Kelsey Piper’s recent interview of SBF
Edit: See the bottom for some important updates.
Kelsey Piper from Vox’s Future Perfect very recently released an interview (made through Twitter DMs) with Sam Bankman-Fried. The interview goes in depth into the events surrounding FTX and Alameda Research.
As we messaged, I was trying to make sense of what, behind the PR and the charitable donations and the lobbying, Bankman-Fried actually believes about what’s right and what’s wrong — and especially the ethics of what he did and the industry he worked in. Looming over our whole conversation was the fact that people who trusted him have lost their savings, and that he’s done incalculable damage to everything he proclaimed only a few weeks ago to care about. The grief and pain he has caused is immense, and I came away from our conversation appalled by much of what he said. But if these mistakes haunted him, he largely didn’t show it.
The interview gives a much-awaited outlet into SBF’s thinking, specifically in relation to prior questions in the community regarding whether SBF was practicing some form of naive consequentialism or whether the events surround the crisis largely emerged from incompetence.
During the interview, Kelsey asked explicitly about previous statements by SBF agreeing with the existence of strong moral boundaries to maximizing good. His answers seem to suggest he had intentionally misrepresented his views on the issue (see below for an important notice regarding this question):
This seems to give some credit to the theory that SBF could have been acting like a naive utilitarian, choosing to engage in morally objectionable behavior to maximize his positive impact, while explicitly misrepresenting his views to others.
However, Kelsey also asked directly regarding the lending out of customer deposits alongside Alameda Research:
All of his claims are at least consistent with the view of SBF acting like an incompetent investor. FTX and Alameda Research seems to have had serious governance and accounting problems, and SBF seems to have taken several decisions which to him sounded individually reasonable, all based on bad information. He repeatedly doubled down, instead of cutting his losses.
I’m still not sure what to take out of this interview, especially because Sam seems, at best, somewhat incoherent regarding his moral views and previous mistakes. This might have to do with his emotional state at the time of the interview, or even be a sign that he’s blatantly lying, but I still think there is a lot of stuff to update from.
Edit: As some in the comments have pointed out, SBF recently said these messages were not intended to be on the record, and Kelsey responded she supposed otherwise. I’ve decided to keep the screenshots, as they’re now part of the public record.
Furthermore, keep in mind there is discussion about how to best interpret the answer to the question “so the ethics stuff—mostly a front?”, since the context to this question is the specific discussion about ethical injunctions. The right interpretation is a crucial consideration to most of the comments below.
Notably, this has been taken in social media to mean SBF admitted to faking his belief in EA more generally, with others suggesting that is the wrong interpretation.
To add to the list of wtfs of recent SBF behavior: giving that interview. His lawyers must hate him.
Dude is going to prison for life. I can’t believe how many rationalists are out here suggesting he’s gonna just walk away from this “because he’s a democratic donor”. Sam is sounding and acting like a megalomaniac to the point of being mentally ill. One wonders if he even realizes he’s going to be criminally charged regardless of the outcome of his “fundraising”.
So is it prison or not guilty by reason of insanity?
SBF is not insane according to the U.S. justice system. In order to be found not guilty by reason of insanity your lawyers have to prove you were so whacked out of your mind you didn’t realize you were breaking the law. Sam and his gang of thieves clearly did, because they took many deliberate actions to hide the fraud.
Making poor judgement calls because you’re a megalomaniac is not grounds for a defense. If it were, that’d be a huge problem, because most people that commit massive crimes like these are not entirely sane.
Sam will either plea, or be convicted of massive fraud and spend the rest of his life in genpop. Given how irrational this man appears to be I wouldn’t be surprised if he rejects a perfectly good plea deal (read: anything less than LWOP) against the advice of his lawyers and then gets sentenced to life anyways Ross Ulbricht style.
I dislike using “moral outrage” connotations of words like fraudster and narcissist and especially dislike when that get mixed up on what the words technically mean. Face prettyness and demeanor should not be (atleast decisive) factors in law consequences. Thus in law context it is proper to be blind to it. On the social rumor mill side attaching proper meaning and context is more on scope.
On “social sane person” scale fraudster and megalomaniac are very alike. On “lawful citizen” scale fraudster and megalomaniac are very unlike.
Because of confusions like these it is sometimes possible to play social class recognition tennis where the frame from where an act is percieved impacts how it is processed. This person might be trying to act and angle for the situation to be processed as a normal market trust let down event and away from being a crime. While it is not part of the ideal on how things are supposed to work playing even to jury members hearthstring over law technicalities is a real course of action that happens. The kind of speech that likens fraudster and megalomanian works in the paradigm of pulling hearthstring in the direction of hate. So while in the “sympathy vs punishment” paradigm it might result in the “correct” bin, in the “audience reaction vs mechanistic consequences for actions” it plays to the wrong murky bin. “audience reaction speech” might therefore inadvertly help the effort to have the perperator choose a convenient frame.
