How a tech bro movement vowed to optimise humanity – and became embroiled in scandal

Sam Bankman-Fried was one of the leading figures in the social and philosophical organisation Effective Altruism
Sam Bankman-Fried was one of the leading figures in the social and philosophical organisation Effective Altruism

A discreet note greets visitors to the website of Wytham Abbey, a palatial 15th-century manor house just outside Oxford. “The Wytham Abbey project has closed, and is no longer operating as an event space,” it reads.

Instead, the property is listed with Savills, with a guide price of £15m. The sale marks the end of a tortuous couple of years for the building, formerly visited by Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria, among other historic luminaries. In April 2022, it was bought to be the UK base for Effective Altruism – the social and philosophical movement based on thinking about how to do the most good possible given finite resources.

Nicknamed the “Effective Altruism Castle” by its erstwhile new owners, the 27-bedroom house was envisaged as a crucible for ideas that would shape the future of humanity, one that would play host to meetings and conferences about everything from avoiding an AI apocalypse to improving animal welfare and working out the best use of your career.

Wytham Abbey was purchased as an intended base for Effective Ventures' UK base in April 2022
Wytham Abbey was purchased as an intended base for Effective Ventures' UK base in April 2022 - Dave Price

But now the Abbey stands empty as a monument to well-meaning hubris, another victim of the wide-ranging cryptocurrency fraud perpetrated by Sam Bankman-Fried. SBF, as he is known, was one of the leading figures in Effective Altruism, an apparent boy-wonder billionaire who was committed to using the largesse generated by his crypto-trading company FTX for good. While he didn’t pay for the Abbey, he paid for plenty of other things, including all-expenses-paid trips to the Bahamas for effective altruists. When a New York judge sentenced Bankman-Fried to 25 years in prison at the end of March, it drew a line under 18 months that has caused an unprecedented amount of soul-searching among the community.

“I was visiting Oxford at the time of the FTX collapse,” says Richard Chappell, an effective altruist and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. “It was a very striking experience, because I was surrounded by this community of people who were trying to do good in the world, and then one of the most prominent people associated with that movement seems like they’re blowing it up.

“When the news broke it was shocking. It felt like such a betrayal that someone we thought was trying to do good would do the opposite. It was very disappointing. Nobody wants to be associated with criminals.”

This week, Ryan Salame, one of Bankman-Fried’s lieutenants, was jailed for seven and a half years. Others are likely to follow. For everyone involved in EA, it has been a reckoning. Speaking on Sam Harris’s podcast on April 1, the Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, one of the leading figures of EA, spoke about the “huge brand damage” the Bankman-Fried calamity has dealt to the movement, as well as the hurt it has caused him personally.

Salame, pictured exiting federal court in New York on May 28
Salame, pictured exiting federal court in New York on May 28 - Bloomberg

“The collapse was extremely hard for me,” he said. “There’s no doubt at all it’s been the hardest year and a half of my life, for so many reasons: the horror of the harms that were caused, the damage it did to organisations and people that I loved. I found that very tough to deal with. I was really in quite a dark place, for the first time in my life, actually; I had this chunk of time where I lost the feeling of moral motivation. I didn’t know if I could keep going. I did think about just stepping back and really just giving up on EA as a project in my life, because it felt kind of tainted.

“I really felt like I’d been punched or stabbed or something. I’d been building this thing for 15 years, and… it had just been blown up in one swoop by Sam’s actions.”

Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founder of FTX and leader of the EA movement, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in March 2024
Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founder of FTX and leader of the EA movement, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in March - Bloomberg

MacAskill (who was approached for comment) perhaps has particular reason to feel aggrieved. “Effective altruism” was coined in 2011, as an umbrella term for a number of ideas emerging from philosophers. MacAskill, along with others, including Toby Ord and Peter Singer, was one of its guiding lights, a young Scottish academic whose writing, especially as set out in 2015’s Doing Good Better, was taken as a kind of manifesto by a growing number of idealists. Here were people who would give up a kidney for someone in need, or pledge a certain amount of their income in perpetuity, always looking for ways to maximise the impact of their giving. In MacAskill, they had a figurehead who walked the walk, reportedly living off £26,000 a year and donating the rest of his money to high-impact good works.

