The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

The Difference Between Effective Altruism and Karma Yoga – As Highlighted By The Fall Of Sam Bankman-Fried

Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that seeks to apply rational thinking to decide the optimum way to help the most people. This is a quote from the effective altruism website: “This project matters because, while many attempts to do good fail, some are enormously effective. For instance, some charities help 100 or even 1,000 times as many people as others, when given the same amount of resources.”

Sam Bankman-Fried was a card-carrying Effective Altruist. He started his crypto firm with the specific mission to make as much money as possible, so that he could give it all away. He was following an Effective Altruism principle – ‘earn to give’ – which advises people to make a lot of money first, so that they can have an outsized philanthropic impact.

Many of the biggest advocates of Effective Altruism are Rationalists and/or Technologists like Steven Pinker, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Dustin Moskovitz (one of the founders of Facebook). One thing that unites these people is a belief in the power of human reason to solve humanity’s biggest problems. In a podcast this week, Sam Harris talked about empathy being a ‘bug’ in our human coding, not a ‘feature’. Humans are biased – we would prefer to help one individual we can feel a connection to, rather than one hundred people we only know as data and don’t feel an emotional connection to. If we can fix this ‘bug’, override our empathy, we can make more rational decisions and help more people more effectively.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting our charitable efforts to be as effective as possible. But I worry about the worship of Rationality at the expense of other elements of our human beingness.

If you see a child on your street who is starving, cold, and alone, you could take them into your home, give them some food and a warm bath. But if you know that in 10 years time, 1000 children in a different country will be starving, cold, and alone, and that you could help with the same amount of time and effort, you have a moral obligation to help them, not the child on your street.

This might seem like a simplistic and abstract example. But the Effective Altruism movement has diverted money, lots of money, to specific causes that are supposedly rationally calculated through research to be the most important and effective causes we should be giving money and time to. The movement has recently focused a lot of attention and resource into dealing with long-term existential risks, like the threat of AI and predicting future pandemics. These are important matters. But as Linda Kinstler writes in The Economist: “Bankman-Fried…was a proponent of the longtermist ethos, in which prediction and speculation are often indistinguishable and obligations to a probabilistic future outweigh those to the material present.”

This doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of Effective Altruism. But we need to acknowledge that human beings, even the supposedly most rational ones, are driven by non-rational forces. Elon Musk can do a single tweet about crypto that sends stocks plummeting. A month later he can do a tweet that sends crypto stocks soaring. Markets are not rational, because they are formed of networks of human beings who are easily influenced by others emotions, and a single person’s opinion. Elon Musk is not a super rational machine.

I am grateful we have people thinking about existential risks that our children and their children will face. But I refuse to accept that my empathy or my desire to help the person in front of me is a ‘bug’.

Karma Yoga is in many ways the opposite of Effective Altruism. Karma Yoga is the practice of helping people without being attached to the outcome. In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna says: “Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.”

When we are too attached to the outcome of our helping, we easily lose sight of the person in front of us who is suffering. In his book How Can I Help? Ram Dass says that: “At times, helping simply happens in the way of things. It’s not something we really think about, merely the instinctive response of an open heart. Caring is a reflex. Someone slips, your arm goes out. A car is in the ditch, you join others and push…You live, you help.”

Unlike the code on which Bankman-Fried’s crypto-bubble was built, life is often non-binary. We don’t have to choose between empathy and reason, or between effective altruism and karma yoga. Ultimately, who and how we choose to help is a decision based on our own values. And it helps to acknowledge that.

For me, I know that when I am focused on helping the person in front of me, letting go of attachment to outcomes, a certain kind of peace arises within me. And who can calculate the ripples that spread from us across time and space, when we operate from a place of peace.



Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents

Image by Sam Thomas, Douglas Sacha

In most ways, the internet is a powerful, wonderful tool, but, as the tragic case of Molly Russell showed, it poses a real and significant harm to our kids, especially in the murky algorithm-driven world of social media. We are getting towards the stage where our children are not necessarily more safe in their bedrooms than out on the streets. As recent history proves, we can’t wait for regulation or the social media giants to change their game. We need to take matters into our own hands. Here’s what parents can do.

Your teenager still needs you

When our kids become teenagers, they start to look, feel and smell different, like mini adults. No longer cherubim, our relationship with them has to adapt. But, beneath their sometimes strident quest for independence, it’s important to remember that they still really need us.

Adolescence is a critical and vulnerable time of development.  Most mental health problems begin in adolescence. Brains are particularly plastic during this period, which means they are easily shaped by the environment they are plugged into. The good news is that this is also a critical period when we can embed good mental health in our children.

We need to make sure that we as parents play a bigger role in our child’s life than social media does. We need to hold onto our relationship with our kids. Not coddling them, but listening to them, loving and respecting them, with very clear, negotiated boundaries. In my experience, young people are very able to reflect wisely on their social media use when they don’t feel they are being judged.

Get across the tech

Most devices and browsers have built-in parental controls, which you can use to restrict the access your children have to harmful content. There are also parental control settings and accessories for your wi-fi router, allowing you to set specific controls for specific devices in the house, and logging a detailed history of what websites your children have visited. With social media, it gets a bit trickier. There are some apps that will allow you to monitor your child’s social media use, but most parents I speak to feel like this is too much of an invasion of privacy. Some parents have access to their child’s social media password and have an agreement to check their account if they are ever concerned about them. Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember that these technical solutions are never 100% effective, and your relationship with your child is the most effective tool you have.