A defence of the mental state being dominated by chemical influence of stimulants might use the non-damning behavioural aspects as evidence that the overall behaviour comes from a chemical source rather than unidentified psychological sources. Manicness in this context would be excusatory (with possibly admitting “trading under the influence” in the same go). I think I disagree here on whether megalomania is categorically irrelevant for defence.
That the non-punishment of mental institution is worse than actual punishments is pretty backwards. Medical care being adequate bad outcome for a hated person seems a very ablist attitude (I guess it is consistent with treating “mentally ill” as a label to direct hate).
I’m explaining to you how it is. Ableism has nothing to do with it. Being a sane person in a psychiatric facility for criminals found legally insane, in the society we’re in, is a really terrible outcome. Most would rather be in regular prison.
Doesn’t really matter though, because Sam isn’t getting found legally insane. Just isn’t how the law works. If we recognized standard Dark Triad traits motivating criminality as grounds for reduced sentences, large portions of the justice system would have to be reconfigured.
Unfortunately for Sam the law is pretty clear here on what kind of time he’s expected to do given the size of the fraud. It’s not up to the judge if a jury votes him guilty, and a jury is very probably not going to nullify this crime, so there just doesn’t seem to be the axis of leeway you suggest here. A prosecutor might decline to charge him, or attempt to convince the judge to give him a sweetheart plea deal, but in practice this seems unlikely.
I kinda agree how the law works. So in
I currently understand that this meant only to say disapproval and social disparagement and has nothing to do with megalomania, mania or mental illness despite using words that ordinarily refer to those.
I guess you could say that’s an ableist comment. What I mean is more “he is traditionally sociopathic to the point that it is causing him to make grave mistakes such as steal billions of dollars and then go freely talk to journalists afterwards.” You could make an argument that this is impairing his judgement to the point of mental illness, but then you can make an argument that Hitler was similarly mentally ill. Either way I have little sympathy.
at the end of this article the interviewer clarifies that she verified this to be SBF, but does not clarify that SBF understood this conversation to be public (which suggests he may not have). hoping for some clarification there, because it’s relevant to understanding the broader ethical context in which this is all playing out under.
Sam has since tweeted “25) Last night I talked to a friend of mine. They published my messages. Those were not intended to be public, but I guess they are now.”
His claims are hard to believe. Kelsey is very well-known as a journalist in EA circles. She says she interviewed him for a piece in May. Before Sam’s tweet, she made a point of saying that she avoids secretly pulling “but I never said it would be off-the-record, you just asked for that” shenanigans. She confirmed the conversation with an email from her work account. She disputes the “friend” claim, and says they’ve never had any communication in any platform she can find, other than the aforementioned interview.
The only explanations that make sense to me are:
Sam expected Kelsey’s coverage to be more favorable and is now regretting his conversation
Sam has been under so much stress that even the incredibly obvious fact that this was a professional interview was something he failed to realize
Sam is just lying here, perhaps after hearing from his lawyers about how dumb the interview was
The other reason for Sam to be lying would be so that he can lead people to believe the answers are genuine.
According to his twitter, he didn’t expect it to be published, but given that he was speaking to a journalist whose last interaction with him was an interview, given how many people obviously want to understand what just happened, given how many journalists must have tried to contact him, and given that (according to Kelsey) no indication was offered that this conversation would not be published, this is an absurd expectation.
Someone on sneerclub said that he is falling on his sword to protect EA’s reputation, I don’t have a good counterargument to that.
This conversation won’t go over well in court, so if he is selfish, then this conversation probably reflects mental instability.
The idea that he was trying to distance himself from EA to protect EA doesn’t hold together because he didn’t actually distance himself from EA at all in that interview. He said ethics is fake, but it was clear from context that he meant ordinary ethics, not utilitarianism.
I don’t think it’s all that clear, there are reasonable interpretations where he’s saying that he simply cared about winning as in making money, and it’s possible he was trying to unambiguously lean into that narrative but did so poorly.
In the interview, he explains what he means by saying ethics is fake by essentially saying “win + clean” is just as good as “win + shady”.
The difference between clean and shady is one of normal ethics not of EA ethics.
Money is worth the thing that you are intending to buy with it. It seems like he wanted to spend his largely to fund EA causes and nothing in the recent episode suggests he changed his mind on that.
Yes, but without defining winning it’s not clear that it had anything to do with EA
The revelation that he spent maybe 10x as much on villas for his girlfriends as EA cause areas suggests he may have changed his mind on that. I don’t know why people are so quick to take the word of billionaires who “pledge” a bunch of money to EA in the future “when their market cap increases”, as the same as actually donating money.
I see a lot of the EA discussion is worried about the public consequences of SBF using EA to justify bad behavior. What if people unfairly conclude EA ideas corrupt people’s thinking and turn them into SBF-alikes? And some concern that EA genuinely could do this.
