The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, November 6, 2023

It’s Monday, November 6, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Intelligence Divorced from Morality Equals Massive Scandal: Sam Bankman-Fried Found Guilty on All Counts

You want to know what a difference time makes? Just go back about two years in time, and Sam Bankman-Fried is one of the wealthiest human beings on the planet. He’s sitting atop a vast cryptocurrency and investment machine. He’s considered one of the most generous donors, basically on the progressive left, one of the biggest political donors to Democratic candidates, and now he is facing what amounts to a lifetime in prison, which is saying even more than you might think when you consider the fact that this convicted criminal, who might be guilty now of the largest financial crime in the history of the United States, is 31 years of age.

Now, I think there are many people who are looking at this, and they see it as mostly a soap opera. There are others who look at it and see a crime drama. It is a soap opera, it is a crime drama. The soap opera has to do with the fact that there is so much that basically is salacious, it’s interesting, there’s sex in the middle of all of this. There are young people living in a $31 million home together in something like an incredibly wealthy commune in The Bahamas. You’re looking at cryptocurrency, you’re looking at fast and blazing financial transactions, investments. You’re looking at a very, very brilliant man. There’s no doubt about it. Sam Bankman-Fried is somewhere on the genius scale. But once again, we are reminded that often high intelligence–and especially here you’re talking about a particularly kind of fine-tuned, hyper-intelligence–and moral character don’t always go together. And the signs of the fact that there was a lack of congruity there, that was very evident years ago when it came to Sam Bankman-Fried.

Now, I want us to look at a deeper level. I want us to look not just at what happened, but there are some really interesting vast worldview issues behind this that very few in the secular media are giving any attention at all. But before turning to that, let’s just go back to that courtroom in New York, Federal Courthouse. Go back to last Thursday, Sam Bankman-Fried’s case goes to the jury, and the jury comes back just four hours later with a guilty verdict on all seven felonies related to financial fraud transactions. And Sam Bankman-Fried is now not just accused of these crimes, he’s been convicted by a jury of his peers, and at the very least, he’s been convicted of stealing by financial fraud $10,000,000,000. But even as you’re allowing that to stagger your imagination, there are billions indeed, probably tens of billions, still missing, no one knows exactly the vastness of the scale and its implications for the American economy, its implications for cryptocurrency, for all kinds of issues.

Because the big news here is, once again, that human sinfulness finds a way ahead of human law, regulation, regulators, police, financial securities analysts, all arrest, because Sam Bankman-Fried used his genius, and this is not just an accusation, this is now a jury conviction, he used his genius in order to defraud investors of a larger amount than almost surely has ever been defrauded by anyone before, and that’s saying something. That means more than Bernie Madoff, it means more than the Enron scandal, and you’re really adding up some billions of dollars here.

But then you look at the incongruity of the fact that you’ve got a 31-year-old, which means that if the company was started four years ago, he was in his twenties when he started this. He catapulted to massive fame and massive wealth in an industry, if that’s the right word for it, a sector of the economy largely driven by hack technology and by financial transactions very few people understand. That’s a part of the secret here. Very few people actually understand how cryptocurrency, how these transactions work, how all this comes together. And yet at the same time, this jury didn’t find Sam Bankman-Fried of having made mistakes. They found him guilty of having committed felonies.

Now, there’s another interesting aspect in the legal context here, and that is that if you’re looking at federal prosecutors, they often have to bring criminal charges against an individual for what can be classified as financial crimes. Here’s what prosecutors don’t like. They don’t like having to explain to a jury what these crimes are, because they’re often incredibly technical, they are often matters that require such financial depth and complexity to explain that jurors get lost, and all you really need is one or two hesitating jurors, and you might not end up with a conviction. So by the time this particular case went to the jury, well, the jury came back in four hours. That is about as fast as is humanly possible, which just tells us this jury really didn’t deliberate for long.

