IMPCO, don’t injure yourself by returning FTXFF money for services you already provided

In my possibly contrarian opinion, and speaking as somebody who I don’t think actually got any money directly from FTX Future Fund that I can recall; also speaking for myself and hastily, having not run this post past any other major leaders in EA:

You are not obligated to return funding that got to you ultimately by way of FTX; especially if it’s been given for a service you already rendered, any more than the electrical utility ought to return FTX’s money that’s already been spent on electricity; especially if that would put you to hardship. This is not a for-the-greater-good argument; I don’t think you’re obligated to that much personal martyrdom in the first place, just like the utility company isn’t so obligated.

It’s fine to be somebody who sells utilons for money, just like utilities sell electricity for money. People who work in the philanthropic sector, and don’t capture all of the gain they create, do not thereby relinquish the solidity of their claim to the part of that gain they do capture, to below the levels of an electrical utility’s claim to similar money. The money you hold could maybe possibly compensate some FTX users—if it doesn’t just get immediately captured by users selling NFTs to Bahamian accounts, or the equivalent in later bankruptcy proceedings—but that’s equally true of the electrical utility’s money, or, heck, money held by any number of people richer than you. Plumbers who worked on the FTX building should likewise not anguish about that and give the money back; yes, even though plumbers are probably well above average in income for the Bahamas. You are not more deeply implicit in FTX’s sins, by way of the FTX FF connection, than the plumber who worked directly on their building.

I don’t like the way that some people think about charity, like anybody who works in the philanthropic sector gives up the right to really own anything. You can try to do a little good in the world, or even sell a little good into the world, without signing up to be the martyr who gets all the blame for not being better when something goes wrong.

You probably forwent some of your possible gains to work in the charity sector at all, and took a bit of a generally riskier job. (If you didn’t know that, my condolences.) You may suddenly need to look for a new job. You did not sign away your legal or moral right to keep title to money that was already given you, if you’ve already performed the corresponding service, or you’re still going to perform that service. If you can’t perform the service anymore, then maybe return some of that money once it’s clear that it’ll actually make its way to FTX customers; but keep what covers the cost of a month to re-search for a job, or the month you already spent searching for that job.

It’s fine to call it your charity and your contribution that you undercharge for those utilons and don’t capture as much value as you create—if you’re nice enough to do that, which you don’t have to be, you can be Lawful Neutral instead of Lawful Good and I won’t think you’re as cool but I’ll still happily trade with you.

(I apologize for resorting to the D&D alignment chart, at this point, but I really am not sure how to compactly express these ideas without those concepts, or concepts that I could define more elaborately that would mean the same thing.)

That you’re trying to be some degree of Good, by undercharging for the utilons you provide, doesn’t mean you can’t still hold that money that you got in Lawful Neutral exchange for the services you sold. Just like any ordinary plumber is entitled to do, if it turned out they unwittingly fixed the toilet of a bad bad person. Not fixing any more toilets for them is one thing; giving back the previous payment is another.

Trying to be a better person than average does not make it any more your responsibility to fix the broken pieces of the world elsewhere, than it is the electrical utility’s responsibility to make FTX’s customers whole for the money that FTX spent on electricity. The fact that you’re trying to be a Good person doesn’t make that responsibility land on you. It means you tried to be nicer than most people are, one day of your life, and nobody—definitely nobody who is not you—gets to demand that you now be nice on another day too. You do not, be it clear, get to say, “I was nice one day, so now I get to be nasty this other day”—we don’t trust your accounting of that—but other people do not get to tell you, “Now you must be even nicer on this other occasion!”

FTX’s misdeeds are not something that their electrical utility could’ve reasonably known in advance, and neither could you, because we’re all distracted and competence in general in this civilization is in very short supply. If Sequoia Capital can get fooled—presumably after more due diligence and apparent access to books than you could possibly have gotten while dealing with the charitable arm of FTX FF that was itself almost certainly in the dark—then there is no reasonable way you could have known. We do not live in the world of Hieronym’s To the Stars, or the locally better-known world of dath ilan partially inspired by it; we don’t have AIs reporting to every seller on every buyer’s moral probity before they sell anything, and frankly it’s not clear we’d want to live in a world where that was true.

Miami sold FTX naming rights on a sports area. Miami has now terminated that agreement; maybe they’ll give some of the money back; I sure bet they won’t give all of it back. If you have any feeling deep inside like philanthropy is not a real trade—well, how real are the naming rights on a sports arena? I’d think selling a crypto company a $135M right to name a stadium, is more the sort of thing where all that money ought to be given back to defrauded customers, if you say some transactions aren’t real enough. The reason some people don’t immediately think that way, I’d say, is because they think people in the charitable sector all ought to be martyrs; and that is a way of thinking that I dislike. Miami would laugh at you, if you told them they should give all the money back to make FTX’s customers whole. People go after the philanthropic service providers because such Good and self-sacrificing people are easier targets who might take that criticism seriously—not because it makes more sense on a moral level that sellers of utilons should come in line for harsh personal sacrifice, ahead of the sellers of stadium naming rights losing a chunk of revenue.

