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News: December 2022 / January 2023

Effective Altruism billionaire goes bust • Animal welfare meets big game theory • Philosophers of physics reach critical mass? — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Seán Moran, RIP

Seán Moran
Seán Moran

It is with great sadness that Philosophy Now announces the death of Dr Seán Moran, a regular contributor to the magazine whose ‘Street Philosopher’ column has appeared since 2016.

Seán was a Lecturer in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, which was quite fitting, as he was the exemplar of a lifelong learner.

His love for life, breadth of knowledge, and puckish humor were contagious, and he was seldom without his flute, always ready to lead a group in song and merriment. Seán was a world traveler and, in addition to his accomplishments as a philosopher, was an outstanding photographer. I was glad to have introduced him to Philosophy Now magazine, which seemed a natural home for someone so devoted to making philosophical inquiry accessible and exciting. Those of us who knew him and benefited from his kindness and cheerfulness will deeply miss him, but we are grateful that his ‘Street Philosopher’ columns will be a reminder of his devotion to finding wisdom in everyday life.

–Tim Madigan

FTX and Effective Altruism

When the cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed in early November, this led in a single day to what Bloomberg has called “one of history’s greatest-ever destructions of wealth.” Billions of dollars disappeared amidst accusations of hacking and gross mismanagement. FTX co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who in an interview with a VOX reporter once said that he “had to be” good at talking about ethics because “it’s what reputations are made of”, has shown himself to have feet of clay. And yet, he has been close to an ethical movement dedicated to making the world a better place. The Effective Altruism movement, inspired by utilitarian moral philosopher Peter Singer, has done a great deal of good since it emerged in the early 2000s. The idea is simple. According to the website effectivealtruism.org it is “a research field and practical community that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.” Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, one of the founders of Effective Altruism organisation Giving What We Can, championed the idea of earning to give. When the young Bankman-Fried expressed his passion for animal welfare, MacAskill suggested that he could best support this cause if he tried to make a lot of money to donate it to charities. And Bankman-Fried did just that. FTX made him a billionaire, and he then created an associated fund called FTX Futures Fund to distribute money to good causes, with MacAskill and others on its advisory board. It committed to charitable grants of around $160 million, but in the wake of the FTX implosion there have been suggestions that it unwittingly provided a reputational shield behind which Bankman-Fried could run amok. The entire FTX Futures Fund board has now resigned, issuing a letter that said, “We are now unable to perform our work or process grants, and we have fundamental questions about the legitimacy and integrity of the business operations that were funding the FTX Foundation and the Future Fund.”

The connection between Bankman-Fried and Effective Altruism throws up a lot of questions about that movement’s approach. Is there a problem with the utilitarian focus on results, so that the end can be seen as justifying the means? Is the emphasis of the Effective Altruism movement on ‘longtermism’ at the expense of immediate need misguided? Are some of its declared aims, such as improving decision-making, vulnerable to ideological tinting? Finally, is the approach flawed that uncritically trusts those with extreme wealth and power simply because they declare themselves to be committed to doing good in the world?

Iranian Philosophy Student Killed

On Saturday 5 November 2022, 35 year old student Nasrin Ghaderi died after falling into a coma due to lethal injuries she sustained during an anti-government demonstration in Tehran. She is reported to have been attacked by security forces and suffered severe blows to her head. Nasrin Ghaderi was a PhD candidate in philosophy in Tehran. Following her death, new protests broke out in her home city of Marivan. Ghaderi’s family had been prevented from giving her a funeral in Marivan. She was instead buried without anyone in attendance. We all mourn the death of this brave young philosopher.

A New Take on Animal Justice

Recent philosophical approaches to animal welfare tend to take a justice approach, falling into political theory rather than traditional applied ethics. German philosopher Colin von Negenborn believes that combining the methods of philosophy and economics can yield new insights about the relationship between animals and humans. He has embarked on a research project sponsored by Hamburg University in which he will use game theory to study both human and animal behaviour. The assumption behind this is that animal behaviour is changed by human interference. Animals adapt their behaviour to human behaviour, by, for example, giving up habitats or moving to new ones. The fact that they do not engage in rational deliberation before acting is irrelevant, Negenborn argues. After all, humans do not always act rationally either. According to him, we will have to completely rethink the way we interact with animals, as we ought to see them as fellow players, rather than as objects that we can manipulate at will. The aim is to offer this different perspective with a view to influencing legislation.

Philosophy of Physics

Quantum refrigerator
Quantum refrigerator at UCL, London
Photo by O. Usher. Creative Commons 2.0

The Philosophy of Physics Society (philosophyofphysics.org) is launching an ambitious new scholarly journal. It will be called Philosophy of Physics, or PoP for short, and will be published by LSE Press in London. It will be based on an open access publishing model so that it will be free to read. The Editor in Chief is Prof. David Wallace who holds the Mellon Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Modern physics has generated many questions of philosophical interest. Relativity revolutionised our views of space and time. Quantum theory is mathematically highly successful but seems to generate paradoxes and is open to a range of different physical interpretations, all of them utterly profound for our understanding of reality and also really odd. So there is plenty of material for philosophers to discuss.

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