April 1, 2024

The Consequences of Doing Evil That Good May Come

Results-oriented moralizing merely reinforces human depravity.

By Joshua Arnold

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison for defrauding those who invested in his cryptocurrency exchange out of $10 billion before its swift collapse in late 2022. His legal defense is a cautionary tale about the slippery morality of post-modern thinking. Instead of following his example, Christians should go to God’s Word to see what is right.

With prosecutors asking for a sentence of 100 years, Bankman-Fried’s lawyers pleaded for a sentence of less than six years, based in large part on what they described as his strategy of “effective altruism” or “earning to give.” Essentially, they urged the court to view his crimes more favorably because he wanted to make the world a better place.

This moral reasoning is not confined to unscrupulous businessmen; it’s evident in policymaking, too. Consider the Biden administration’s arguments for violating the law on a range of policy issues. When they unilaterally canceled billions of dollars in student loan debt, it was to help the poor borrowers. When they ignored their obligations to enforce U.S. law at the southern border, it was to remedy the humanitarian plight of the migrants. This was in keeping with their vision of making the world a better place — at least, better from their moral viewpoint.

This principle was especially prevalent (and oppressive) during the COVID-19 pandemic, when health officials touted the benefits of masks, social distancing, and experimental vaccines either beyond what the evidence said or in contradiction of it — with the acknowledged goal of manipulating the public into actions health officials believed were for the common good. This same principle was behind oppressive or lawless government edicts, such as lockdown orders and vaccination mandates that threw people out of work, school shutdowns that caused learning loss, and eviction moratoriums that chose economic winners and losers. All of this was in keeping with their vision of making the world a better place.

Indeed, even unscrupulous businessmen direct their self-identified altruism toward political objectives. Federal prosecutors said Bankman-Fried used more than $100 million that he stole from customers to make political campaign contributions in the 2022 midterm elections. At some point, the line between selfless endeavors and selfish ones becomes blurred.

One major problem with this type of reasoning is the difference between intentions and results. People with good intentions can wreak great havoc through the unintended consequences of their actions. In this case, it seems that Bankman-Fried planned to borrow his investors’ money for his hedge fund and turn it into more money, so he could pay them back and also have surplus cash to donate to causes he valued. Instead, he lost his investors’ money. Idealists with good intentions are often the most dangerous in this regard, because they are carried along by the force of their good intentions and lack the circumspection to consider what unintended consequences might result from their actions.

A related problem with this type of reasoning is that it overlooks the limits on human actions. As social beings who share the image of God, tasked with exercising dominion over creation, humans do have an obligation to seek the good of both the people around us and the world we live in. But we are also limited creatures with finite energy, wealth, skills, talents, relationships, and wisdom. The implication of these limits is that our efforts to do good should begin with the people and places nearest us, and work out from there until we reach our limits. Bankman-Fried opted instead to exploit those nearest him in pursuit of grandiose, world-changing schemes, but it all came crashing down around him before he attained his goal.

A third problem with this type of reasoning is that people have radically different opinions about how to create a better world. Some people have crazy or evil ideas about what a better world looks like (think Thanos). If someone’s ideas for how to help the world begin by harming people, their small-scale moral failures call into question their moral judgment on a large scale, too.

Scripture provides a better perspective for how to be good stewards of our world, our money, and our fellow image-bearers. Jesus taught that good stewardship begins with the little things, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). Scripture counsels us to be faithful in the responsibilities we have and leave the results to the sovereign, limitless God who oversees all things. A faithful steward who steadily builds his skillset and expands his influence may accomplish far more good in the long run than a high-flying wunderkid who ends up in prison. From this perspective, it is utter folly to “do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8).

Results-oriented moralizing has been around for as long as people have thought that the ends justify the means. But, far from vindicating this utilitarian way of thinking, its grizzled history merely reinforces human depravity. By contrast, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10), by it “one turns away from evil” (Proverbs 16:6). Loving our neighbor is a good thing, but we can only do so rightly when we love God foremost.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.

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