The Securities and Exchange Commission just issued a criminal complaint against Caroline Ellison and Gary Wang, but the complaint’s main character is not them, but Sam Bankman-Fried. I’ll call him “Sam” since his name is so cumbersome.
Thirty-year-old Sam stole $8 billion from his customers with the help of Ellison and Wang. To do it he set up two companies, Alameda and FTX. He and Wang owned 100% of Alameda, which meant any money that went to Alameda went to them. He got some 90 investors to provide $2 billion for shares in FTX, the intake pipe for the money. FTX operated out of the Bahamas. Its business was to take customer money and operate like a brokerage. The customer sent in money to buy various kinds of cryptocurrency, that is, to phantom assets some persuasive person created that are worthless except to resell to someone else later. When the customer did resell, the money went into his FTX account, and could withdraw it at any time. FTX was like a bank, except with accounts useful only for trading crypto.
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This wasn’t like Enron, where clever accountants used shell companies to hide the fact that a company was unprofitable. This was just stealing. Sam took the money customers sent him to buy crypto and sent it over to Alameda. Alameda then invested it in stupid ideas and lost it. The intended plan was that Alameda would invest in brilliant projects, in which case Sam would pay back his customers and they’d never know the money disappeared for a while. This is just like the cashier who takes money from the cash register to bet on sure-win horses, intending to replace the money at the end of the day. Except it was a million times bigger.
Sam is also a hypocrite. He came from Silicon Valley, the land of woke nerds, and he knew how to do the affinity con, where you go after your own kind of people, people who trust you because you know the right buzz words. He admitted this in an interview after FTX filed for bankruptcy.
Last week, Mr. Bankman-Fried exchanged messages with a writer at Vox, a news organization that Building A Stronger Future had also pledged to fund.
“You were really good at talking about ethics,” she said.
“I had to be,” Mr. Bankman-Fried responded. He went on to explain it as “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths and so everyone likes us.”
(“Sam Bankman-Fried’s Plans to Save the World Went Down in Flames,” WSJ, Nov. 24)
So Sam is a thief and a scoundrel. He is an MIT graduate (like me, except I’m just a PhD graduate). His father is a professor (like me, except his mother is a professor too, and they’re at Stanford, not Illinois). He’s sort of ugly and sloppy (like me, except he’s even uglier and sloppier). So I find him interesting. He might even be a potential recruit for my MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA). Like him, I lose no chance to advertise my organizations, though mine is a nonprofit.
For more on his business operations, see:
And So’s Your Mother
Sin and Salvation are more interesting than Sam, so let’s turn to Sin. Sam’s father is Professor Joseph Bankman of Stanford Law School, whose speciality is tax law. Sam’s mother is Professor Barbara Fried, also of Stanford Law, whose speciality is “law and moral/political theory”. Even before Sam’s fall, she was known for her 2013 article, “Beyond Blame” in The Boston Review, but naturally this article of hers on crime and punishment became more famous in 2022. What is most quoted now is the concluding section, where she says (my boldface, in all quotes in this article),
After 40 years of policies that have relentlessly ratcheted up punishment, the direction has shifted slightly in the last few years. New York and Massachusetts repealed their mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. California repealed the most egregious elements of its three-strikes law. The changes in New York and Massachusetts were spurred by budgetary crises and worked out by Republican and Democratic legislators in a manner that gave both groups political cover. In California, change came via a 70 percent majority in a popular referendum. The primary motivation voters cited for scaling back the three-strikes law was not money but rather a belief that the law was unfair. Both developments are encouraging, in different ways—the first, because it suggests the possibility of détente in the political arms race to prove which party is tougher on crime, the second because it suggests that political grandstanding on the subject may finally be losing its audience.
The final reason for cautious optimism is that we have gotten nothing from our 40-year blame fest except the guilty pleasure of reproaching others for acts that, but for the grace of God, or luck, or social or biological forces, we might well have committed ourselves. Our schools are broken, a new generation of kids has been lost, our prisons are crammed with petty offenders whose lives we have ruined in the name of a war on drugs that has been a total failure. And judging from the current mood of the country, the guilty pleasure of blaming others has not proved all that pleasurable.
