Episode: Bradley Rettler, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming.

Insight: Bitcoin’s practical applications can appeal to folks across a wide spectrum of social, political, and economic thought. But from a philosophical perspective, the most important question to ask about Bitcoin might be: How can it make people happier? Answering that question could be a key to helping Bitcoin skeptics understand this technology’s potential value.

3 Quotes from Bradley Rettler:

1. Bitcoin is interesting in a few different ways that are philosophically relevant. One of the ways is privacy. Bitcoin addresses are not associated with any kind of real-world identities. And so apart from blockchain analytics or things like that you can buy things and not have anyone know that you’re buying them. And it’s pretty rare to be able to use money that way. Our financial transactions online are almost exclusively not at all private. And then there’s this question: should they be? And that’s where the philosophy comes in. So we can make empirical claims about how private transactions are, but then we have this question that’s moral or ethical. Should we have financial privacy? Which is a version of the broader question, should we have privacy?

2. As a matter of historical fact Bitcoin was first started on cypherpunk message boards with people that had libertarian freedom kind of leanings. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that you could have seen the very same kind of thing start a different way. You could see someone say, ‘Look, all these rich people have access to stores of value in the stock market. They’re accredited investors. We’re literally not able to get the kinds of returns that they can. The government won’t let us invest the way that they let these rich people invest. So here’s what we need. We need a safe store of value for the poor, the unbanked, the marginalized, the people who don’t have bank accounts, the people who don’t have safe investments.’ This is painting a picture of how something very similar to Bitcoin, if not Bitcoin itself, could have very easily come from a different kind of perspective. So I think what you like about Bitcoin may very well differ depending on your politics. I think there are things to like about Bitcoin regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum.

3. In finance, intrinsic value has a specific meaning that has to do with future cashflow and things like that. In philosophy, intrinsic value has, for thousands of years, meant almost exactly the opposite of that. Which is something like the value that a thing has in itself, independent of its relationship to anything else. And in particular, when you think about this in terms of ethics and motivation and psychology it’s thought to be the thing that you seek as an end in itself. You’re not trying to get it for some other end. Does Bitcoin have intrinsic value? Is it a thing for which you aim as an end in itself? Nobody’s thinking, I just want to have as much Bitcoin as possible and that’s it. But they have an idea of what they want to maybe use the Bitcoin for or who they want to give it to, to pass it onto their kids, make a better life, et cetera. In this respect, Bitcoin is no different than anything else except happiness. So it’s not different from Apple stock. It’s not different from the U.S. dollar. None of these things are valuable in themselves. They’re only valuable for what they can bring us in particular, how they can bring us happiness. And so different people will be brought happiness by Bitcoin in different ways.

Resources

Bradley Rettler

A Philosophical Conversation About Bitcoin with Professor Craig Warmke My conversation with one of Bradley’s colleagues addresses how Bitcoin is changing beliefs about money and what problems digital currency can realistically address.

Resistance Money Bitcoin Research Collective