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In November 2022, the Powerball lottery jackpot reached $1.9 billion and, for the first time in my life, I bought a ticket. It started as a joke. A friend was celebrating a birthday, and I’d gone to the gas station to buy him a lottery ticket. I figured, why not? I would enjoy being rich. But as I waited for the magic numbers to be revealed, I ruminated about what I would do with a billion-dollar post-tax windfall. I’d need to convert the money into something truly significant, something that would stand the test of time. I found myself Googling how much it costs to buy a school. I figured I could bankroll at least a few great new schools with all of my money. Maybe I would use my largesse to single-handedly transform educational opportunities in Northern Indiana, or even start a major foundation that would harness the stock market to create schools perpetually. This would not be easy. There is that whole challenge of the teacher shortage. I would have to figure out what curriculum exactly would make these schools so transformative, and how to make sure my fellow Hoosiers would send their children to my transformative schools. I started to worry that converting dollars into units of human enlightenment would prove overwhelming, given how little I know about K–12 education. I’d need to hire consultants to do it right. And that was as far as I got in my planning when I learned that I had not won the Powerball.
In the roaring 2020s, there are plenty of stories about people relentlessly assembling eye-popping fortunes, and about their ambitious plans for how to deploy them. Elon Musk, one of the richest people in the world, is said to sleep on the floor of his Twitter office. His self-reported philanthropic motivations include securing an extra-planetary future for the human race and saving democracy through social media. Musk makes me self-conscious that my moral imagination only got as far as buying schools. He seems willing to throw all his vast resources at these goals…yet always ends up reinvesting in himself.
In one of the more fascinating recent episodes of modern capitalism, one week after I lost the Powerball, thirty-year-old cryptocurrency trader Sam Bankman-Fried lost over $15 billion in personal wealth. While most of the news coverage focused on how a single man amassed, grossly mismanaged, and then abruptly lost such a fortune, a crucial subplot focused on Bankman-Fried’s philosophical interests. Living relatively frugally, he committed over a billion dollars to an ethical project called “longtermism.” The grants he made were Muskian in their tastes and scale of ambition: Bankman-Fried was interested in developing and regulating artificial intelligence, in identifying and training high-talent STEM students, and in forecasting and preventing future pandemics. His largest grants went to optimizing and spreading the longtermist movement. In summer 2022, sources like the New Yorker and the New York Times ran feature pieces introducing longtermism as the future of ethics.
For those new to the discussion, longtermism is a combination of two significant and perennially controversial assumptions. First, the longtermists assume that measurable impact matters the most in ethics. This assumption is part of an ethical system called utilitarianism. Just as you might try to maximize the return you get from a financial investment, so should you try to maximize the return you get from an ethical investment. The return on investment might be measured in the number of lives saved or improved—or even in the number of good lives created. If you have a choice between spending two dollars on a gag birthday gift for a friend or on purchasing a mosquito net for someone at risk of contracting malaria, utilitarianism says to go for the mosquito net. Crucially, utilitarians say that philanthropists should not be biased by more narrow considerations like their personal relationships, histories, or emotional attachments. Ethics is the discipline of getting rid of such biases to focus on what’s most valuable. Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents, both Stanford professors, raised him to be fluent in this kind of optimization paradigm. He framed most of his decisions about what to eat, where to travel, and how to invest in terms of “EVs,” or “units of expected value.”