I doubt there will be a groundswell of support any time soon for the view that others may not, after all, be to blame for the mess they (and we) are in. But the fact that we have gotten so little in return for our blame mongering at least opens up the possibility that people would be receptive to a new approach. The next time something goes terribly wrong, suppose that instead of immediately asking who is to blame, we were to ask: How can we fix this problem? Fixing problems is costly. But as we have learned from the past 40 years, so is not fixing them. In the long run, most of us stand to gain by changing the national attitude toward blame. Doing so won’t magically transform the world. But it will increase the odds of a better life for many, if not most, of us. That seems like a more-than-even trade for giving up a sense of self-righteousness that none of us has earned.
Actually, we’ve gotten a lot from prison. That’s why it’s so appealing to ordinary voters, those who don’t live on the Stanford campus, which is what “political grandstanding” and “political arms race” means. Politicians compete to take credit for prisons, even though they’re expensive.
Why do you think crime is lower now than it was in 1980, before we returned to the idea that sending criminals to prison was a good idea? The 1960s tested her theory. Richard Posner once told me that when he graduated from college, right-thinking people thought crime was a solved problem, so they drastically reduced prison sentences. Predictably, crime erupted. The crime wave destroyed the older norms, which meant even returning to the old levels of imprisonments hasn’t helped— see my “Stigma and Self-Fulfilling Expectations of Criminality,” Journal of Law and Economics, 39: 519-544 [October 1996)]). Deterrence worked just great, most simply as Incapacitation, which stops John Doe from robbing again by keeping him off the streets till he’s too old for the robbery game.
For that passage, Barbara Fried is rightly ridiculed. But the rest of her article is actually much better than those paragraphs. They seem to be tacked on to the end without logical connection to the rest, which has little connection with whether criminal sentences are mild or severe. Most of the article is about Retribution, the idea that one purpose of punishment is punishment per se, to make the Criminal suffer for his crime, regardless of the example it sets for others or to keep such a dangerous person locked up. If for example, we know someone hated only his father, and he’s already killed him, why should we punish him, when we can’t deter him in the future? It’s like the old joke about the patricide who throws himself on the mercy of the court as being a lonely orphan, except that it’s not his loneliness but his absence of future temptation that he relies on to escape incapacitation.
But deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and retribution can all argue for either mild or severe penalties, depending on details of the case. In her response to scholarly comments on her article, Fried talks about the difference between retribution and the others.
Giving bad actors what they morally deserve and reducing social harm at a tolerable cost are radically different undertakings, with radically different challenges and measures of success. If your goal is to give people what they morally deserve, the principal challenges are normative: What facts are necessary or sufficient to hold people blameworthy for their actions, and—if we conclude that they are blameworthy—how do we figure out what punishment they deserve? If your goal is harm reduction, then the principal challenges are not normative but empirical: What policies are most effective at reducing harm at a tolerable cost? While the two inquiries sometimes converge on the same policy recommendation (e.g., killing others should presumptively carry serious sanctions), they generally won’t, at least if each side remains true to its principles.
The odd thing is that Barbara Fried seems to think that a utilitarian society which dismissed retribution would have milder punishments. Probably not, as C.S. Lewis liked to to point out. If we don’t worry about making the punishment fit the crime morally, and we ‘re just concerned with minimizing harm, we’ll want to make punishments much greater. The death penalty becomes very attractive, and we can reduce the spending on death penalty trials by 95% because it doesn’t matter much whether the defendant really is the murderer. The point is to make criminals know there’s some chance they’ll be caught and killed. Innocense is a moral concern, and we’re now concerned only with deterrence. We scholars of law and economics have much studied this. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain noted as a virtue of the French railroad system that someone always takes the blame, whether there’s evidence of guilt or not.
No, they have no railroad accidents to speak of in France. But why? Because when one occurs, somebody has to hang for it! Not hang, maybe, but be punished at least with such vigor of emphasis as to make negligence a thing to be shuddered at by railroad officials for many a day thereafter. "No blame attached to the officers"--that lying and disaster-breeding verdict so common to our softhearted juries is seldom rendered in France. If the trouble occurred in the conductor's department, that officer must suffer if his subordinate cannot be proven guilty; if in the engineer's department and the case be similar, the engineer must answer.
