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Dickens Would Have Had Bankman-Fried's Number

During a recent nighttime bout of insomnia, I plucked from my shelf a paperback of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. A receipt tucked inside informed me that I acquired the book on a 1998 visit to Shakespeare & Company in Paris, but of course the book was first published in London in 1854, first as a serial in Dickens’s magazine Household Words and subsequently as a book. That makes it all the more remarkable that Hard Times tells the story of Sam Bankman-Fried.

Hard Times is Dickens’s most sustained attack on utilitarianism, the philosophy, invented by Jeremy Bentham, that says the sole aim for a moral society is to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. In Hard Times the stand-in for Bentham (more precisely, for James Mill, father to John Stuart Mill) is Thomas Gradgrind, a successful wholesaler of hardware turned educator who’s on his way to becoming a member of Parliament. Here is how Dickens, the greatest caricaturist in English literature, introduces Gradgrind:

A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.

Gradgrind is not unlike Joseph Bankman, Ralph M. Parsons Professor of Law and Business at Stanford and father to Sam. Like Gradgrind, Bankman père is (according to a description by his wife, Barbara Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law Emerita at Stanford) a “take-no-prisoner utilitarian.”

Here’s how Dickens describes the indoctrination of Gradgrind’s children:

No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.

Here’s how Barbara Fried describes husband Joseph’s indoctrination of their children (from her book Facing Up to Scarcity: The Logic and Limits of Nonconsequential Thought):

When Sam was about fourteen, he emerged from his bedroom one evening and said to me, seemingly out of the blue, “What kind of person dismisses an argument they disagree with by labeling it “the Repugnant Conclusion?”

Sam, his brother Gabriel, and Joseph are a “hardy band,” Fried writes,

that has shown me by example the nobility of the ethical principle at the heart of utilitarianism: a commitment to the wellbeing of all people, and to counting each person—alive now or in the future, halfway around the world or next door, known or unknown to us—as one.

Fried is describing the variety of utilitarianism known as Effective Altruism, which, as I’ve written earlier, is notably hospitable to billionaires who don’t wish to pay taxes. 

Read entire article at The New Republic