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The Philosopher Who Critiqued Effective Altruism More Than 250 Years Ago

Sam Bankman-Fried; Jean-Jacques Rousseau Credit - Drew Angerer—Getty Images; Picturenow/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

On March 28, Federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan will sentence former FTX chairman Sam Bankman-Fried on seven separate counts of fraud and conspiracy, with federal prosecutors asking for a sentence of 40 to 50 years behind bars.

In some respects, Bankman-Fried’s story is familiar. He is hardly the first prominent figure in the financial world to face consequences for some very poor decisions. But his origins story is relatively unique, insofar as it has been widely reported that he was driven to acquire his fortune in order to carry out what philosophers call “effective altruism,” or “E.A.” for short. The prominent philosopher and effective altruism advocate Peter Singer has argued that it “is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can.” In this spirit, Singer highlights the potential of wealthy philanthropists to reduce suffering and make the world a better place through outsized charitable donations.

During college, Bankman-Fried met with one of the other “stars” of the E.A. movement, Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, co-founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism, who sold the future crypto magnate on an approach to giving called “earning to give” — that is, pursuing a large fortune in industry, only to give it away in ways that promote the greatest good.

Bankman-Fried bought the pitch. But the plan was doomed from the outset — and MacAskill and Bankman-Fried would’ve known it had they studied the writings of the eccentric political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who pointed out fatal flaws in a plan that looked exactly like Bankman-Fried’s more than 250 years ago.

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Rousseau was, if anything, more famous a philosopher than Singer and MacAskill in an age when intellectuals were revered as society’s most illustrious celebrities. The Swiss thinker acquired his fame with essays and books on moral and political philosophy, such as his Discourse on the Science and the Arts, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, The Social Contract, and Emile, in which he defended the working class, praised moral virtue, railed against economic inequality, and condemned his contemporaries for their indifference to the suffering around them.

Upon attaining status as a kind of moral guru, Rousseau began receiving regular correspondence from admirers. Often letters asked him how to implement his ideas in people’s daily lives. Rousseau liked expressing his thoughts so much in the letter format that when he wanted to address a matter he was not asked about, he simply invented a correspondent for the occasion. Such were the origins of his brief Discourse on Wealth or On Wealth and Fragments on Taste, probably written around 1755-56, in which Rousseau replied to an imaginary correspondent, whom he dubbed “my dear Chrysophile” (or “lover of gold”).

In the discourse, Rousseau claims to be responding to an “ambitious young man,” who had decided after reading the philosopher’s essays to dedicate his life to helping others. Rousseau quoted the fictional admirer as writing, “I aspire to fortune, but it is in order to atone for its injustices.” Chrysophile lamented his powerlessness when he saw someone suffering and couldn’t alleviate their misery. To him the solution was clear because a “benevolent rich man” was “the agent of the divinity here below, the glory of the human race.”

He would, in other words, seek a great fortune in order to serve the poor.

In his response, Rousseau cautioned against this plan, remarking that extraordinary wealth was typically obtained in morally dubious ways. Often, gaining such wealth relied on an unjust economic system that effectively kept people impoverished and in a cruel state of dependency just so that the wealthy and powerful could glory in giving alms to them. Necessary systemic change was replaced with charity.

But Rousseau’s most compelling insight was psychological. He understood that a paradox lay at the heart of the philosophy proposed by his fictional correspondent. Creating wealth required selfishness and avarice. Charity, by contrast, demanded generosity. Decades spent greedily chasing profits would render it nearly impossible to maintain one’s philanthropic impulses.

Rousseau thus counseled Chrysophile, “I have difficulty seeing how you will be able to accumulate these profits without deviating from your principles,” further adding that “your ideas and your maxims will change along with your situation.” He predicted that upon acquiring great riches, Chrysophile would eventually do anything to protect and grow his own fortune, regardless of his original good intentions.

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He also cautioned that great riches disconnect people from the intended recipients of charity. Rousseau observed that those who accumulated wealth often came to despise the poor and actively avoided interacting with them. At the very least, they struggled to empathize with them, for “when one believes oneself above the ills of humanity one no longer pities them in others.” As he would write elsewhere, the path to great fortune was often paved by the underlying assumption that one was above the laws.

Rousseau concluded with this judgment of Chrysophile’s character: “either you are seeking to deceive others,” in the hopes of convincing them he was a better person than he actually was, “or your heart is deceiving you by disguising your avarice to you under the appearance of humanity.”

All of Rosseau’s critiques of Chrysophile’s plan could apply to the modern philosophy of E.A., and suggest that Bankman-Fried’s story was always likely to turn out this way. As philosophers consider the implications of the fallen crypto king for E.A., they’d be wise to recall the ideas of Rousseau.

The sort of plan offered by MacAskill to Bankman-Fried sounds good in theory. But Rousseau argued that it was impossible to accumulate the sort of wealth envisioned by MacAskill without losing the ability to empathize with the poor and eventually prioritizing one’s own wealth and status above all. Had MacAskill and Bankman-Fried read the famous philosopher’s Discourse on Wealth, they might well have paused before traveling down the path that seems likely to land Bankman-Fried in prison for decades.

David Lay Williams is professor of political science at DePaul University. He is co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ (with Matthew W. Maguire) and author of the forthcoming The Greatest of All Plagues: How Economic Inequality Shaped Political Thought from Plato to Marx (Princeton, 2024).

Michael Locke McLendon is professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles and author of The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau’s Amour-Propre (UPenn, 2018).

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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