If we only have utilitarian concerns, the situation is simple. Have a quick trial— the evidence is clear enough already and the defense probably can’t rebut it— and then roast Sam slowly and painfully in Times Square. Save his head, and stick it on a pike at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, as a perch for pigeons and a tip for traders. This will have a salutary effect on those tempted to go wrong, provide public entertainment at the moment and attract tourists for months (or even years) afterwards.
We do have moral concerns, though, and I’m sure Fried would be appalled by my suggestion, even if I could empirically demonstrate beyond all doubt that the amount saved by young Sam’s unpleasant death would far exceed the value of his life in dollar terms.
This is an old philosophical question, but I think all of us, even convicted murderers and Stanford law professors, really do believe in morality deep down in our hearts. James Fitzjames Stephen put it well in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity in the 1800’s. He says,
A judge has before him two criminals, one of whom appears, from the circumstances of the case, to be ignorant and depraved, and to have given way to very strong temptation, under the influence of the other, who is a man of rank and education, and who committed the offence of which both are convicted under comparatively slight temptation. I will venture to say that if he made any difference between them at all every judge on the English bench would give the first man a lighter sentence than the second.
What should we think of such an address to the prisoners as this?
‘You, A, are a most dangerous man. You are ignorant, you are depraved, and you are accordingly peculiarly liable to be led into crime by the solicitations or influence of people like your accomplice B. Such influences constitute to men like you a temptation practically all but irresistible. The class to which you belong is a large one, and is accessible only to the coarsest possible motives. For these reasons I must put into the opposite scale as heavy a weight as I can, and the sentence of the court upon you is that you be taken to the place from whence you came and from thence to a place of execution, and that there you be hanged by the neck till you are dead.
As to you, B, you are undoubtedly an infamous wretch. Between you and your tool A there can, morally speaking, be no comparison at all. But I have nothing to do with that. You belong to a small and dangerous class. The temptation to which you gave way was slight, and the impression made upon me by your conduct is that you really did not care very much whether you committed this crime or not. From a moral point of view, this may perhaps increase your guilt; but it shows that the motive to be overcome is less powerful in your case than in A’s. You belong, moreover, to a class, and occupy a position in society, in which exposure and loss of character are much dreaded. This you will have to undergo. Your case is a very odd one, and it is not likely that you will wish to commit such a crime again, or that others will follow your example. Upon the whole, I think that what has passed will deter others from such conduct as much as actual punishment. It is, however, necessary to keep a hold over you. You will therefore be discharged on your own recognizance to come up and receive judgment when called upon, and unless you conduct yourself better for the future, you will assuredly be so called upon, and if you do not appear, your recognizance will be inexorably forfeited.’
(As I read that again, I’m reminded of how the day I write this Sam was released on $250 million dollar bail, to come up and receive judgment when called upon. His parents co-signed. But I digress.)
This brings us to the interesting question: the question of sin and temptation. In his book Stephen is arguing against John Stuart Mill’s idea that morality is unimportant. He says,
How can the State or the public be competent to determine any question whatever if it is not competent to decide that gross vice is a bad thing? I do not think the State ought to stand bandying compliments with pimps.
‘Without offence to your better judgment, dear sir, and without presuming to set up my opinion against yours, I beg to observe that I am entitled for certain purposes to treat the question whether your views of life are right as one which admits of two opinions. I am far from expressing absolute condemnation of an experiment in living from which I dissent (I am sure that mere dissent will not offend a person of your liberality of sentiment), but still I am compelled to observe that you are not altogether unbiassed by personal considerations in the choice of the course of life which you have adopted (no doubt for reasons which appear to you satisfactory, though they do not convince me). I venture, accordingly, though with the greatest deference, to call upon you not to exercise your profession; at least I am not indisposed to think that I may, upon full consideration, feel myself compelled to do so.’
My feeling is that if society gets its grip on the collar of such a fellow it should say to him,
‘You dirty rascal, it may be a question whether you should be suffered to remain in your native filth untouched, or whether my opinion about you should be printed by the lash on your bare back. That question will be determined without the smallest reference to your wishes or feelings; but as to the nature of my opinion about you, there can be no question at all.’
