Book considers the extent morality should have over people's lives

Both Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple through their leadership contributed immensely to the development of computer technology, but their paths seem to diverge on how they handled their wealth.

After stepping away from day-to-day involvement at Microsoft, Gates has devoted much of his time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he has donated a reported $28 billion to try to address global challenges regarding health care, extreme poverty and education.

Before his death in 2011, Jobs of the Microsoft rival Apple Inc.—despite also accumulating billions—received criticism for never publicly donating to a charity.

Philosophers who study morality and its ethical questions likely consider Gates to have lived a morally good life while Jobs potentially did not, due to his hyperfixation on his career and the companies he was involved with, most of which was Apple. Dale Dorsey, a University of Kansas professor of philosophy who studies ethics, said while he has some sympathy for the criticism of Jobs based on the large amount of he accumulated, the question of the justifiability of Jobs' actions should not be considered a settled matter.

Because Jobs' actions helped greatly advance the field of and influenced many people's lives that way, that's an important factor in determining whether or not he lived wrongly.

"I think there's something to be said for the fact he was really dedicated in his own life to the project he was engaged in, especially in making Apple products the paragon of technology," said Dorsey, also the Meredith J. Docking Faculty Scholar at KU. "I think that has to matter, and I think it has to make a difference. Instances like this sometimes will justify not conforming to moral norms, and I think that's significant."

In his new book, "The Limits of Moral Authority," published by Oxford University Press, Dorsey examines to what extent the demands of morality have normative authority over people and their lives. How people should act and why is one of the most fundamental questions in philosophical ethics.

Dorsey said people in their daily lives navigate various rules, considerations and norms, such as professional standards, their self-interests, aesthetics and even friendships and family.

"These things can tell you to do very different things at a given point in time. Morality seems to be something that tells us how we should act in given cases," he said. "But because it's one of the things that tells us how to act among many other things, it's reasonable for us to wonder what status it has among other ways of thinking."

Traditionally philosophers treat morality as a rule that guides people on how they should behave or what they ought to do. However, Dorsey argues that while moral standards are not unimportant and that they have a place in defining heinous or evil acts, they should not be the complete picture to judge a person's actions.

"Very often moral considerations need to be balanced and can sometimes be outweighed by other sorts of considerations," Dorsey said.

Similar to the example of Jobs appearing to avoid charitable giving, Dorsey addresses the life of famous American dancer and artist Fred Astaire, who, upon devotion of his life in Hollywood to advancing the artistic and aesthetic field, likely made sacrifices that limited his time in being able to volunteer to help others, for example.

"Had he acted in a morally appropriate way all the time, he might not have had enough time to develop the tap dance moves that made him a great entertainer," Dorsey said. "But I don't think we would want to think his doing that was wrong. In fact, I think that given his commitment to his art, that's exactly what he should have been doing."

Because Astaire's actions, similar to Jobs' work, contributed so much artistic value to society, that means we should consider how people should act on a case-by-case basis. Morality's rules should be guided out of considerations of others, rather than ourselves, Dorsey said. That's why he'd argue one of the most important things people can do is figure out how to navigate various demands placed upon them in their lives and decide what type of person they aspire to be.

"It's the person's radical choice about the kind of person they are to be that should help him or her navigate through these various forces that tell us what to do," Dorsey said.

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