The western philosophical tradition has, for millennia, distinguished between intrinsic and extrinsic good: the former, good for its own sake, the latter being derivatives of the former – that is, an extrinsic good is good not for its own sake but because its enactment leads back to an intrinsic good. The debates about the ontological status of intrinsic and extrinsic goods, what constitutes them, the sorts of things that are or have intrinsic or extrinsic good(ness) and how these might be assessed or computed are beyond the scope of this paper. Frankena (1973) provides a comprehensive list of those things which are intrinsically good – as deemed by other authors to be good, or rational to desire for their own sakes. Others, for example George Moore (1903), reject the notion of intrinsic good and take a more consequentialist view that things are good when they are perceived to be good, on whether or not their consequences are in some sense better than those of alternatives.
There is a substantial literature on ethical issues surrounding ICTs, much of it framed around what constitutes ‘better’ and how that might be evaluated, including: the impact of technological progress on society (Lee, 2005) and the influence of technology on the development of virtuous interactions (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). Arguing that ICT’s beneficial impact can be evaluated by distinguishing between local and systemic levels, the difference between content and process, the implication of Taddeo and Vaccaro’s (2011) framing is that an ethical understanding of technologies can be gained through an interrogation of how the ways in which they work enable new beneficial actions and outcomes.
In ascribing something, a DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) initiative, as being good we are undertaking an evaluation. Value is said to be the measure of goodness (Ng, 2013) and pragmatically we seek to make a judgment of what is good in our case. Our evaluation of DLTs is, then, not based on whether or not they are intrinsically or extrinsically good, but on the consequences of those technologies based on the decisions made by the people who invent, develop, distribute and use them (Argandoña, 2003) for the UN’s 17 SDGs and 169 targets which, on September 25th, 2015 the 193 Member States of the United Nations unanimously adopted.
DLTs have, in some quarters, received an unfavourable press largely grounded in the observation that the cryptocurrencies – notably bitcoin – that DLTs enable, have been associated with illicit and illegal activities such as drug dealing and arms trading: the observation applies equally to cash. With little consensus about the potential impact of DLTs for good or ill, it is clear that the subject requires serious analysis. To focus on a single application or specific usage of the technology is to overlook its possible significance for ethical impacts at a global level. To ensure that the opportunities for ethical action potentially engrained in new technologies such as DLTs may be realized, it is important that the wider significance of the so-called ‘Blockchain for Good (B4G) is understood.
We separate how the technology works from what the technology might be able to achieve. What is it and what can it empower? Consistent with Stahl (2012), the purpose of this paper is to describe and understand the use DLTs that contribute to better societal outcomes.
Researchers have already begun investigating the ethical implications of alt-coins and cryptocurrencies. Dierksmeier and Seele (2016), for example, find ‘moral good’ in them at micro- (Individual level poverty reduction through reduced transaction costs and frictionless, globalized payments), meso- (Empowerment of BoP-business models and new Social Businesses from reduction in costs of global B2B and B2C operations) and macro-levels (Reduces hyperinflation of monetary supply; Gives citizens of states with corrupt governments a financial opt-out option). This project extends this stream of investigation by looking beyond alt-coins and cryptocurrencies, to understand the ways in which the underpinning Distributed Ledger Technology – the blockchain – that these currencies ‘sit on’, can be used to help deliver on the sustainability agenda. We call this ‘Blockchain for Good’: B4G. We do not exclude altcoins from our analysis – such as SolarCoin – but regard them as but one form of application of the DLT or, B4G.
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