The coverage of the Bankman-Fried story shows no sign of letting down, as the now former CEO of FTX keeps speaking publicly, even as his lawyers would prefer he remain silent. Daniel Henninger’s opinion piece, The Moral Vanity of Sam Bankman-Fried, in the Wall Street Journal is particularly interesting. Henninger writes that Bankman-Fried’s commitment to effective altruism was delusional, as it tells the story of a man in his twenties who claimed he was working to prevent nuclear war and save humanity from future pandemics. As we all know, Bankman-Fried was promising to deliver on these lofty ambitions by trading cryptocurrency, creating a large cryptocurrency trading exchange, and offering his own digital currency, with now 250 million of his FTX Tokens in circulation.
Henninger is correct to point out that Bankman-Fried was virtue signaling, and that virtue signaling has become the contemporary form of moral vanity. He asks, “...why has this urge to assert public virtue in outsize ways become a mass movement? People who did good used to be humble. Now they won’t get out of our faces.” One answer, Henninger suggests, could be politics and the need for people to control the narrative. He goes on to write, “The new element in our time is that these ‘narratives’ always include sweeping, if vague, claims of moral certitude and superiority.”
I think Henninger is right to ask these questions, and to point out that people used to address problems they could actually solve and did so with humility. One of the things that concerns me about effective altruism is the tendency of its adherents to view philanthropy or good works as qualified only if one saves a life or saves humanity from something like nuclear war. It is that kind of pressure that we put on people - especially young people - that inspires them to act dishonestly, commit fraud, and see the pursuit of the common good as some type of scoreboard.
Parents, educators, and mentors need to do better when it comes to inspiring our youth. For too long, it seems that the other narrative has been to tell young people that the world is ending, that they must save it, and that enemies must be silenced. It is, of course, no wonder that effective altruism is appealing to people who grow up surrounded by that narrative. As I noted recently, Bankman-Fried was approached by William MacAskill while just an undergraduate student, and was in some ways predetermined to be the mega rich effective altruist that would save the world. Bankman-Fried then starred in numerous YouTube videos where he asserted himself as some digital age savior, and even found himself on panel talks with world leaders such as Bill Clinton. Now Bankman-Fried’s professional life is ruined, he faces the very real possibility of criminal charges, and a million people have lost money.
Perhaps we should not ask college students in their early twenties to save the world. Perhaps we should start by asking young people to be humble, volunteer at food banks, and do what little good they can. It’s OK if they cannot save the world.