How should Christians think about day trading and cryptocurrency?

Thinking through the moral parameters of investment and modern financial innovation

March 22, 2022

If you were among the thousands of viewers to scan the bouncing QR code during one of the Super Bowl commercials last month, then perhaps you are $15 richer than you were before. Richer in cryptocurrency, that is. Anyone who signed up for a new Coinbase account was given $15 in currency. The surge of traffic caused the promo website to collapse. The Coinbase ad was but one of several different Super Bowl ad spots for crypto, leaving no doubt as to its ascendance to the status of cultural mainstream.

The digital revolution of the last three decades has had a tremendous impact on modern finance. Technology has fundamentally reshaped how human beings think and act in myriad ways. Our whole social world is now technologically mediated. Work, communication, leisure, citizenship, and many other elements of human life have been cast in new molds. That is because we share a reciprocal relationship with technology — it forms us as we form it. This tectonic shift in social self-understanding has also upended long-standing assumptions about currency and investment.

Two narrower features of modern financial innovation that have risen into common practice are day trading and cryptocurrency. The two are distinct but often related phenomena. Many norms of day trading apply also to crypto, and of course, crypto can be day traded. How are Christians to understand these innovations? What should guide Christian conduct in commerce? 

In response to these questions we need first to clarify what both day trading and crypto involve. We need, in other words, a sketch of reality, which will help us better understand the shape of our moral responsibility as people called to lead wise and simple lives in devotion to Christ Jesus (1 Thess 4:11; Rom. 12:18; Matt 10:16).

The moral parameters of investing

The capitalist insight that money can beget money is quite established. Someone invests in a startup and the company is profitable. She sells shares at more than five times their value and invests in two new startups. These too enjoy profits, and the enrichment cycle continues. Otherwise, all things being equal, investments profit because of the inherent growth in capital markets.

We need to think carefully about what counts as investment. At its heart, investment is placing value in something else of value. It needn’t even be strictly financial. I might say that I’m “investing” in my kids by taking them hiking in the mountains, by which I mean I’m affording them something of value because they’re inherently valuable. Or a teacher may invest in her students by staying after class to tutor. Or a volunteer might invest in his community by helping with litter collection at a local park. For all such examples the controlling idea is contributing something of value to something else possessing a value exceeding the thing contributed.

The idea of investment imposes real moral constraints. It matters what exactly we put our resources toward. The assisted living facility differs from the local restaurant, which differs from Disney, which differs from Penthouse magazine. Justifying investment in evil or corrupt entities is a sign of moral bankruptcy. We should invest only in what deserves investment. 

Typically we also consider duration a key determinant of investment. Conventional wisdom among experienced financial advisors is to invest in worthwhile companies and allow valuations to appreciate gradually. Let money stay put, and over time it will weather market volatility. Buying stock and selling within a short period of time, either within several days or on the same day, doesn’t constitute investment in the strict sense of the term. 

What are day trading and cryptocurrency?

Day trading is a speculative trading practice in which a trader purchases a security — a financial instrument representing value — and sells it on the same day. A trader buys anticipating some market eventuality that will create profit off the sale. Profit is dictated entirely by whether the eventuality occurs. It is an informed gamble that often requires taking a large position in the market in order to achieve profits warranting the risk. As such it is a practice of specialty investors and firms.

Around 50-70% of day trades are not conducted by human beings as a result of human decision but by algorithms trading upwards of 1,000 transactions a minute.1For an accessible explainer of algorithmic trading, I recommend Radiolab’s podcast episode, “Speed.” Trades occur in explosive bursts as algorithms test the market and manipulate advantageous conditions for transactions. Some algorithms are designed simply to counter other algorithms. The primary explanation for algorithmic domination of day trading appears to be the seasoned platitude — “fastest always wins.” Transactional speed becomes self-justifying, and the integral feature of investment, duration, is jettisoned.

Construing the meaning of “investment” so as to encompass any allocation of capital that promises a return is mistaken. It is mistaken for several obvious reasons; not least its consequentialist presumption of the ends justifying the means, which makes even crass gambling commendable. The simple prospect of a return is not itself enough to justify allocation of capital. Nor should one misapply “stewardship” in an effort to redeem the practice. To steward a resource, including capital, involves respecting the goods internal to that resource and the just allocation of that resource. 

Cryptocurrency emerged as a digital response to perceived weaknesses in modern monetary theory and as a strategy for securing transactions. Many countries, like the United States, have a “fiat” currency (i.e., currency issued by a government but not backed by another commodity) printed and backed by the government. Cryptocurrencies, as the name suggests, are encrypted virtual currencies, and there are many different kinds. Because crypto is decentralized, no formal authority enforces trust or regulates transactions. So, for example, although it doesn’t have the backing of a central bank on its deposits, neither is it subject to the bank’s runs or crises. Still, despite incredible growth, the large majority of consumers do not yet view it as the easiest or most reliable form of transaction. 

Ethics of investing in new digital currencies

The anonymity of cryptocurrency has naturally attracted criminal laundering and ransomware enterprises. Just how anonymous crypto transactions truly are is a matter of debate, as there is evidence that many leave a digital trail. Why must the transaction be secretive? Perhaps there are narrow parameters in which anonymity is warranted, but how can one be above reproach when anonymity becomes standard practice? Does it not matter who my partner in exchange is to me, or they to me? Scripture stipulates that it does.

The question of investment in cryptocurrency is relevant but somewhat tangential. The same principles articulated above to day trading apply equally here. Perhaps there is a narrow warrant in crypto holdings in expectation of inflationary periods. But we need also to inquire of the worth and purpose of the object receiving investment? What is that object — in this case crypto — doing for the tangible prosperity of people and the strengthening of society? Or to put the question directly: in what does crypto invest? If the answer to that question carries ambiguity, then investment is better directed elsewhere. 

All of this only scratches the surface of moral complexity in modern commerce. Day trading and crypto are financial innovations we still struggle entirely to grasp. Still, the guide for Christian conduct is not new and furnishes the norms and wisdom needed to judge and act as responsible agents. Christians are called to lead temperate, peaceable lives, to put our resources toward goods to which God invites us. As citizens of his kingdom we invest in his kingdom as trustees of the promise to make all things new (Matt. 25:20-23; Rev. 21:5).  

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24