Religion & Liberty Online

Alejandro Chafuen in Forbes: Aquinas and Bitcoin

Yesterday in Forbes, Alejandro Chafuen, Acton’s Managing Director, International, analyzed moral questions of cryptocurrency in light of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. It is an application of centuries-old thought to a very recent phenomenon—but of course, as the article seeks to show, moral considerations are perennial even as their particular objects change. What would Thomas Aquinas have thought of cryptocurrency? Our answer may be a conjecture, but if we look at Aquinas’s body of work our conjecture can be well-informed.

With Bitcoin reaching its 10th anniversary and its price reaching a four-month high, now is a good time to discuss some of the moral issues that surround it. I will use Thomas Aquinas’s framework as a guide. Aquinas analyzes economic topics in question 77 of his Summa theologiae (Summa), where he considers “those sins which relate to voluntary commutations.” Exchanging money, goods or services for Bitcoin falls in this category. Is there anything sinful in it?

Is Bitcoin a virtual currency? The European Central Bank has defined virtual currencies as “a digital representation of value, not issued by a central bank, credit institution or e-money institution, which in some circumstances can be used as an alternative to money.” In the United States of America, the U.S. Treasury Department has defined virtual currency as “a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency. In particular, virtual currency does not have legal tender status in any jurisdiction.” In addition, “convertible” virtual currency is a “type of virtual currency [that] either has an equivalent value in real currency, or acts as a substitute for real currency.”

Advocates of Bitcoin see the above definitions as technical and obscure. They note that Bitcoin is a fully decentralized peer-to-peer network and has the advantage of not requiring an intermediary or central bank to be issued or negotiated. Cryptocurrencies are created by a large number of computers distributed throughout the world, which record and approve the operations performed.

Giacomo Zucco of Blockchainlab argues that the term “virtual” when referring to cryptocurrencies can be misleading when applied to Bitcoin. He notes, “While the computer-science meaning of ‘virtual’ is true for Bitcoin just as it is for the great part of USD or EUR monetary base, one could argue that the arbitrary supply policy of central banks is even more ‘virtual.’ Bitcoin behaves more like a digital version of a physical commodity.”

Aquinas began by asking “whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than its worth.” What determines the value of something, its “worth,” then becomes an essential topic of studies for moralists who want to determine at what price one can sell a good, or in this case a currency—Bitcoin.

Read the full article here.

(Homepage photo credit: Jholmesworld, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Joshua Gregor

Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.