You asked the question why. What simplified things? Well, looking at the course of this trial, there were a couple of things, and this is really important from a worldview perspective, there were a couple of things that really indicated things are going badly for Sam Bankman-Fried. Number one, the federal prosecutors were able to get two of his accomplices, two of his previously defined colleagues, to flip on him and testify against him, and they did so bringing in all kinds of evidence of intentional fraud. So this wasn’t just even ex post facto fraud, which means you cover up something because you’ve just lost a lot of money. No, the fraud was there from the beginning.

But the other very interesting thing that happened in all of this is that after his indictment on all these federal charges and after it was already clear that some of his colleagues had turned state’s evidence and would testify against him, Sam Bankman-Fried decided that he would try this case in the court of public opinion. He has vast confidence in himself to be able to turn the public on his side. He was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Furthermore, he found himself very much in prison. His bail had been canceled because of all the talking he was doing to the press. And by the way, he was actually seeking to communicate and sometimes directly speaking in public to those who would be witnesses against him who had been his accomplices. That violates the law in and of itself, but Sam Bankman-Fried clearly did not see himself as bound by the law.

Now, I want us to ask that deeper question. Why might he have felt this way? Now, for one thing, it’s just his intelligence. No one’s questioning his intelligence when it comes to, say, being a quant. That is someone who understands numbers and who understands vast and complicated financial transactions. By the way, that’s one of the reasons he’s in jail is because he could not say he did not understand these vast and complicated financial transactions. He understood the technology, he understood what was being sold to the public, he understood that the money eventually wasn’t there, he understood that he was stealing from investors.

But you have to go back to the intelligence and say, “Okay, so why would someone with that kind of intelligence nonetheless get so caught up in something like this?” This gets to an aspect of Christian theology and the doctrine of sin, which tells us that because of our sinfulness, that we are actually attracted to a loss of integrity or a failure at integrity rather than holding everything together as would be right.

So when we speak here of a loss of integrity, it doesn’t just mean saying, being dishonest or doing something wrong. It means the different parts of yourself have become disintegrated. By showing integrity, everything holds together. Your character, your intelligence, your strength, it all holds together. Your private life, your public life, your business life, your Christian life, they all hold together. That’s integrity.

One of the effects of the Fall is that we are often lacking in that integrity, and you even see this in a passage such as Romans chapter seven, where the Apostle Paul talks about his own behavior over against the law. And you look at that and you recognize with Sam Bankman-Fried, you had such a loss of integrity that his intelligence was actually eventually just divorced from any kind of moral conscience. It was not divorced from any ability to speak and make his own case, and that leads to a second huge issue here.

Who was the most devastating witness against Sam Bankman-Fried? Well, maybe you know this already. The most damaging witness to Sam Bankman-Fried, the singular reason, among many other reasons, why he is going to jail, perhaps for the rest of his life, the most damaging witness was himself, because he did what very few federal defendants ever do. He took to the stand. Now, legal analysts looking at this would say, “That is almost never a good idea.” As a matter of fact, you are looking at very, very few, and the percentage is so low, the exceptions stand out in history. Very few attorneys would ever advise a federal defendant to take the stand in his own defense.

Now, the reason for that is not because many defendants can’t make a plausible case for themselves. The problem is they get cross examined by the prosecution. Anything they bring in can be contested by the prosecution, and furthermore, jurors really don’t like being lied to in their presence, and they have a pretty good meter for understanding when they’re being lied to. Now, by the time Sam Bankman-Fried’s associates, former associates, had testified against him, it was really, really clear that the defense was going to have a very hard time presenting any basically effective defense at all.

Sam Bankman-Fried testifying on his own behalf was a very bold play, it was a desperation play, and it backfired. It not only didn’t work, it almost assuredly explains why the jurors came back so fast with the verdict of guilty on all of the counts of the indictment, all seven felonies. The cumulative prison term could very well mean the rest of Sam Bankman-Fried’s life. He’s only 31 years old. Just imagine what that means.

