Last Friday, Ross Ulbricht received a sentence of life in prison in a New York City federal courtroom. His crime was drug dealing on a massive scale through a “dark-web” Internet site called Silk Road. Prosecutors showed how Ulbricht, a libertarian with a master’s degree in material science, brokered drug deals worth millions and got paid in the online currency called bitcoin.
In October of 2013, the FBI caught him as he was administering the site from a San Francisco library. He was convicted in February of this year and sentenced last week. His lawyers say they will appeal.
Ulbricht had some interesting things to say after hearing his sentence. What he said shows that he is an extreme case of what can happen when an educational system gets so compartmentalized that it can produce people with massively developed technical abilities along with huge blind spots in their moral views.
Ulbricht apparently saw the drug laws of the various countries in which the Silk Road customers lived as intrusions upon the supreme value in his moral universe, which was freedom. He rationalized that because these laws stood in the way of those who wished to use drugs, he was actually striking a blow for freedom every time someone used his site to buy illegal drugs. And of course, he got a tidy profit from the transaction too.
According to prosecutors, Ulbricht believed so strongly in his right to spread his kind of freedom, that he paid FBI undercover agents to assassinate someone who threatened to make public a list of his customers. The glaring contradiction between Ulbricht’s espousal of freedom and his attempt to take the life of a fellow human being apparently never occurred to him, at least not until he had lots of time to think about his actions in jail.
According to a New York Times report, Ulbricht reflected after he was sentenced that
“the laws of nature are much like the laws of man. . . . Gravity doesn’t care if you agree with it—if you jump off a cliff you are still going to get hurt. And even though I didn’t agree with the law, I still have been convicted of a crime and must be punished. I understand that now and I respect the law and authority now.”
We will never know for sure if a different educational experience could have stopped Ulbricht from doing what he did. He grew up in Austin, Texas, graduating from high school there in 2002, and must have picked up some of the sky’s-the-limit entrepreneurial atmosphere of the place, because before he went over to the dark side, he operated an online used-book site that donated some of its proceeds to charity. But the inner compass, conscience, moral fiber, or whatever you want to call it, that keeps the vast majority of ordinary people on the good side of the law most of the time, was missing in his makeup and education. For all I know, he may have taken an ethics or philosophy course in college, but in his case, it obviously didn’t take.
Ulbricht used technologies that were designed at least in part to promote freedom. Bitcoins are a form of digital currency that is designed to be untraceable, and Silk Road used Tor, a subset of the Web that the U. S. Navy developed to allow secret communication with, for example, freedom fighters in totalitarian countries. But as Ulbricht himself has learned, freedom is not an absolute virtue, taking precedence over all others. If you try to act as though it trumps all other values, you can end up in jail.
Ulbricht committed the same sort of error that many fringe sects do: they take one virtue and put it on a pedestal above all others.
While some might argue with his comparison between the laws of man and the laws of nature, Ulbricht got that one absolutely right. The moral law is just as objective and real as the law of gravity. Ulbricht erred in seizing upon one part of that law—the goodness of freedom—to the neglect of the rest, including the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If he’d been the person threatening to reveal the names of customers, I don’t think he would have liked it if someone put out a contract on him.
This kind of moral reasoning is not rocket science. But Ross Ulbricht’s case shows that a highly intelligent person can get all the way through a complex educational system in the US without being able to bring himself to reason morally in a way that most twelve-year-olds can.
All that human law can do is to try to model the moral law, whose ultimate source is God. To the extent that it does so, it can serve as a teacher, though sometimes its lessons are painful to learn, as Ross Ulbricht has found. A high priority in libertarian circles these days is liberalization of drug laws, and some states such as Colorado have already found that the effects of practical legalization of marijuana are not all good. While drugs, like the internet, can be used either for good or harm, I think Ulbricht now has a different view of human laws after his experiences than he did in his more innocent libertarian days.
Yes, some people will abuse drugs no matter what kind of laws are passed. But if people are taught, both in school and by the laws, that some things are right and other things are wrong, maybe more of them can choose the right paths. And we won’t see as many Ross Ulbrichts running Silk Roads in the future.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.