that other people believed in God.” It was bad enough when little Samuel discovered that other children his age believed in Santa Claus, but God and the idea of Hell left him astounded. He concluded, “Mass delusions are a property of the world, as it turns out.” This last is an interesting statement to make, coming from a man who has caused many credulous people to lose fortunes because they invested in his business.

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At twelve, the future tycoon had decided many political questions. As a utilitarian, he saw that “gay marriage was a no brainer—you don’t have to be a hardcore utilitarian to see that making people’s lives miserable because they’re completely harmlessly a little bit different than you is stupid.” But the future crypto king was puzzled about abortion. That was “nagging me a bit. I was pretty conflicted for a while; having unwanted kids is bad, but so was murder.”

But his utilitarian principles helped him discern his way out of the problem.

[While] murder is usually a really bad thing: you cause distress to the friends and family of the murdered, you cause society to lose a potentially valuable member in which it has already invested a lot of food and education and resources, and you take away the life of a person who had already invested a lot into it. But none of those apply to abortion…there are few consequences of an abortion, except for the distress caused to the parents…In other words, to a utilitarian abortion looks a lot like birth control. In the end murder is just a word and what’s important isn’t whether you try to apply the word to a situation but the facts of the situation that caused you to describe it as murder in the first place. And in the case of abortion few of the things that make murder so bad apply.

This hardly is a masterpiece of logic, but there is an honesty about, “few of the things that make murder so bad apply.” Few of the things? And if some of them do? Mr. Bankman-Fried, at least as he appears in what Lewis wrote about him, seems to be on the spectrum. Perhaps that is why he can be bold enough to say what others in the pro-abortion movement do not dare to say. So many of them are still comparing the fetus to a mass of cells. 

The utilitarian weighs in, saying that it isn’t so bad because there are so few consequences. Abortion can stop a beating heart, can cause human pain in the preborn, stops a living organism, but its correctness can be determined by a calculus that doesn’t have to take into account the value of humanity in itself but merely the material cost for society: the loss of resources that had been invested. Human life is not valuable in itself but as a function of social impact. Obviously, the investment calculus approach can be applied to the question of euthanasia, voluntary or otherwise. Why go on investing resources in unproductive human beings?

Bankman-Fried belonged to a group of people who called themselves Effective Altruists. In Lewis’ book, the initials EA are used to speak about them. They committed themselves to the gaining of wealth in order to serve the greater good of the greater number, retro-Benthamites, with Ivy League credentials. Some of the people are reminiscent of the Fabians in Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century: moneyed, utopian, and absolutely convinced in their own importance and peculiar in habits and lifestyle choices. 

Many were vegans because, although you can abort fetuses, you should not, as the crypto wunderkind decided, have an animal (like a chicken) tortured for five weeks so that you can have a half hour of a good meal. Lewis said several of the EAs in the circle were committed to not having children, which would distract them from their work of changing the world and preventing catastrophes. The ones involved in crypto were also, in principle, against monogamy.

Elite students were exposed to the thinking of the Effective Altruists. Why be a doctor when you can be a philanthropist and have a foundation that pays for a thousand physicians? Therefore, the goal was to make enough money to become philanthropists—and also to wield political power through baking candidates who would be as enlightened as themselves. Millions and millions were poured into political campaigns. One primary campaign for a candidate to Congress cost Bankman-Fried about $1000 per vote, and his man didn’t win the nomination sought. The Biden campaign received millions of dollars of FTX money. That such noble aspirations should end in court and prison time is a kind of parable of America’s new Gilded Age of corruption.

It is a parable and a morality tale at the same time. The Crypto King was able to play the game of the weird global economy just as he addictively played video games. He liked complex games with the need for quick judgments and calculations of probability. That is why he was a success on Wall Street with Jane Street Capital, an investment group that treats the economy like an enormous casino, with profits based on high-tech speed transactions and gambles on trends not always tethered to the realities of production. 

Bankman-Fried loved a video game that included mythical and magical characters, like dragons who guarded treasure in a cave. He has become famous for playing video games even as he Zoomed with the powers that be in our society. His slender grasp of reality and the normal social cues did not prevent the man-child billionaire from becoming a power broker. His spectacular failure and his punishment should not distract us from the systemic problems his success revealed. Many of the elite who rule us were happy with him and his dragon’s hoard, until it was discovered to be fools’ gold.

At one point in Lewis’ engagement with the Bankman-Fried story, its antihero confessed that he was more comfortable thinking of people as probability distribution puzzles. Determining the behavior of how people and markets would react to stimuli based on previous data was the secret of his great though evanescent fortune. He predicted things and saw where profits could be gained. His ambitions were political and fantastic in the sense of fantasy. He played with the idea of bribing President Trump not to run again by offering him $5 billion dollars. The narrowness of his mathematical genius and his financial instincts made for achievement even as it made inevitable his fall.

Unfortunately, his personal abnormality connected with the zeitgeist. The abnormal is the new normal. The strange mixture of greed with supposed altruism, of ego with pretensions of morality, of the power of money for good and an elite’s imposition of false values, of cleverness in games and manipulation of extraordinary influence in our economic life, make Bankman-Fried and what he represents a key to understanding the morass of our social and political life.

It helps me understand the cruel victories of the culture of death over life seen in the various referenda about abortion post Roe v. Wade. Lewis’ man who almost became the first trillionaire said that a lot of politics was about spending money on advertising. 

In Ohio, the pro-abortion crowd, including so-called philanthropists and the abortion-industrial complex known as Planned Parenthood, spent $40 million in telling people that aborting babies was a matter of reproductive health and was informed by compassion, not contempt for humanity, the facts of Nature, and of Nature’s God. They did not say that “in the case of abortion few of the things that make murder so bad apply” as in the sophomoric formulation of the young future ex-billionaire, but that idea resonated through many minds of those who pulled the levers to their shame.

In Ohio, more people voted for abortion than they did for legalized marijuana in the election this past November 7. The margin of victory for Issue 2, legalizing marijuana, was slightly greater than that of Issue 1, but fewer voters expressed a preference—2,186,962 voters in Ohio voted to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right and 1,675,728 voted against it. That means that 56 percent of the 48 percent potential voters in Ohio backed abortion unconditionally. On the question of legalizing marijuana, 2,183,734 voters said yes and 1,649,339 voted no. 

In other words, almost thirty thousand voters who pulled the lever for Issue 1 decided not to vote on Issue 2. Was their reluctance about the morality of the drug or the usefulness of its decriminalization? Who knows? Nevertheless, we can say that abortion was more popular than legalized marijuana because some who hesitated to vote for or against cannabis did vote on the abortion question.

Sometimes I think right-thinking people are naïve about the philosophical headwinds that confront us. Two books I have read recently convince me we have not taken into account the ideas behind the mess we are in. Christopher Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution and, perhaps ironically and unintentionally, Michael Lewis’ Going Infinite are windows on the chaotic streets we live on. The battle for good involves struggling against bad ideas, and we need to know how the enemy thinks. We won’t be able to confront them until we see what is behind the whites of their eyes.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images Entertainment]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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