1 December 2023

In 2005, a young Scotsman studying philosophy at Oxford, William MacAskill, came across a text that would change his life. Tormented by questions of a moral nature, he has already volunteered with the elderly, spent a summer in a rehabilitation center in Ethiopia or solicited donations from passers-by in the street for various causes. But the radicalism of the essay entitled Famine, wealth and moralityof the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, written in full famine in Bangladesh, in 1972, seems to him to answer his torments.

Before he became known for his book Animal Liberation (Harper Collins, 1975), at the origin of antispeciesist thought, Peter Singer develops in this work the argument according to which it is our moral duty to prevent a harmful event from happening if it is in our power. And to use a parable that has become classic: if I pass near a pond in which a child is drowning, it is obviously my duty to save him, even if my clothes are going to get dirty, that doesn’t matter. nothing compared to the death of a child.

The evolution of the world in one “global village” has transformed our moral situation: we pass thousands of drowning children every day, Singer argues; whether it is right in front of us or on the other side of the earth, distance has no moral value. For a Westerner, any superficial expense should be a source of shame. MacAskill therefore takes a vow of frugality and decides to reserve the excess of his meager student resources for others.

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Ten years later, William MacAskill, who in the meantime had become the youngest associate professor of philosophy in Oxford’s history, published two bestsellers: Doing Good Better (“better do good”, Guardian Faber Publishing, 2016, untranslated) and What We Owe the Future (“what we owe to the future”, Oneworld Export, 2022, untranslated), which appear as bibles of a philosophical-philanthropic movement called “effective altruism”. After a meteoric development, effective altruism – which consists of thinking about doing good in the most efficient way possible – now finds itself embroiled in one of the greatest financial frauds in history. The resounding bankruptcy of FTX, an American cryptocurrency fund, whose founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, a prominent member of the movement, gives the brief history of effective altruism the air of a decadent moral tale. How did we go from famine in Bangladesh to a cryptocurrency Ponzi scheme?

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