Most people, I think, would feel that the latter form of address is at all events the more natural. Which is the more proper I shall try to show further on,
Did Sam sin? Does sin exist? Did he do something deserving of punishment, regardless of whether that punishment deters future embezzlers? Wouldn’t we all steal $8 billion if we had a chance?
When St. Paul is writing to the church at Corinth, he says in I Corinthians 6,
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
The passage starts out condemnatory, but it ends with forgiveness. “Such were some of you”, but “Ye are washed, ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Think of what the Calvinist-born governor says to his Chief Researcher in Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men,
“It all began, as I have said, when the Boss, sitting in the black Cadillac which sped through the night, said to me (to Me who was what Jack Burden, the student of history, had grown up to be) "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
Jack does discover that the obstructive Judge, known for his stiff righteousness, took a bribe when he was young. He tells the Judge, so the Judge will have a chance to change his decision. The Judge commits suicide. We learn, too that the Judge also was guilty of adultery— and is in fact Jack’s father. Digging into sin has surprising results. Don’t we all have things we want forgiven?
In fact, why do we think we are morally guilty at all, if we just fall into ordinary temptation? God made us a certain way, and we behave that way. Or, if you like, there is no God, and Nature that formed us, or Society. Go to God or Nature or Society if you want to punish someone.
People have thought about this a lot. Returning to the Boston Review article, Barbara Fried says,
In an article published shortly before his death, the political scientist James Q. Wilson took on the large question of free will and moral responsibility:
“Does the fact that biology determines more of our thinking and conduct than we had previously imagined undermine the notion of free will? And does this possibility in turn undermine, if not entirely destroy, our ability to hold people accountable for their actions?”
Wilson’s answer was an unequivocal no.
I wish she’d cited the article. I’m a great admirer of Wilson and even sat through his UCLA MBA class on government regulation when I was a professor there. Fried’s answer, though, is not Wilson’s: she says yes. She goes through various reasons for why Retribution might be a good thing. She treats the arguments fairly (unlike modern wokies— she is a different generation of leftist, old enough to be their mother), but finds them wanting. She says,
The compatibilist position has been around for a long time, with the role of determinism played variously by fate, luck, the gods, God, and social and biological forces. Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century New England preacher, arguably had the hardest compatibilist hand to play. His cards included the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (a take-no-prisoners version of determinism) and the Calvinist doctrine of sin (a take-no-prisoners version of personal responsibility). But he played the hand he was dealt. In his 1754 essay “Freedom of the Will,” he offered the following grand equivocation: even if we do not will as we will (that is, do not choose what we will to do), we do as we will, and the latter suffices to justify God’s dangling us like spiders over the pit of hell in the event that our actions do not entirely please Him. In short, what matters is not how we came to possess a sinful desire, but that we had it and acted on it.
To the modern reader, Edwards’s argument is likely to seem too clever by half and the entire compatibilist enterprise a little baffling.
The boldfaced part with “he played the hand he was dealt” is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. But Fried is wrong, and Edwards is right. Edwards is reducing the “ought” to the “is”. What matters, whether to God or to Society, is not whether you have a good excuse for being an evil person, but that you have an evil heart and do evil things. We don’t care whether your daddy was mean to you. You deserve to burn in Hell anyway.
That’s not just clever wordplay. It’s what you have to face, whether you’re a genius philosopher like Edwards, an ordinary scholar like me or Fried, an ordinary intellectual like you, dear reader, or an ordinary person like most people. Edwards, like Joseph Bankman (a psychologist law professor) or Barbara Fried (a generalist) pays attention to psychology and knows it’s part of philosophy. Fried says,
We can’t not believe in free will, and hence in moral responsibility, because each person’s daily experience of life is as an agent. Our experience is—to use Jonathan Edwards’s terms—that we do not merely do as we will, but that we also will as we will.
Edwards proved himself an astute psychologist as well as a brilliant metaphysician when he urged this argument on his fellow Calvinists. Wouldn’t people recoil from the idea that God would dangle them over the pit of hell for what they did, even though He made them do it? Edwards saw no cause for worry, because most people are never really going to focus on the “God made me do it” part:
“The common people do not ascend up in their reflections and abstractions to the metaphysical sources, relations and dependencies of things, in order to form their notion of faultiness or blameworthiness. They do not wait till they have decided by their refinings, what first determines the Will. . . . The idea which the common people, through all ages and nations, have of faultiness . . . . [is] a person’s having his heart wrong, and doing wrong from his heart. And this is the sum total of the matter.”