Academic and one of the originators of the Effective Altruism movement, William MacAskill
Academic and one of the originators of the Effective Altruism movement, William MacAskill

The EA school of thinking led to some counterintuitive ideas. Rather than working for a charity, for example, it posited that it might make more sense to “earn to give”, i.e. make as much as you could in order to donate the proceeds. Anti-malarial mosquito netting was one early focus, as a way of doing the most good with a given amount of money. As the philosophy developed, it acquired new focuses. One of the more controversial was “longtermism”. Put crudely, if you think there is even a small risk that an event – a pandemic, say, or an AI apocalypse – might bring about the end of humanity, then it’s worth trying to stop that. For some critics, EA became less admirable when it started to get bogged down in these more theoretical problems.

As the movement gained traction, it drew an increasing number of wealthy tech-types, for whom it offered an irresistible mix of decisive action, grand-idea logical thinking and a healthy disregard for the usual dull bureaucracy of charity. Other notable EAs included the Estonian billionaire Jaan Tallinn and the Facebook co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, whose foundation, Open Philanthropy, funded the Wytham Abbey purchase.

In 2013 MacAskill met Bankman-Fried, who was then focussed on animal welfare. The young American was sufficiently impressed by EA’s ideas that he decided to dedicate himself to making as much money as possible, the better to give it away. For some critics, Bankman-Fried’s extreme utilitarian interpretation of EA’s principles was directly related to his actions at FTX: it’s easy to see how if you believe the ends are so important they justify almost any means, you might be drawn to sailing close to the wind with your fund management.

Over the following decade, the pair – as well as crypto and EA more widely – steadily broke through into the mainstream. In August 2022, just months before FTX blew up in November, MacAskill was the subject of a New Yorker profile, entitled “The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism,” pegged to the publication of his book about longtermism, What We Owe The Future. By then, the deep pockets around EA had made it possible for some adherents to live well, not least after Bankman-Fried announced the FTX Bahamas scholarships in October 2021, offering return travel, accommodation for up to six months, a co-working space and a $10,000 stipend.

Lauren Remington Platt, Sam Bankman-Fried and Gisele Bündchen at the 2022 FTX Crypto Bahamas conference
Lauren Remington Platt, Sam Bankman-Fried and Gisele Bündchen at the 2022 FTX Crypto Bahamas conference - Shutterstock

But the purchase of Wytham Abbey, in April 2022, stood out as controversial among the movement’s supporters, even at the time. “The whole thing doesn’t quite sit well,” said one post on the Effective Altruism Forum, an online message board. “Money, which no longer seemed an object, was increasingly being reinvested in the community itself,” wrote The New Yorker.

Among other things, EA prides itself on being open to criticism: message boards are full of forelock-tugging and self-flagellation. A frequent source of tension is the tendency of outsiders to see it as a homogenous bloc, where in fact it encompasses diverse groups who share a few guiding principles. “Most EAs are basically Quakers,” one tells me. Effective altruists were well aware that a £15m historic mansion was hardly in keeping with their usual frugality. But those in favour argued that the Abbey was justified by its proximity to Oxford, where lots of talent was concentrated, as well as the potential gains to humanity of having everyone working in comfortable surroundings.

“It’s reasonable to have a nice venue for conferences, and conference venues are just unbelievably expensive,” Nathan Young, a software developer and member of the movement. “The Abbey wasn’t paid for by small donors. And it’s not like real estate in Oxford goes down in value hugely. My feelings were that it made sense as something to buy and run. I hope that they’re selling it because it wasn’t a good idea, not because of PR pressure.”

