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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Edward Snowden and the virtues of courage, magnanimity, justice and civility

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: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2803762/images/o-EDWARD-SNOWDEN-facebook.jpg

Edward Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government. In 2013 he copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). He revealed numerous surveillance programs of the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecom operators and European governments.

“A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.”

Despite the controversy, I believe that Snowden embodies the technomoral virtues of courage and magnanimity.

In a TED Talk (above), Snowden reflects: “I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what is right. And I am not going to stop my work in the public interest, just to benefit myself”. He saw the dangers of mass surveillance and acted bravely, for the common good, and paid a high personal price–he had to flee the US and has been living in exile since. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131).

Furthermore, Snowden exemplifies moral ambition and leadership; he acted from the conviction that mass surveillance needs to be checked and balanced with other values, such as privacy and transparency. This resonates with Vallor’s definition of magnanimity as a technomoral virtue that “enables and encourages moral ambition and moral leadership, two things sorely lacking in our contemporary technomoral milieu.”

Moreover, Snowden promotes the virtues of justice and civility.

In the same TED Talk (above) Snowden states: “We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our library to have security”. He promotes finding better balances between security and privacy in the work of agencies like the NSA. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of justice: a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).

Finally, when asked to reflect on his role, in the same TED Talk (above), Snowden replies that he sees himself primarily as a citizen–a citizen concerned with values like privacy and transparency. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of civility: “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action” (2016, p. 141).


Possibly, you find that Edward Snowden Aimee van 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