The fact that we are all instinctive libertarians has given libertarian incompatibilism a free pass on the empirical front. If those instincts are impossible to dislodge—if they are the firm deliverances of ordinary experience—then some accommodation must be made. But if the predisposition to blame is no more than an instinct and habit, the argument for accommodation is not a moral one.
Whether this argument for accommodation is a moral one is a hard question, and perhaps just a semantic one. Really, it’s the same as the big idea that Kant made famous: that human nature being what it is, there’s only one way we can perceive the world, whether it’s really true or really false, and we might as well accept that human way. For Kant, the conclusion was that we can’t sense or theorize the thing-in-itself. We have to rely on our senses, and, pace Hume, we can’t help but believe in cause and effect. Here, Edwards is saying— before Kant, and perhaps before Hume— that people can’t help but think that someone who does wrong, is wrong, so we might as well accept it. Other people, including me, would call that Natural Law— the law that is written in our hearts (see also Romans 1). People on all four levels— genius, scholar, intellectual, and ordinary— are equally bound by natural law.
But the top three levels of people are clever. They think they can escape. They’re very smart, not just ordinary smart (am I flattering you, dear reader?) and so they’re good at rationalizing, at coming up with logical reasons for their bad behavior so good they can even fool themselves. And that’s pretty impressive, since “themselves” are very smart.
The therapist wife of a friend of mine says she notices this all the time. Smart people are hard to help, because they know how to rationalize their irrational thinking and their bad behavior. Ordinary people are easier to help, because therapist can point out what they’re doing, and all they can do is say, “Yep, you’ve got me pegged.” Richard Posner, a co-author of mine, has another version of the problem. He told me he doesn’t think government subsidy of a liberal education can really be justified by the argument that it makes people better citizens. To be sure, we were talking some twenty years ago, when liberal education meant studying classic books; now, a major in the humanities generally means teaching you to hate society and culture. At the time, though, the argument was that if you studied Plato and Hume and Nietzsche and Pascal you’d come out a more moral person. Posner said that in his experience this didn’t happen. The problem, he said, is that a liberal education skitters all over the intellectual landscape, teaching you about Greeks, deists, aesthetes (what do I call Nietzche?) and Christians. The student could respond by adopting whichever he thinks is best. But in practice, people take the bits from each belief system that they want to use to justify their current bodily or intellectual desires. They don’t bother with consistency. Studying 10 ethical systems gives you 9 different ways to evade a given moral command. A liberal education just provides more ammo for rationalization, conscious or subconscious.
And so perhaps it was with Sam. He went to MIT, which doesn’t even pretend to provide a liberal education. But he discovered Effective Altruism, a fad, perhaps a good one even— I don’t know enough about it— about how to do good in the world.
Everybody wants to do good, however evil they may behave when subjected to temptation— and, again, I even include convicted murderers and Stanford Law professors. And everybody wants to do evil, because that’s the way people are— including not just murderers and lawyers, but economists, philanthropists, and saints. Remember what Paul said — “and such were some of you”. I know Christians who were child molesters, sodomites, drunks, and seducers, even in my small circle. We are all still capable of it. Martin Luther’s first of the 95 Theses he posted on the Wittenberg church in 1517 was
“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, `Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
It is important here to note that “repentance” does not mean “being sorry”. It is the Greek word μετάνοια, meaning “change of mind”, “μετά-νοια”, “changing-mind”. It isn’t enough just to say, “I love Jesus”, however sincerely. The Christian life is one of fighting temptation, failing often, and fighting again. It isn’t like the Roman Catholic notion, where most people fight and fail and have to spend a thousand or two years in Purgatory with punishment for retribution for their sins, but a few people are “saints”, meaning that they have conquered their sin completely and are into the credit side with God instead of debits and will go straight to Heaven. Rather, we all fail, Christian or not. None of us are holy, none are good enough to sit next to God.
