Bill Gates and the virtues of justice, empathy and magnanimity

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: news.gsu.edu

Bill Gates founded Microsoft (in 1975) and became extremely rich. Over the years, Microsoft has been criticized for its business practices: problems with the software’s ease-of-use, robustness and security, as well as monopolist strategies, such as vendor lock-in (where hardware manufacturers have no choice other than buy Microsoft software).

Together with his wife Melinda, he established (in 2000) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization which aims to improve healthcare and reduce extreme poverty globally, and to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology in the US. Gates calls this “Catalytic Philanthropy: Innovating Where Markets Won’t and Governments Can’t“. Gates is currently working full-time for this foundation and for other charitable organizations, such as the Giving Pledge, which he founded together with Warren Buffet, “a campaign to encourage wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes”.

In this TED Talk Bill and Melinda reflect on their work in the Foundation: “Why giving away our wealth has been the most satisfying thing we’ve done

Their plans for the Foundation emerged as early as 1993, a couple of months before their marriage, while traveling in Africa, when they were struck by the poverty they saw.

In his role of philanthropist, Gates embodies the technomoral virtues of justice, perspective and magnanimity.

Gates exemplifies the technomoral virtue of justice–which Vallor defines as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” (2016, p. 128). The Foundation aims, globally, to combat extreme poverty, to promote health, e.g., by investing in the development of new, better and affordable medicines and sanitation systems, and to develop sustainable and affordable energy.

Furthermore, Gates exemplifies the technomoral virtue of empathy–which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133). For example, he realized that his fine education has enabled him to have the career and life he has had. This was one of the motives for him to improve educational opportunities in the US.

Moreover, it can be argued that Gates embodies the technomoral virtue of magnanimity–which, according to Vallor refers to moral ambition and moral leadership (2016, p. 152). Interestingly, Gates not only donates his own wealth (which he refers to as “give back”); he encourages other billionaires to also donate their wealth–which can be recognized as moral leadership.


Possibly, you find that Bill Gates embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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