If you think that is the big danger then I understand how you might conclude SBF saying “I never believed the EA stuff, it was all an act.” is better for EA. Valid thing to worry about (especially about your own thinking), but it’s online rationalists who are worried about this. Looking at this as an outsider, this is missing the forest for the trees.
Much of the public starts from the assumption that rich people giving to charities is all a big scam, generally. Just a means to enrich or empower themselves. EA’s biggest donor admitting it was a scam along is not protecting EA, it’s confirming this model in everyone’s minds. They knew it all along! Every future EA donator will be trivially pattern matched to have the same motives as SBF.
I enjoy reading discussions on EAs role in sub optimal Kelly bet size conclusions. But big picture that is not the the biggest danger by far.
I’m not trying to be rude, but if you can’t see a perspective from which that is nonsensical, then perhaps you are not strong enough in the relevant way to read what bullies say about those that they hate.
Strongly downvoted for two reasons:
I think you should be far more hesitant to question another person’s mental fortitude, and you should even more hesitant to raise such concerns on a public forum. You should only take such a step if you have very good reason to think it’s necessary and beneficial. I think fortitude is similar to a lot of other positive personal qualities in that regard. E.g., you should have an extremely high bar for publicly questioning another person’s sanity, intelligence, competence, etc.
I think the question of why SBF is talking like a movie villain psychopath is a valid one. If he’s a fanatical utilitarian who just lost (what he thought of as) a positive EV gamble, then probably the next highest utility action for him to take is to try and deflect blame away from EA and onto himself. I think this is unlikely, given the new CEO’s description of FTX insane management practices, but it’s hardly a nonsensical position for someone already skeptical of EA. I think you should not dismiss it as nonsense so offhandedly, and that you should especially not imply that failing to immediately reject such a position is cause to question someone’s ‘strength in the relevant way.’
In my head I’m making a much more specific claim than ‘mental fortitude’. A person can be able to deal with arguments and ideas from different sources well and differently — you can handle criticism from your manager but not your child, or you can sensibly evaluate arguments given to you at a whiteboard in-person but not in a fancy physics paper. I didn’t mean to say “bad at evaluating arguments in general”, I just meant specifically from one source. That said, I will consider your argument that I should be careful to criticize someone’s reasoning abilities… actually wait, I’m not sure I get it. Maybe there should be a high bar for doing this even on LW. I agree in most other places there is a high bar. I will aim to think more on it.
I’m not dismissing the position as nonsensical, and I’d be happy to engage with it if a LWer brought it up as their position. I said that not being able to see a perspective where it’s nonsense that bullies made up to paint you in a bad light is this issue. I think a pretty plausible story is “Huh, seems like this revered EA person just seems to have pretty aggressive and self-serving opinions about finance and power and crypto, as many corrupt people in finance probably do, and the proposal that this is a front in order to somehow affect EAs reputation (as if his front will really have much affect on whether EA turned out to have been led by one of the big fraudsters in history) is pretty silly”, and I think that’s definitely one of my main perspectives. My point isn’t that it’s bad to consider other opinions, my point is that it’s an issue to not be able to come up with something like this.
I currently have >50% on my read being right, but I may have mistakenly read into Ilverin’s comment, I definitely have >25% on that.
I intended to bring it up as plausible, but not explicitly say that I thought it was p>0.5 (because it wasn’t a firm belief and I didn’t want others to do any bayesian update). I wanted to read arguments about its plausibility. (Some pretty convincing arguments are SBF’s high level of luxury consumption and that he took away potentially all Alameda shares from the EA cofounder of Alameda, Tara Mac Aulay).
If it is plausible, even if it isn’t p>0.5, then it’s possible SBF wasn’t selfish, in which case that’s a reason for EA to focus more on inculcating philosophy in its members (whether the answer is “naive utilitarianism is wrong, use rule utilitarianism/virtue ethics/deontology” or “naive utilitarianism almost never advocates fraud”, etcetera) (some old and new preventive measures like EA forum posts do exist, maybe that’s enough or maybe not).
I don’t see anything here to question Ilverin’s mental fortitude. They’re not demanding people appease sneerclub or going into a shame spiral. They raised a hypothesis. I think “we don’t accept hypotheses from sneerclub and accept that we will miss the twice a day when that broken clock is correct” is a reasonable blanket policy for LW, but that doesn’t mean everyone who raises a hypothesis from them has been irretrievably corrupted.
Yes, I certainly don’t think Ilverin is ‘irretrievably corrupted’! I only meant to suggest that this particular source of ideas and arguments (bullies) was net negative for Ilverin, not that Ilverin is themselves a net-negative source of ideas and arguments.
For anyone wondering about Sam’s mental state: don’t forget the somewhat high chance that he was intoxicated in some way during the interview.