The best thing to understand this is actually not any sermon or treatise, it is a work of fiction— and one by a deeply flawed, horrible, cruel, man— Leo Tolstoy. He wrote a long story called “Father Sergius”. Read it. It’s entertaining as well as edifying. Father Sergius is a young aristocrat who gets religion. He joins a monastery, and then becomes a hermit. He becomes famous. An aristocratic young women decides to test him. She comes by his hut and asks to come in and get out of the cold. She takes off her stockings. Father Sergius asks to excuse himself for a minute. A “thump” is heard. He comes back with a bandage where his amputated finger used to be. The flirtatious young lady begs forgiveness and starts an order of nuns nearby. Father Sergius is holy. But one day, a merchant brings his retarded daughter, who has fits. It sounds like she has Down’s syndrome. He leaves her with Sergius, she smiles— and Sergius succumbs. That night, he leaves his hut, goes far away, and becomes a simple farmworker, leaving the saint business forever. We all sin.
And so did Sam. He could use Effective Altruism as a cover. Embezzle some money, and you’ll probably be able to pay it back and have lots left over from your genius investments in phantom assets, because the typical crypto idiot went to Indiana State and not MIT, so he’s going to be left holding the empty bag at the end of the day. The cryptiot will be okay anyway, because he started with luxury money for investing, and he’ll still have his job as a bond trader or whatever. Sam will have what used to be the other guy’s money, and he can use it to buy mosquito nets to save the lives of African kids. In fact, Sam can do that and have enough money left over to buy his parents a house in the Bahamas and fund polyamorous nerd orgies (“norgies”?— as a Norwegian-American, I object, though maybe that’s the kind we’d have if we did have orgies, since we wouldn’t be good at it). Poor Sam certainly didn’t receive a good enough spiritual education to avoid that temptation, whether at the Wall Street junior trader level or the Bahamas criminal billionaire level— which aren’t really all that different.
And so we have Sam and Sin. What about Salvation? Well, that hasn’t come for Sam yet, though that, too, is a good philosophical question. God may well have decided at the beginning of time to save Sam Bankman-Fried, who, being a Stanford faculty kid, needed the strong medicine of a sixty-year prison sentence. The show isn’t over till the fat lady sings. I’ve said that we all sin— and that, in fact, even if you declare a belief in God, even the God that Eric Rasmusen Believes In, you still are subject to temptation and you will still succumb to temptation. The Gospel— the idea of Salvation— is that God forgives some people anyway. Everybody deserves Hell— the total absence of God and eternal punishment— but God exempts certain people. Which people? Hard to say. How does he decide? Even harder to say.
The way to think about it is that God graciously decided to let Jesus, His son— who is somehow also Himself (but this essay is too long already)— suffer punishment instead of a certain group of people, large, but not nearly including everybody, when otherwise every single human being ever would end up in Hell.
Sam might be one of those people. Suppose he is. In that case, what we’d expect to see is that he will realize God has been generous to him. He will confess that he stole $8 billion and ruined various people’s lives. He will also confess that he deserves punishment for that— whatever his victims demand, and more. He will be happy to be in prison. He will tell the other prisoners how happy he is, and how prison is the least of the punishments they deserve. He will try to be a better person. He’ll try not to be proud, and not to wow the other prisoners with how smart he is. He’ll try to avoid sexual temptation. He’ll try not to get angry.
And he will fail. He’ll be smug about his high IQ. He’ll have gross fantasies about Caroline Ellison. He’ll get mad at stupid guards who don’t even follow the rules. But he’ll keep trying, not because he will become Perfect, but because he wants to please God as best he can.
So we may hope.
(Sam: if you read this, take it serious, and feel free to contact me if you want. I do think you’re an interesting and smart person— tho I should help you even if you’re boring and dumb.)
p.s. This is by far the most-read of my Substack posts. So it’s worth improving (it is not one’s worst essays that should be rewritten, but one’s best, an interesting duage-ic version of triage). I’ll come back and edit it here every once in a while and eventually republish in a second edition.
I was tiring as I wrote it, so I didn’t say enough about Salvation. In particular, my happy ending wouldn’t seem very happy to most people, including Sam. I have him in prison for life, still full of petty vice and maybe some major sin. He’s “saved” and “chosen by God for salvation”, but…. so what? His life is still ruined.