Does it potentially make EA look slightly better, if you visibly and nobly sacrifice everything and undergo great hardship? Possibly! But that is not necessarily your individual responsibility, to optimize EA’s image at personal cost; unless you can afford to make it so, and choose to make it so. It’s not even necessarily the cheapest way to buy that benefit. It’s fine to have sold utilons for money, and say that you already traded those utilons for that money, and now EA needs to take care of its general image separately from that.

There’s only one really strong argument I’ve heard for why Good people who traded indirectly with FTX should hurt themselves more, sacrifice more, in repairing this—and it’s that FTX claimed to be trying to accumulate money in order to do good, and so now Lawful Good itself should try to deny them that benefit of ill-gotten gains, to discourage the next person who considers betraying Lawfulness in the name of Goodness, from the hope that they can purchase greater-goods that way.

And that’s… actually a completely valid consideration, in my own view! Logical decision theory isn’t actually something that works among humans, but you should almost always end up doing what LDT would say to do anyways.

But if you’ve got not a whole lot of money and it would cost you a lot of hardship, maybe leave that consideration to somebody else. Maybe the next EA billionaire can figure out exactly how much FTX Future Fund spent, add interest, and pay that much back to FTX’s victims. It’s not something you have to do alone, or at all, if you’re not best-placed to do it. Be kind to yourself, ask what a friend would tell you, when you judge how much hardship it would be to repay; because I’m worried I know too many people who are going to be way too harsh about that. If you’re thinking that somebody on another continent is poorer than you—well, they are, and they’re also poorer than a lot of FTX’s customers, and you can donate to GiveDirectly if you think that’s best for Earth; mostly I’d say that you should maybe just be a little more Lawful Neutral about the whole thing. You’re a utility company, is all, and you sold FTXFF some utility.

I’m actually a bit skeptical that this will have been done in the name of Good, in the end. It didn’t actually work out for the Good, and I really think a lot of us would have called that in advance.

My current guess is more that it’ll turn out Alameda made a Big Mistake in mid-2022. And instead of letting Alameda go under and keeping the valuable FTX exchange as a source of philanthropic money, there was an impulse to pride, to not lose the appearance of invincibility, to not be so embarrassed and humbled, to not swallow the loss, to proceed within the less painful illusion of normality and hope the reckoning could be put off forever. It’s a thing that happens a whole lot in finance! And not with utilitarians either! So we don’t need to attribute causality here to a cold utilitarian calculation that it was better to gamble literally everything, because to keep growing Alameda+FTX was so much more valuable to Earth than keeping FTX at a slower growth rate. It seems to me to appear on the surface of things, if the best-current-guess stories I’m hearing are true, that FTX blew up in a way classically associated with financial orgs being emotional and selfish, not with doing first-order naive utilitarian calculations.

And if that’s what was going on there, even if somebody at some point claimed that the coverup was being done in the name of Good, I don’t really think it’s all that much of Good’s fault there—Good would really not have told you that would turn out well for Good in even naive first-order thinking, if Pride was not making the real decision there. Nor need Lawful Good reimburse it, unless Lawful Good can afford to be really incredibly scrupulous about that.

But what actually happened with FTX, we don’t know yet, and I’m not a prediction market that you should take my speculations seriously.

I say all this—well, first of all, because I think it’s valid, and because I worry that people are going to be saying the opposite, that everyone must give all money back right now, as would make EA seem least vulnerable to imagined criticism (and some real criticism, to be fair, though the real criticism cares much less about what you actually do and much more about what they just wildly-guess /​ satisfyingly-imagine you’re doing). I worry that people who hold the contrary viewpoint, that it’s fine to just Lawful Neutrally trade utilons for money and undercharge to the extent you’re Good, will feel inhibited and afraid from presenting this viewpoint if they hold it; and when that happens, in EA, I often do suspect that nobody else will dare to speak the contrary viewpoint, if not me.

But also I’m saying this, because I suspect /​ wildly guess that the pressure to sacrifice everything, to not reserve yourself for yourself, to always give and never trade, is possibly entangled with a kind of falling too far into utilitarianism; that in some but not all people there is a common mental motion between giving up yourself and your own needs and hurting yourself, and giving up the rules that should have held you back from hurting others. I worry that in the Peter Singer brand of altruism—that met with the Lesswrong Sequences which had a lot more Nozick libertarianism in it, and gave birth to effective altruism somewhere in the middle—there is too much Good and not enough Law; that it falls out of second-order rule utilitarianism and into first-order subjective utilitarianism; and rule utilitarianism is what you ought to practice unless you are a god. I worry there’s a common mental motion (in some-not-all people) between hearing that they ought to ruin their suit to save a drowning child, instead of taking an extra 15 seconds to pull off the suit first; and people thinking that maybe they ought to go rob a bank, to save some children. But that part, about the psychology of some people who are not me, I’m a lot less sure of.

I do think that EA needs more of the spirit of people who say: “Yeah, you pay me, and I’ll get the job done that I said I’ll do, and then it’s my money and I’ll use it to make myself happy; and that I’m a good person shows in how I’m undercharging for this and maybe went and accumulated professional expertise in a field where I’d be underpaid, but I still own myself and what I’m paid is still mine.” I wish that I had more of that myself, and aspire to it, even, so I feel a bit of a hypocrite in saying it, but still.

But that more abstract issue can maybe be debated later; it is not as urgent. For now, I wanted to express a possibly-contrarian opinion about what people, some of whom may be in some hardship about it, are (not) morally obligated to do.