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Steven Jobs (1955-2011), former Apple Chief Ethics Officer

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc]

A repeated criticism of Steve Jobs focused on Apple’s lack of philanthropy in relation to his contemporaries. While the question of whether corporations must give away part of their profits follows naturally from a stakeholder view, let us set aside the larger business ethics concern for a more personal question.

Jobs’ lack of what Aristotle called liberality (generosity) provoked the continued accusation that he was less moral or ethical than his peers. Public generosity is praiseworthy but, as a sole moral criterion, represents a limited view of morality. By broadening the Greek notion of ethics [from ethikos toward ethos], we find character, moral structure, a harmonious relationship between parts, and an accustomed place. Jobs was a private individual and we may never know the amount or lack of financial giving behind the scenes. However, we do know the public impact he made on our collective ethos:

He structured the way we relate to music and each other, helped organize the relationship between information and the disparate parts of our lives, and offered us a shared, accustomed place to express ourselves within the confines of his technology.

Those who have followed Jobs over the years will make no claims of sainthood; in fact, his leadership style was often reported as ruthless and borderline abusive. This “artist” certainly is not an ethical archetype in the traditional sense. But one thing he has done is help modify the ethos for how we live life (whether we own an iProduct, an Android OS device, or “refuse to participate”) in this revolution of time and space. The way our world is structured is no longer the same, and for this grand contribution to ethics, Jobs may be considered (per Aristotle) a magnanimous albeit morally-complicated man.

  1. Harry MITCHELL
    October 15th, 2011 at 10:30 | #1

    The comments on Steve Jobs raises a very interesting question. Can a person not have a public moral position, but make a moral impact upon the lives of others? I think in Jobs’ case, the answer is yes. I would also add that not only was his contribution to business make a moral impact, but our response to his loss is further evidence that he has made in our lives. I experienced a sense a surprising sense of grief over his loss in our lives.

    • November 8th, 2011 at 03:04 | #2

      Agreed, Harry. While Jobs had a politically incorrect and socially suspect track record on public charity, his ethical contribution (whether viewed positively or negatively) on how we structure our lives and relate to the information in our world is quite profound.

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