Or is it? I could divert us from “his life is ruined” by bringing up the afterlife, of course. That drives Pascal’s Wager, his 17th century use of decision theory centuries before it was formalized to reason that Eternity matters more than the remaining few years of life even if you only have uncertain forecasts of how your present actions affect your future fate. But that would be a diversion. No, we must address the big question of Plato’s Republic: why be good if being bad is more advantageous. In The Republic, young Glaucon “steel-mans” the argument for a life of evil in Book II (361a-d), and Socrates spends the remaining eight books trying to reply:
“To the perfectly unjust man, then, we must assign perfect injustice and withhold nothing of it, but we must allow him, while committing the greatest wrongs, to have secured for himself the greatest reputation for justice; and if he does happen to trip, we must concede to him the power to correct his mistakes by his ability to speak persuasively if any of his misdeeds come to light, and when force is needed, to employ force by reason of his manly spirit and vigor and his provision of friends and money.
And when we have set up an unjust man of this character, our theory must set the just man at his side—a simple and noble man, who, in the phrase of Aeschylus, does not wish to seem but be good. Then we must deprive him of the seeming. For if he is going to be thought just he will have honors and gifts because of that esteem. We cannot be sure in that case whether he is just for justice' sake or for the sake of the gifts and the honors. So we must strip him bare of everything but justice and make his state the opposite of his imagined counterpart. Though doing no wrong he must have the repute of the greatest injustice, so that he may be put to the test as regards justice through not softening because of ill repute and the consequences thereof. But let him hold on his course unchangeable even unto death, seeming all his life to be unjust though being just, that so, both men attaining to the limit, the one of injustice, the other of justice, we may pass judgement which of the two is the happier.”
Pascal himself knows that the Wager is just a help, a machete to clear away the brush in front of belief rather than a light on the road to Damascus. Right after the Wager, he constructs a little dialog between himself and the Unbeliever. The Unbeliever starts it:
"I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?"—Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. "Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?"
And so we are back to Professor Fried’s puzzle: we are made a certain way, whether by God, evolution, nurture,or something else, and so how can we do except as our nature makes us? Pascal is a Jansenist Roman Catholic, meaning he is a Calvinist on this point:
True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—"But this is what I am afraid of."—And why? What have you to lose?
But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.
This is why a ruined life could be The Best Life for Sam. It is a way to humble his intellect and lessen his passions. When he was the Perfect Unjust Man, the king of crypto, the boy genius, the prime meridian of effective altruism, what hope was there for him to care for God?
So Sam has reason to care now. What good is that? Here is what Pascal says:
The end of this discourse.—Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
Sam will stay in prison even if he becomes saintly, and he will still go down in history as a thief and a hypocrite. He will be up there with the necrophile serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the annals of villainy—- Dahmer’s repentance and piety has not redeemed his reputation. Sam will be the Perfect Just Man. The Glory and Luxury will be gone. He’ll be another inmate, eating prison food. But even though he will still sin, he will be, in general, faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Being much smarter than the other inmates, he will do much good, and it will be appreciated— a deviation from being the Perfect Just Man, but one which will bring him more comfort than the good opinion of New York intellectuals and Silicon Valley cryptobros whom he knows don’t actually know what he’s really like. He will know that Glaucon and Socrates and Pascal would prefer to take on Sam’s life in prison to taking on his life in the Bahamas.
We can end with Pascal’s ending. To resume the dialog, the Unbeliever says,
"Ah! This discourse transports me, charms me," etc.
If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.
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Another argument I don't mention in the essay above is that a Christian cannot disbelieve in retribution and believe in the standard substitutionary atonement theory of Christ that Anselm wrote of in his 1098 "Cur Deus Homo?" https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Cur_Deus_Homo. As Joe Bayly put it in 1977 in Eternity magazine:
"The penalty is removed by our Lord Christ's action in taking it upon himself on the cross. His death was as our substitute. A penalty always results from the violation of law, and that penalty is always borne. It may be borne by the sinner or it may be borne by Christ. It may be borne by the criminal or it may be borne by the victim and by society. But in a moral universe, the penalty is borne; it must be borne.
Retribution is at the heart of our Lord Christ's redemptive work. The sentence imposed by God upon me was death; Christ fulfilled the sentence, bore the punishment, and therefore I am pardoned."