In the aftermath of the debacle that is the cryptocurrency trading company FTX, the motivations of Sam Bankman-Fried have come under some scrutiny. He often seems to advocate an “earn to give” philosophy: basically, it’s ethically fine to earn extraordinary amounts money if you give it away (for references to the idea, see here and here). Or to put it another way, consider the situation of a person who would like to do as much good as possible in the world. The choice is whether to do good directly, or whether to earn money and contribute to those who are doing good correctly. It is at least possible, given the specific skills and abilities of that person, that they may be more effective at doing good by the “earn to give” approach.

Of course, it’s very much an open question whether this philosophy was an actual motivation or just a high-sounding excuse for Bankman-Fried. But here, I wanted to look back at a predecessor of the “earn to give” philosophy, from John Wesley’s Sermon 50: “The Use of Money.” For those of you not familiar with John Wesley (1703-1791), he was the English theologian and cleric who is typically credited with being the founder of Methodism. His Sermon 50 is sometime summarized, and not just among economists, as “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

Wesley describes the social role of money this way:

“The love of money,” we know, “is the root of all evil;” but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not. But it may likewise be used well: It is full as applicable to the best, as to the worst uses. It is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life: It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good. It is true, were man in a state of innocence, or were all men “filled with the Holy Ghost,” so that, like the infant Church at Jerusalem, “no man counted anything he had his own,” but “distribution was made to everyone as he had need,” the use of it would be superseded; as we cannot conceive there is anything of the kind among the inhabitants of heaven. But, in the present state of mankind, it is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked: It gives to the traveller and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We maybe a defence for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death!

Wesley’s sermon is loosely divided into three rules for the use of money: “gain all you can,” “save all you can,” and “give all you can.” But Wesley is also quite careful to specify that some ways of gaining money are unacceptable. His list includes:

  • 1) “we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health”;
  • 2) “we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country. Such are all that necessarily imply our robbing or defrauding the king of his lawful customs”;
  • 3) “without hurting our neighbour. But this we may not, cannot do, if we love our neighbour as ourselves. We cannot, if we love everyone as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance”;
  • 4) “Neither may we gain by hurting our neighbour in his body. Therefore we may not sell anything which tends to impair health. Such is, eminently, all that liquid fire, commonly called drams or spirituous liquors” (although Wesley includes an exception for limited medicinal use!);

With these rules in place, Wesley then exhorts:

These cautions and restrictions being observed, it is the bounden duty of all who are engaged in worldly business to observe that first and great rule of Christian wisdom with respect to money, “Gain all you can.” Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling. Lose no time. If you understand yourself and your relation to God and man, you know you have none to spare. If you understand your particular calling as you ought, you will have no time that hangs upon your hands. Every business will afford some employment sufficient for every day and every hour. That wherein you are placed, if you follow it in earnest, will leave you no leisure for silly, unprofitable diversions. You have always something better to do, something that will profit you, more or less. And “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Do it as soon as possible: No delay! No putting off from day to day, or from hour to hour! Never leave anything till to-morrow, which you can do to-day. And do it as well as possible. Do not sleep or yawn over it: Put your whole strength to the work. Spare no pains. Let nothing be done by halves, or in a slight and careless manner. Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done by labour or patience.

Gain all you can, by common sense, by using in your business all the understanding which God has given you. It is amazing to observe, how few do this; how men run on in the same dull track with their forefathers. But whatever they do who know not God, this is no rule for you. It is a shame for a Christian not to improve upon them, in whatever he takes in hand. You should be continually learning, from the experience of others, or from your own experience, reading, and reflection, to do everything you have to do better to-day than you did yesterday. And see that you practise whatever you learn, that you may make the best of all that is in your hands.

In describing the “save all you can” rule, Wesley calls for living a simple life in all ways. For eample,

I do not mean, avoid gluttony and drunkenness only: An honest heathen would condemn these. But there is a regular, reputable kind of sensuality, an elegant epicurism, which does not immediately disorder the stomach, nor (sensibly, at least) impair the understanding. And yet (to mention no other effects of it now) it cannot be maintained without considerable expense. Cut off all this expense! Despise delicacy and variety, and be content with what plain nature requires.

Do not waste any part of so precious a talent merely in gratifying the desire of the eye by superfluous or expensive apparel, or by needless ornaments. Waste no part of it in curiously adorning your houses; in superfluous or expensive furniture; in costly pictures, painting, gilding, books; in elegant rather than useful gardens. … Lay out nothing to gratify the pride of life, to gain the admiration or praise of men.

For his final step, “give all you can,” Wesley offered the following guidance:

If you desire to be a faithful and a wise steward, out of that portion of your Lord’s goods which he has for the present lodged in your hands, but with the right of resuming whenever it pleases him, First, provide things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength. Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household. If when this is done there be an overplus left, then “do good to them that are of the household of faith.” If there be an overplus still, “as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.”

I have read that, later in life, Wesley was prone to lamenting that his followers were perhaps more zealous about “gain all you can” than about “save all you can,” and more zealous about “save all you can” that “give all you can.” Still, his advice only to gain in ways that do not injure your neighbors or break the law, and only to consume “what plain nature requires” seem clearly to have been violated in extreme ways by Bankman-Fried’s personal interpretation of the “earn to give” philosophy.