The big idea: is it OK to do wrong for the greater good?

The big idea: is it OK to do wrong for the greater good?

Jailed tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried believed altruism justified his actions. Was he right?

Earlier this year, the cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried was sentenced to 25 years in prison on seven counts of wire fraud. It’s safe to say that his life has not gone according to plan. But was the plan itself immoral?

By his own account, Bankman-Fried aimed to accumulate wealth for philanthropic causes: “earning to give”, in the idiom of the effective altruist movement, of which he was a supporter. Billboards for his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, proclaimed: “I’m in on crypto because I want to make the biggest global impact for good.” Effective altruists often advocate utilitarianism, according to which we should promote the greatest net balance of benefits over harms, by any means necessary. In other words, we are justified in harming some – for instance, by wire fraud – if the harms are outweighed by benefits to others. According to the judge who sentenced Bankman-Fried: “He knew it was wrong; he knew it was criminal.” But even if he knew the law, Bankman-Fried may not have believed he was doing anything wrong. After all, he planned to donate billions to help those in need. He may have thought he had the answer to that age-old moral quandary: whether it’s OK to cause harm for the greater good.

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