The power of rationalization when you have no frame of reference other than your own opinion. The tale of Silk Road, part 5.

According to ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, his ordering the execution of a renegade employee is morally the same as the U.S. President ordering one of the above wartime launches. Illustration courtesy of Adobe Stock.

This is the second of two posts describing the frightening power of rationalization on display in the story of Ross Ulbricht, also known as Dread Pirate Roberts, as he developed the Silk Road website where you could buy anything you wanted. The story is told in American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, written by Nick Bilton. This is the fifth post in a series. You may enjoy reading parts one, two, and three.

You might want to read part four before diving into this wrap-up of the rationalization discussion.

How can body organs be okay?

Shall we extend this discussion into body organs?

I suppose there might be some way for informed consent to be given in a situation where a body organ is extracted and sold on the Dark Web. I can’t get my brain around it, but I suppose there might be some possible way to do so that would be consistent with libertarian concepts.

I have a real problem with thinking that organ providers in China gave informed consent.

Maybe I’m missing the boat or maybe just can’t stretch my brain far enough, but I don’t see how libertarian concepts can be used to justify the sale of either hand grenades, rocket launchers, or livers & kidneys. That seems to be a rationalization to do what you otherwise feel like doing.

There is even more rationalization in play.

How do beatings and torture fit in?

Now let’s jump forward to page 181 and following.

When DPR incorrectly concluded that a site moderator had run off with a pound of cocaine and stole $350,000, DPR had to decide what to do. If word got out that you could steal that much money and get away with it, the site would be vulnerable to every single employee who wanted an early retirement.

He had to do something.

He discussed what to do with several of the staff. He realized there weren’t any laws or rules in play. He had the power to decide what direction to go.

He could have blown it off (not an option since it would encourage others to steal DPR’s personal property), or he could have someone punch the guy a few times and threatened him, or he could have someone torture the guy, or he could even have him killed.

What to do?

What to do?

He had the money to do anything. He had the unilateral and unappealable power to do anything.

He decided to have the turncoat tortured. He called Nob and asked him to send some of his goons over to rough up the guy.

How does that fit with the libertarian perspective described earlier?

How does beating someone up, including maybe giving him some broken fingers (like DPR imagined would be needed), fit with the self-defense concept described earlier? Seems to be seriously out of proportion.

That is retaliation.

Sure seems to me that is punishment after someone took your property, not a defense of your property.

That suggests the libertarian concepts may have easily rolled off the lips of DPR, but did not really form a frame of reference that guided him in any meaningful manner.

How does murder fit into any ethical framework?

Now let’s take a look at the rationalizations for murder as described starting on page 199. Watch as this rationalization departs from any identifiable moral framework.

The book describes the payment made after the killing was another $40,000. (I can’t find a reference for the amount of the first payment, but that makes me think the total price was $80,000.)

The book also says the killing distressed DPR and then described the rationalization in play.

Such extreme behavior as stealing $350,000 of DPR’s money needed a strong response to protect his empire.

People like that were a serious threat to what DPR had accomplished. If not addressed, it could destroy all of his property. It could destroy his legacy of ending the prohibition on drug sales (yes, that was his lofty aspirational goal).

Furthermore, he was merely defending his property.

The movers and shakers of the world just have to make tough decisions

The book describes two specific comparisons. Try these on for size.

Having the supposed thief executed was no different from the President of the United States authorizing a drone strike on a specific house in Afghanistan or Iraq. The people soon to die, which could easily include innocent bystanders, need to be killed to protect the US and its allies.

That is an ugly and a horrible thing but sometimes is necessary. Just like the killing that DPR authorized.

Killing terrorists by drone strike in Afghanistan and killing the thief of $350K by contract assassination are morally equal, right? Right?

The same concept applies in the business world.

The book says (which given the structure of the book I believe reflects a discussion between DPR and one of his staff) there have been dozens of Chinese workers who killed themselves by jumping to their deaths because the working conditions while making iPhones were so horrible. (I have no idea if the starting point of this rationalization is even true. The scary point is that like the fulfillment of the five contract killings, DPR believed it to be true.)

While those deaths are unfortunate, that is a cost that Steve Jobs has to bear, according to the book, in order to change the world by making iPhones available to everyone at a great price. Again, that is a rationalization the book explains was in play inside DPR’s mind.

Those alleged suicides of iPhone workers are merely the price paid to change the world. Just like the price DPR had to pay when he was forced to order the assassination of one of his workers. DPR just had to do that in order to make the world a better place through massive sales of drugs and weapons and body parts.

(Your homework assignment if you want extra credit: identify the separate rationalizations and specific fallacies in the above two stories.)

Behold the power of rationalization

At this point, DPR had long since departed from anything resembling libertarian principles or any identifiable frame of reference.

Consider his moral journey:

He has authorized the sale of any drug in existence.

He has authorized the sale of explosives and body organs.

He has authorized the beating and likely torture of a thieving employee.

He has authorized, and paid for, what he firmly believed was the execution of that employee.

He can easily move forward from here to authorize and pay for another four murders.

It sure does seem to me that Dread Pirate Roberts was using a heaping helping of rationalizations. He was not working from any identifiable frame of reference outside of himself.

Consider again this bible verse from Jeremiah 17:9 in the NIV translation:

The heart is deceitful above all thing and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Continued in part 6.

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