Bedrooms are for sleeping

I used to run a therapeutic school in London for teenagers with complex trauma. Anita was 15 years old, feisty as hell, and the first to have a smart phone — a Blackberry. She told me she had been sleeping with her Blackberry under her pillow, and hadn’t slept a wink last night because it was pinging through the night with messages about a “beef” between two of her friends. The drama of the day continued to sear into her nervous system through the night.

If we want our children to have good mental health, they need good sleep. Whether they are 10 or 16, they can’t have devices in their bedroom when they sleep. It’s that black and white. For the sake of our children’s minds, this needs to be a hard and fast rule. I know it’s not always easy to establish these boundaries. But it’s important. You might let your 15-year-old have a small glass of wine at the dinner table, but you wouldn’t let them take a bottle of wine into their bedroom, especially if that bottle of wine is being filled up every night with toxic content we have absolutely no control over. I know many families who have a device box. They set a certain time of evening after which devices need to be in the box. Yes, this may need to apply to us grown-ups too. Let’s face it, we are all addicted to our devices. Figure out your own way to do this, but bedrooms are for sleeping, sleep is critical for mental health, and you are still their parents.

Unplug from the ‘digital nervous system’

In this hyperconnected age, our nervous systems are increasingly connected to the nervous systems of the eight billion people on our planet. The algorithm-charged emotions that rage through the internet trigger our sympathetic nervous system. If a child is looking frequently at this kind of content their nervous system is getting a steady stream of cues that they are unsafe.

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this. They need safe spaces away from devices to process these emotional storms. Even just having a family mealtime without devices is a step in the right direction. Ideally, we need to spend a little 1-1 time with them each day, offering them that space to digest. Even if we don’t talk, just by being there with them, going for a walk, or doing some art or activity together, we are staying connected to them.

It’s important we have space to process our own emotions too, of course. Like the red-faced, stressed-out teacher who shouts at the children in his class to ‘calm down!’, it doesn’t work when we try to impose on our children something we haven’t already accessed within ourselves. It can help to ask yourself what emotions were not acceptable in your family of origin? Can you give yourself just a little bit of extra permission for that feeling to be there? It can help to find that feeling in the body, put a nurturing hand on it, and let the feeling know it’s ok for it to be there.

You Are The Captain Of Their Ship

A mum I worked with found out her daughter had been self-harming, disclosed in a fraught, emotional moment. The mum had also self-harmed at a similar age (I often find these patterns repeat in families). Since the disclosure, the mum had been frantically looking for help from organisations, therapists, online forums. The mum soon discovered that her daughter had also been frantically looking for help on social media, forums, influencers, websites. Two people in the same house, desperately seeking help on the internet for the same problem, in silos.

I helped the mum to remember she was probably the best placed person to help her daughter. Not only does she know her daughter better than any professional ever will, but, in this case, she also had her own lived experience of what her daughter was going through. Trauma expert Bessel Ven Der Kolk says that “the parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.” You might not feel equipped to deal with whatever challenges your teenager is bringing. And sometimes professional help is necessary. But you need to be the captain of their ship, their safe space guiding them through the emotional storms of 21st century life.

The S-word

There is a dangerous myth that says if we talk about suicide we make it more real, more likely to happen. The research shows the opposite to be true, and confirms my clinical experience. As parenting consultant Roma Norriss says: “It’s tricky talking about suicide, but it’s better than not talking about it.”

The difficult and sad truth is that suicides are increasing amongst our young people, especially our girls. Although the causes of suicide are complex, the clients I have worked with who thought about or attempted suicide have said it felt like the only way to stop overwhelming feelings. What these clients needed was to feel that they were not alone in their feelings, to have a sense that their feelings were bearable. If we can guide our teenage children through their emotional states, even the most intense ones, we teach them that emotions are bearable and temporary.

I once worked with a 14-year old boy called Ainsley who had given up on life after reading online about the climate crisis. All the adults around him seemed ‘fake, with big fake smiles, acting as though everything was OK’ while Ainsley could see the world was in a hopeless mess. A huge part of me wanted to give him hope, to tell him, ‘It will all be OK’. I suggested he channel his despair into joining a movement, Extinction Rebellion or the Youth Climate Protests. My ideas were instantly rebuffed as palliative care. ‘It’s too late,’ he said. ‘I’ve read the science. Nothing we do now can make any difference.’ After a few jarring sessions where each of my attempts to give him hope fell flat, I realised I had to do something different. I had to let go, completely let go, of my desire to make Ainsley feel better. I had to connect with a place inside of myself that also felt hopeless about the future. This is not an easy space for any of us to inhabit. But, once I’d attuned to Ainsley’s nihilism, once I’d let his despair become a possible truth in my heart, things began to shift. He opened up to me. He found a little hope.

We all experience dark moments in our lives. What helps us to get through is when people can genuinely validate our emotional experience. It helps if this is in person. Online connections can help. But humans are designed to need face-to-face, body-to-body contact and community to help them through tough times.

See if you can find a way to shine a light onto their experience without minimising or denying it. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You can say something like: “It seems like things are really tough for you right now. I’m here to listen. I love you and I care what happens to you.” If you are worried that they are finding harmful content online, you have to draw a line. Of course, get professional help if you see signs of self-harm or suicidal thinking. Papyrus are a great charity in the UK working to prevent suicide in our children.


Even if social media companies curb their demented trails of life-sucking content, new technologies will emerge with new harms, like the meteoric rise of vaping after smoking lost its cool. This is a time to remember that parents matter. Our kids, even those grumpy teenage ones, still really need us.