Imagine that just a matter of a year or so ago, he’d been living in a $31 million mansion in The Bahamas. He had been one of the biggest donors in American history. He had been one of the biggest political donors in modern democratic politics. He was funding the cause of public health. People were imagining his name on buildings, his name on prizes. There was open speculation that Sam Bankman-Fried, because he is only 31 and had already made tens of billions of dollars, at least on paper, or you might say on the Internet, there was speculation that he might become the first trillionaire in human history.

But now of course, that’s very tragic, laughable. It’s just not going to happen. If anything, he’s more likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. But that raises an even deeper issue. This isn’t just crime and punishment, it’s also the question as to how anyone could get himself into such a predicament. But then you have to ask another question, perhaps you’ve thought about this. How did someone who was in his 20s even have access to connections and to the kind of capital necessary to start this kind of business, not to mention flourish in it and then explode in it into tens of billions of dollars? Let’s just say that for the average American family, that’s not likely to happen with the kid down the hall in the bedroom. This is a very unusual situation, and from a Christian perspective, I can just promise you it gets even more interesting than I think you might imagine.

Part II

The Worldview of Sam Bankman-Fried: Utilitarianism, Elective Altruism, and the Secular Mind

Sam Bankman-Fried was born to a couple, both of whom, mother and father, were professors at the Stanford Law School in Palo Alto, California. So he grew up in one of the most rarefied academic and intellectual atmospheres imaginable. His father’s Joseph Bankman, his mother, Barbara Fried. Thus, Sam Bankman-Fried, one of two boys in the family, and from the very beginning, his parents knew that Sam was a little different. He really didn’t appear to be interested in school in any traditional sense, nor by the way, did he seem to have any friends. He was largely living in a shell, and yet his parents who were very prominent intellectuals, very liberal intellectuals there in a very liberal culture at Stanford University, the whole crowd there at Palo Alto, California, they were very much a part of the intellectual scene, both of them holding positions in the law school.

By the way, that might be crucial for you to keep in mind. His parents were both law professors. In Sam Bankman-Fried’s case, his mother and his, you could say his mother and his father, but more often quoted as his mother, who believed he had a special gift, they just weren’t sure what that was. He was very attracted to video games, and clearly something like that was his obsession. He eventually would go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that’s MIT. He would make friends there, but let’s face it, going back to his parents, going back to Stanford Law School where his parents taught, going back to the parties they held in their home every week, the worldview of the parents here becomes very, very crucial.

And that’s where things get really interesting, because Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents didn’t hold to a traditional understanding of morality. They were holding to a worldview of pure utilitarianism. Sometimes, it might be referred to as consequentialism, but basically, it’s sheer utilitarianism. Now, some of you may remember some high school or college reference to utilitarianism going back to John Stewart Mill and others, which is the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism basically says that an idea is true or a claim is true if it works. Now, pragmatism took that in a different direction, but utilitarianism means that you set as the goal trying to improve the situation of the largest number of people, and whatever gets you there by your reckoning is that which is right.

Now, the first thing we need to recognize is that that is one of the signs of the Enlightenment and an attempt to separate from a Christian moral worldview. Because the Christian moral worldview actually points to the kingdom of Christ and to human flourishing in this age is based in obedience to God’s commands and in conformity to creation order and the principles that God has revealed in scripture and in creation. Utilitarianism assumes a knowledge that frankly doesn’t belong to human beings. And furthermore, it is independent of any objective morality in which something is actually objectively right or objectively wrong. Instead, it’s just a matter of whether it appears to serve the pleasure or the flourishing, the greatest number of people. You can understand why in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, this would be a very attractive thing basically to secular-minded people.

And when it comes to Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried, they were and are exceedingly secular-minded, so much so that even though they have a Jewish ethnic background, that’s just the way they saw it. They saw it as an ethnic background, not as a religious background. They didn’t even celebrate Jewish holidays, certainly with no theological or biblical or even historical context. And they were basically almost the epitome of the most secular parents you might imagine, but highly charged, highly paid, very well-placed in terms of the social elites with access to the expertise and the collegiality of an institution such as Stanford University, both law professors, they produced Sam Bankman-Fried.

