I remember reading William MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better back in 2015 and wondering: is this too good to be true? MacAskill, the fresh-faced Oxford philosopher and prime mover of “effective altruism”, was on a mission to take personal emotion out of charitable giving. Doing good works was one thing, he suggested, but if you really wanted to scale charitable effect it was the duty of social justice warriors in the affluent west to earn as much money as possible, and then give it away in the most evidence-based fashion, to the poorest people on the planet.
His book was brilliantly argued, and lauded by great philanthropists, including Bill Gates. At its heart though, as with any manifesto that seeks to remake the world, it felt like there was a nagging flaw: could the means of outrageous wealth creation ever be properly separated from greed; was there really any such thing as an altruistic billionaire? One answer has been provided by the continuing examination of the $27bn bankruptcy of Sam Bankman-Fried and his cryptocurrency platform FTX. Bankman-Fried had pledged to live on $100,000 a year and give the rest of his fortune away. MacAskill was on the advisory board of FTX’s charitable Future Fund; he described the 30-year-old billionaire as his “collaborator” when he contacted another fan, Elon Musk, earlier this year to arrange a meeting to discuss Bankman-Fried investing in Twitter.
Financial investigators are now trying to trace missing billions of small investor funds that Bankman-Fried appears to have transferred to his “trading company”, Alameda. Interviewed via text messages by Vox.com, Bankman-Fried accepted that “the ethics stuff” was “mostly a front”. Meanwhile, MacAskill resigned his unpaid position with a soul-searching thread on Twitter: “I don’t know which emotion is stronger: my utter rage at Sam for causing such harm to so many people or my sadness and self-hatred for falling for this deception.” The moral philosopher vowed to “reflect on this for months to come”. Perhaps he could begin by having a look at Aristotle on hubris.
Some things don’t change. A hundred years ago last week, the archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. Digging back through reports of the great find, I discovered the Daily Mail laced it with fears of imminent disaster. The Luxor correspondent of that paper splashed with the story of impending rainstorms potentially destroying the glittering contents of the 3,000-year-old tomb. His report remarked on panic spreading locally. “The clouds were darkening, all eyes were turned on the last blue patch in the west and fervent [Muslims] were beseeching Allah to turn back the clouds.” The Observer offered a little more reassurance to its readers. Commenting on the Mail account, its editorial pointed out that it only rains “once in 20 years” in the Valley of the Kings in November, the skies were blue and that anyway Carter was taking the precaution of protecting the entrance to the tomb with a small bank of sand.
I can’t go on
The obituaries of Wilko Johnson, the inimitable Dr Feelgood guitarist, hinged on accounts of his miraculous reprieve from pancreatic cancer. Having been told he had 10 months to live, Johnson had the time of his life, playing a triumphant series of farewell gigs, visiting Japan for the cherry blossom, living in the moment. It was only after the life-saving operation he never thought possible that he returned to his old self: “I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again.” Samuel Beckett couldn’t have phrased it better.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist