Steve Jobs’ “Philanthropy”: Only a Side-Effect

Only by focusing on enriching his own life has Jobs benefitted the lives of others

Steve Jobs has been described in many ways: brilliant, innovative, driven, visionary, even egomaniacal. One word rarely associated with Jobs is “philanthropic”—indeed, he eliminated all corporate charity programs when returning as head of Apple in 1997. In an article at The Harvard Business Review blog, Dan Pallotta argues that Jobs deserves credit as a philanthropist, albeit in an unusual way:

What a loss to humanity it would have been if Jobs had dedicated the last 25 years of his life to figuring out how to give his billions away, instead of doing what he does best. . . .

What’s important is how we use our time on this earth, not how conspicuously we give our money away. What’s important is the energy and courage we are willing to expend reversing entropy, battling cynicism, suffering and challenging mediocre minds, staring down those who would trample our dreams, taking a stand for magic, and advancing the potential of the human race. . . .

On these scores, the world has no greater philanthropist than Steve Jobs. If ever a man contributed to humanity, here he is.

It is true that millions of people have benefitted from the efforts of Jobs and his company, certainly from his contribution to technological innovation in general, if not from Apple products themselves. But many would object to calling Steve Jobs a “philanthropist,” a word that is associated with people who give away their fortunes for the sake of others. Mother Theresa never charged anyone $2,000 for a laptop computer.

There is indeed something wrong with counting Jobs as a philanthropist, especially if this implies that he worked tirelessly on creating Apple and its products for the good of humanity, out of some sense of obligation to serve the greater good. In truth, Steve Jobs did it for himself: he had his own idea of the kind of technology he wanted to create, and pursued it with single-minded focus, often in conflict with the ideas of others (both within Apple and the public at large). Jobs made this explicit in his commencement speech to the 2005 class of Stanford:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

It’s a cliché that one should “love” the work one does, but Jobs’ point here is more significant. Notice what he doesn’t say. Despite being worth billions, he doesn’t say one can be satisfied with enormous material success alone. More importantly, he doesn’t say you should do what others believe is great work. He doesn’t say that you should love your work because it benefits society. Rather, he places emphasis on one’s own motives and standards. Such a perspective suggests a deeply individualistic outlook that stands in contrast to the commonplace injunction to go out and “make a difference” for ultimately vague and selfless reasons. It means waking up and starting work each day fueled by an expectation of tangible mental and material satisfaction for one’s own sake, rather than by a desire to expend effort for the sake of others while downplaying as secondary any personal reward it may bring.

In other words, if Jobs is to be credited with “philanthropy,” it is only as a secondary consequence of his self-interested career ambitions. Praise for philanthropy is often based on the view that morality consists of sacrifice, of focus on the needs of others rather than one’s own interests. If that were true, we should shun Jobs as an immoral monster, given the scale of his ambition. But Steve Jobs appears to operate on a different moral premise, one which places one’s own reward, not sacrifice, as paramount.

It is precisely this devotion to one’s personal vision and goals that we should admire—not simply because it has proven materially practical, but because it reflects the essence of a rational morality. Consider one characterization of morality: “judgment to distinguish right and wrong, vision to see the truth, courage to act upon it, dedication to that which is good, integrity to stand by the good at any price.” While Jobs was rightfully rewarded financially, he achieved his personal ambition even further by pursuing his own vision of technological innovation, fulfilling his own potential by transforming his view of the possible into reality. Nothing could be more moral than that.

Image by Matthew YoheAido2002 at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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