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Late last week, the Financial Times published a wide-ranging interview with Bill Gates on the subject of his philanthropic work and relationship with the tech world. During the generally sensible discussion — Gates’ critique of Silicon Valley’s blinkered solutionism was particularly welcome — one of the richest men in the world also threw in a gratuitous slap in the face of museum funding.
Citing Peter Singer, ethicist of choice for under-thought yuppie sanctimony, Gates offers a seemingly reasonable but logically incomplete equivalence between donating money to a museum for a new wing and culpability for the consequences of those funds not being spent on more fundamental human needs elsewhere in the world:
Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,” he says. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.”
The only thing barbaric about this scenario is that a software tycoon — a man whose massive home library is staffed, I’ve been told, by a full-time librarian, who has paid $30.8 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester (the only such codex in private hands), and erected an opulent campus for his otherwise efficient charity — is suggesting that spending on cultural objects is an affront to the dispossessed. The obvious trouble with this thinking is that it gives the moral adjudicator the complete freedom to set the ethical stakes. (One might propose a different line of inquiry probing whether a truly moral Gates ought not have dedicated his life to making billions of dollars from selling business tools.)
What absolutists like Singer fail to capture with their moral-punchline hypotheticals is that human life is not something that can be optimized by an elusive utilitarian calculus. Such logic represents an escapist solutionism of its own, the kind which handily sells sensational books and editorials. It also allows Bill Gates to make moral condemnations that cleanly elide the possibility that those systems responsible for his vast wealth are the very same ones sowing the global misery that so preoccupies him today.