But there’s more to the story as you might imagine, because in the background, you have the worldview of these parents, but you also have the fact that rather predictably, Sam Bankman-Fried took that worldview to the next step, he pressed it even further. Now, how do you press utilitarianism even further? Well, at this point, we need to bring a term very important to Sam Bankman-Fried’s worldview into this conversation, and that term is elective altruism. That is the worldview explicitly, that’s the formal name for the worldview that Sam Bankman-Fried subscribes to. He very clearly became a public advocate and claimed to be practicing in public this elective altruism. Now, that’s a replacement for any kind of theologically-based ethic, it’s a replacement for any conventional ethic.

The pioneer behind elective altruism is one of the most radical ethical thinkers of the 20th century into the 21st century. His name is Peter Singer. He’s an Australian who quite frankly ought to be infamous. He’s made claims such as this, that, “When it comes to the dignity of life, there may be an intelligent pig who should be recognized as having more dignity than an unintelligent human baby.” Now, that’s the way he frames it. It’s ugly, it’s horrifying. It is the culture of death. That’s Peter Singer. You’re looking, when you see Peter Singer, at the logical consequence of an absolutely secular worldview, and Peter Singer’s pretty honest about that.

But this gets to one of the interesting issues on the political left, and it’s really only interesting in this sense on the political and ideological left, and that’s because remember, so many of them basically, officially, self-consciously hate capitalism, and thus they claim to be very suspicious of wealth. Peter Singer, in his elective altruism, gave them a way to justify building massive wealth.

It’s the word altruism. The word elective means you’re choosing to do this, the altruism is the concern for others, the doing well for others that is claimed to be the result of your making a fortune. So elective altruism comes down to this. It’s okay to use the mechanisms of dirty capitalism, it’s okay to build a vast personal fortune, because you’re doing so in order eventually to give it away. You’re going to give it away, you’re going to give it to good causes. Of course, you get to define what those good causes are. Sam Bankman-Fried make very clear his good causes are very much on the left, predictably so. Given his parents given his own worldview predictably.

But there’s more to this elective altruism, and there’s more to the thinking of Sam Bankman-Fried here. So the idea is hyper-utilitarianism taken right down into a rather utilitarian mathematical formula, “Don’t become a doctor to help people. Instead, make a billion dollars, and you can educate a lot of doctors, and you can fund a lot of doctors, so you can justify the fact you didn’t become a doctor, and actually you’re just a quant in the financial field making a ton of money because in the present or in the future, you’re going to give it all away.”

Now, here’s the deal. When it comes to most of these elective altruists, well, it turns out that they kind of like using the money rather than giving it away. Remember that Sam Bankman-Fried. By the time he was arrested, was living in a $31 million home in The Bahamas, $31 million. Now you say, well, $31 million isn’t much to someone who was worth by some accounts, $30 billion, and that would be true, but you know what? $31 million is still a chunk of change when it comes to buying real estate in The Bahamas. He wasn’t slumming it there.

And it’s more than that, even, when you consider the fact that he was presenting himself as this long-haired, disheveled, shorts-wearing, sneaker-wearing person who didn’t have any concern for money. That was a part of the charade here, it was a part of the drama, it was a part of the lie. He was acting like he had no personal regard for money. It was all about serving all these causes and making other people wealthy. But Sam Bankman-Fried’s not looking at decades in prison for making other people wealthy. He’s facing decades in prison for defrauding them. That’s what’s so crucial here. Behind this supposed idea of effective altruism, which was the secular ethic of hyper-utilitarianism, behind the arguments made by his own parents, and his father became involved in the company to one degree or another, his parents were stalwart in their support of their son, showing up at the trial.

