Ethics in a trustless world

3 min readMar 22, 2021


When righteousness is forgotten, there is morality.
When morality is forgotten, there is the law.
The law is the husk of faith,
and trust is the beginning of chaos.

From the 38th verse of the Tao Te Ching

Article by MD, cryptochefs. All views expressed are MD’s own

The above translation is from verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching, the famous poem of ancient Chinese philosophy. Lao Tzu wrote this over two thousand years ago. He probably wasn’t thinking about cryptocurrency at the time, but I tend to think that good philosophy is timeless, and always has some application to modern problems. And the thing is, when something has stood the test of over 2,000 years and is still here, there must be something useful there, right?

So what is Lao Tzu saying here, and how an earth does this apply to crypto? I think that the main point is that we only need rules (morality and law) in the absence of righteousness. In other words, if no one ever thought to do the wrong thing then the rules would be completely unnecessary. Moral codes and laws are only needed because, let’s face it, people break the rules. This is the relevance for crypto, and decentralisation in general, as there are no trusted third parties in the ecosystem. It’s not a case of putting our trust in those third parties. It’s trustless. We are told that we don’t trust, we verify.

So would Lao Tzu be a fan of crypto? I’m not so sure, because saying that crypto is trustless isn’t the same as saying that it’s righteous. . . And at the moment I think crypto is entering into something of an ethical crisis, particularly when it comes to the low mcap altcoin space.

It feels like more and more people are flooding in to crypto and expecting it to instantly generate value for them. Those working in crypto are aware of that, and some are willing to take advantage of that sentiment without ever having any intention of creating value. And that’s where I think we are failing to verify properly. We want to invest in something that will increase in value, but often we don’t take the time to verify why that value increase might happen, and whether or not it’s sustainable.

Beyond that, we often fail to identify what we mean by ‘value’. We accept nowadays that it isn’t acceptable for a large corporation to not have a policy on its corporate social values. They can’t just say “we make money, we don’t care about anything else at all”. Part of that shift is from pressure — people want to see those values. And part is driven from the realisation that companies directly benefit from the broader increase in societal good that such policies deliver.

So is it OK for crypto to just deliver an increase in financial value? Is it OK for the teams behind crypto to not consider the long-term engine for financial growth, AND how they plan to deliver at least some societal value? Everything is trustless already, so maybe we could try for a little more righteousness?