I remember reading William MacAskill’s book Do good better in 2015 and I was wondering: is this too good to be true? MacAskill, the fresh-faced Oxford philosopher and early promoter of “effective altruism,” was on a mission to purge personal emotion from charitable donations. Doing good works was one thing, he suggested, but if the charitable effect was really to be increased it was the duty of social justice warriors in the rich West to earn as much money as possible, and then give it away in the most evidence-based way. fashion, to the poorest people on the planet.
His book was brilliantly discussed and praised by great philanthropists, including Bill Gates. At its core, though, as with any manifesto that seeks to remake the world, there seemed to be an annoying flaw: the means to outrageous wealth creation could never be properly separated from greed; Was there really such a thing as a selfless billionaire? One answer has been provided by the ongoing scrutiny of the $27 billion bankruptcy of Sam Bankman-Fried and his cryptocurrency platform FTX. Bankman-Fried had pledged to live on $100,000 a year and give the rest of his fortune away. MacAskill was on the advisory board of FTX’s charitable Future Fund; He described the 30-year-old billionaire as his “collaborator” when he reached out to another fan, Elon Musk, earlier this year about setting up a meeting to discuss the Bankman-Fried investment on Twitter.
Financial investigators are now trying to trace the missing billions of small investor funds that Bankman-Fried appears to have transferred to his “trading company,” Alameda. Interviewed via text messages from Vox.com, Bankman-Fried accepted that “ethics” were “mostly a cover”. Meanwhile, MacAskill has resigned from his unpaid position with a thread of soul searching on Twitter: “I don’t know which emotion is stronger: my utter rage at Sam for causing such harm to so many people or my sadness and self-hatred for falling for this deception.” The moral philosopher promised to “reflect on this for the months to come”. Perhaps he could start by taking a look at Aristotle on arrogance.
Some things don’t change. One hundred years ago, last week, archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. Digging through accounts of the great find, I discovered the Daily mail intertwined with fears of impending disaster. That paper’s Luxor correspondent told the story of impending storms that could destroy the glittering contents of the 3,000-year-old tomb. His report emphasized the spread of panic at a local level. “The clouds were darkening, all eyes were on the last blue patch to the west and fervent [Muslims] they begged Allah to turn back the clouds.” The Observer offered a little more reassurance to its readers. Commenting on the Mail account, his editorial pointed out that it only rains “once in 20 years” in the Valley of the Kings in November, the sky was blue, and that in any case Carter was taking the precaution of protecting the entrance to the tomb with a small sandbar.
I can not move on
The obituaries of Wilko Johnson, Dr Feelgood’s inimitable guitarist, hinged on reports of his miraculous recovery from pancreatic cancer. Having been told he had 10 months to live, Johnson had the time of his life, playing a triumphant series of farewell concerts, visiting Japan for cherry blossoms, living in the moment. It was only after the life-saving surgery that he never believed it possible that he returned to his old self: “I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again.” Samuel Beckett could not have formulated it better.
• Tim Adams is a columnist for the Observer