The SBF EA Red Herring

Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) has engaged in problematic behavior that is highly documented at this point. He has ties to the effective altruism (EA) movement that will be noted shortly. Some have used such ties to lambast the entire movement. New York Magazine, for example, asks “Is Effective Altruism Now Defective?” The answer is “no.” I will argue here that this is entirely a red herring and non-sequitur.

I. EA Ties Summarized

Time notes that “Leaders of the Effective Altruism movement…[took] tens of millions of dollars from Bankman-Fried’s charitable fund for effective altruist causes.” I don’t exactly know what this means. I don’t see a citation for what money was given to whom for what reasons, and the notion that there are such things as “effective altruist causes” strikes me as silly. Effective altruism, after all, is about engaging in charity more efficiently, not some particular political agenda or niche concern. (Shout out to Charity Navigator as an example of a tool making charitable giving more trustworthy, transparent, and efficient.)

Still, we know that SBF had some relation and impact on the EA community. The same Time article notes a tweet from Will MacAskill about his “sadness and self-hatred for falling for this deception” perpetrated by SBF. MacAskill co-founded the Centre for Effective Altruism. The link is clear, but it’s not one that paints EA in a particularly negative light. The EA community is not sympathizing with or supporting SBF here. They are upset by the actions of SBF, as are many other communities impacted by SBF.

Perhaps the most incriminating tie is noted by Cointelegraph Magazine. They say SBF “spent a couple of months as the director of development at the Centre for Effective Altruism in 2017 and before that, gave away half of his income during his stint on Wall Street.”

II. How do SBF’s Actions Undermine EA?

They don’t.

SBF giving away half of his income to charitable causes is fantastic. If such causes are effective, the impact is even greater, and the effect is even more fantastic. The problem clearly lies in his employment as a leader in the movement, at the Centre for Effective Altruism in particular, not in his participation as a donor. This leadership was extremely limited. It was not problematic to the extent that his actions accord with effective altruism as a movement. The entire problem is the extent to which he abused his role to render altruism ineffective.

Let’s lay this out axiomatically to make the argument clear:

  1. SBF is bad
  2. SBF was involved in EA
  3. Therefore, EA is bad

This is a simple non-sequitur. Consider a similar argument against Christianity:

  1. Jim is racist
  2. Jim was employed at a Church for a while
  3. Therefore, Christianity is racist

This is particularly apropos because Christianity teaches directly against racism. This is, unfortunately, a rather common fallacy. Instead of addressing the idea of effective altruism directly, critics will point to some individuals that make mistakes and have some relation to the idea. It’s a simple red herring.

More plausibly, this undermines the judgment of the leadership of the Centre for Effective Altruism in particular. Again, this doesn’t undermine the idea itself. It’s analogous to arguing that “Because the Black Lives Matter organization misused donations, black lives don’t actually matter.” It’s a completely inappropriate line of argument as far as I can tell.

III. What is the Alternative?

Despite all of the obvious problems in the criticism of EA by association with SBF, let’s go ahead and grant it and see what happens. The logical consequence would be that donors should not have an interest in effective altruism. The alternative would be ineffective altruism. We can easily see that effective altruism is preferred to ineffective altruism, so we further disprove the criticism by reductio ad absurdum.


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