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, whose foundation Open Philanthropy financed the purchase of Wytham Abbey
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, whose foundation Open Philanthropy financed the purchase of Wytham Abbey - Getty

While the FTX fraud is the worst scandal to have affected EA, it is not the only time the movement has found itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Early last year, Time magazine ran a story claiming EA had and has a “toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse,” quoting women who said they were pressured to have polyamorous relations with other members. In the wake of the story Owen Cotton-Barratt, a senior EA figure who had masterminded the Wytham Abbey purchase, resigned and identified himself as one of the anonymous figures in the Time piece, posting a long apology on the EA Forum. “This [passage in the article] is talking about me, more than five years ago. I think I made significant mistakes; I regret them a lot; and I’m sorry.” (In typical EA fashion, he revisited his apology months later adding even more self-recrimination.)

Speak to EAs and they will say that the movement’s crises attract a disproportionate amount of schadenfreude. Critics, they argue, wield the FTX collapse as a stick with which to clobber it all. “Sam Bankman-Fried and the effective altruism delusion,” was the headline of one long New Statesman feature in November 2023.

“There’s a psychological phenomenon called ‘do-gooder derogation’,” says Chappell. “If you see people trying to do good in the world, that can create resentment. So if you can see a chance to take them down a peg, there’s a psychological impulse to do so.

“If some scandal arises involving Effective Altruism that can activate that. People think ‘those effective altruists aren’t doing anything so special, so I don’t need to bother either.’ Something similar happens with vegans. People feel morally challenged, and they don’t like to be.”

'[The news] felt like such a betrayal': Richard Chappell, philosophy professor and effective altruist
'Nobody wants to be associated with criminals': Richard Chappell, philosophy professor and effective altruist

EAs are eager to emphasise that the good works have continued, despite the FTX collapse. “The death of EA has been much exaggerated,” says Young.

“People assume that because ‘you had this person who did this awful crime, and there have been other bad stories as well’, the EA community is collapsing. People who don’t like EAs will say it’s falling to pieces. It’s not true.

“Lots of people are still doing work. They’re still working on AI safety, putting out policy, lots of people doing global health, distributing bed-nets, the Led Exposure Elimination Project (Leep) has gone big. The animal welfare people are doing their work. A lot of people feel shame, but the work still goes on.”

But it’s clear the FTX scandal, in particular, has also taken a toll.

“It hurt my self-conception,” says Young. “I moved from thinking about myself as being part of this big movement that does a lot of good to also being like ‘oh we really did f*** up that one time.”

The furore has also reminded effective altruists of the value of old-fashioned governance. Safeguards, checks, balances: perhaps these have a role in the bright new world after all.

“I hope [the FTX crash] will end up making effective altruist organisations more resilient,” says Chappell. “One important cultural change was when we learned about how FTX was run from the inside, it just seemed so incompetent.”

“I think the lack of professionalism, the sense that young people could get together and fix the world and not worry about red tape, appealed to a lot of effective altruists early on,” he adds. “One benefit of seeing FTX fall apart is it helped effective altruists to appreciate the value of professionalism and checks and balances and bureaucracy, that these things can help protect against downside risks.”

In a statement, Effective Ventures, the holding firm who ran Wytham Abbey, said: “Effective Ventures and the Abbey’s major donors agreed that the Abbey would be sold if the event space turned out not to be sufficiently cost-effective. While the project cleared the donors’ funding bar at the time of the original grant, and by all indications the project was well-run, a subsequent drop in the level of funds available to support the community working to reduce global catastrophic risks caused the Abbey’s donors to revisit the project.

“Taking into account factors like cost savings for events, ongoing operations expenses, and potential returns to different asset classes, the donors recommended that the Abbey be sold, and EV UK made the decision to do so. Funds from the sale will go back to Effective Ventures and will support other cost-effective charitable work.”

Whether they would have come to the same conclusion without the scandals of the past 18 months is a moot point. The movement remains robust: speaking to Sam Harris, MacAskill said that Giving What We Can, where members pledge to give away at least 10 per cent of their income to “highly reputable and remarkably effective” charities, has nearly 10,000 members. All the same, it seems clear that while effective altruists will carry on, they will not be buying any more £15m manor houses in a hurry – any doing good will be outside the castle walls.