They didn’t even, we are told, end having their dinners when they were back in Palo Alto. They still consider themselves very much a part of the elite in that community, and no doubt, they still feel very clear ties to the left. But the point is this, Sam Bankman-Fried was revealed as a fraud. That’s not to say he was completely fraudulent when he dressed that way or had his disheveled hair. It’s just to say he lied to investors. He was convicted not of making mistakes, but of intentional efforts to rob client funds and use them to cover losses in terms of other areas of his business. And that is pretty much the essence of the giant financial frauds that get people in trouble and send them to prison.

By the way, a big feature article in the New Yorker, so that is one of the most highly-placed cultural magazines in the US, in that report on Sam Bankman-Fried, you find this paragraph, “The rewards of being Sam’s parents were financial as well as reputational. In 2022,” let me just remind you, that’s last year, “In 2022, he gave them a gift of $10 million. A lawsuit filed by FTX’s bankruptcy Estate against Bankman and Fried this September claims that the money was plundered and came from an account that contained customer funds.” The attorney said that the lawsuit claims are “completely false.”

So you can look at the fact that this isn’t the end of the story, not only for Sam Bankman-Fried, who actually may face additional major, indeed massive criminal indictments for fraud having to do with China and international relations, violating those laws as well. Prosecutors told the judge last week that they were moving ahead on those cases, but they didn’t pledge to bring indictments. That could be very clear in the future. But Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents, who raised him in this kind of utilitarianism, set him up for this elective altruism, Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents, who were very proud of what he had done, and now they are also probably almost assuredly facing investigations, and if not for criminal activity, then more likely they’re facing massive exposure for financial claims made against them by people who were defrauded to billions of dollars by their son.

Now, how all this turns out, well, no one knows, but we do know how the trial in New York turned out last week. After four hours of deliberation, in this kind of federal trial, that’s almost unthinkable, the jury came back with a guilty verdict on all seven counts.

Part III

Parents, Your Worldview Will Show Up in Your Children: The Importance of Godly Parenting

For Christians, the lack of integrity is just a warning to us all, the understanding that this is one of the effects of sin, and the claim that you can have intelligence over here and character over there, that you can separate, let’s just say, your achievements as an intellectual from your responsibility as a corporate leader and just the integrity of heart and mind and soul, you can just see when you lose that, the results are devastating.

You also very clearly come to understand that Sam Bankman-Fried didn’t come from nowhere, and when you do know about his parents and the background, you do know about his experience, you know about their worldview, an awful lot is explained. One thing that certainly comes to my mind is the fact that there are very few Sam Bankman-Fried. There is very few persons who have the kind of particular intelligence he had that is also combined with access in terms of social circles through his parents and others, and his connections at MIT for that matter, to all of a sudden catapult him into this vast multibillion-dollar enterprise.

But it just affirms the fact that whether parents are very wealthy and whether they have access to elite circles, they have a vast impact on their children. And thus, this is a warning to parents. Your worldview will show up in your children. Whether they embrace it or they reject it, the fact is that the impact of parents in this case, it’s just massive. And so you look at this, and you come to understand what was well known about the worldview of Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents, and you can say, “Well, at least this apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” That’s a sad warning to all of us. It, in the end, is also just a massive affirmation of the fact that worldview matters.

Sam Bankman-Fried’s worldview was elective altruism, a form of utilitarianism. He knew it. A lot of people walking around have a worldview, they don’t even have a name for it, but the point is it’s not a biblical worldview. And as some of the most important theologians of the 20th century made clear, if it’s not a biblical worldview, then it is by definition opposed to a biblical worldview. It is thesis and antithesis, and it’s a warning to Christians that we had better know our worldview, the Christian worldview based in scripture, and we had better operate within that worldview with integrity, or the world will come down around us as well.

It’s a good thing for us also to remember that Sam Bankman-Fried is not a parable. His story may be a parable, but he’s not a parable, he’s a person, and that’s the saddest thing about this story. So are the people who were defrauded of so much, and that is what makes this story so exceedingly sad. It’s not really the money, it’s the morality.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Washington, DC, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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