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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Thoughts on Moral Ambivalence

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The philanthropy of the Gates Foundation and the dangerous business of mining prompt reflections on how we as individuals make moral decisions on a daily basis... usually without thinking about them.


A couple of current stories raise moral questions that can hid among the details. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world with an estimated $51 billion to his name. Not so long ago, a great many serious people--we got e-mails from them--called him evil. They disparage Mr. Gates as greedy and totalitarian for throttling his competitors and quashing their innovations. When we profiled Microsoft in the late 1980s, we asked Mr. Gates why he didn't give away more money. He said he didn't want to just shed a few million every year for tax breaks but wanted to build a fortune, so that when he began to donate, his money would have real impact. His detractors were contemptuous.

Now, of course, Mr. Gates is celebrated for his philanthropy. The Gates Foundation has the largest endowment of any in the world and vaccinates more children in poor countries than the World Health Organization. It sponsors the largest minority scholarship program ever and wires thousands of schools into the World Wide Web. We also note that it's giving $800,000 to NPR News.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center received $25 million to combat Guinea worm disease, calls the Gates Foundation `the most important organization in the world.' Is the single-minded greed of which Mr. Gates was accused exactly what fueled the fortune that makes him so spectacularly generous now? What turns out to be more worthy, the rival computer technologies that Bill Gates stifled or the children he's helping to grow up now? Can greed, after all, lead to something good?

Investigations are under way into the accident at the Sago Mine in West Virginia that killed 12 people this week. That accident reminds us that mining is a dangerous occupation. Last year, 28 US coal miners died on the job and an untold many probably died from illnesses relating to mining. Each death was a tragedy and possibly preventable, but technology has made mining remarkably safer in the United States.

In China, by contrast, the China Labor Bulletin estimates that 20,000 coal miners die there each year. It's hard to see so many deaths as accidents so much as the almost predictable result of an industry that sacrifices lives rather than pay for modern safety measures. Yet when we buy an item made in China--and between paper clips, paper cups, shoelaces, steel and thread, it seems impossible not to--do we ask ourself if it's right to buy a product made in a factory fueled by an industry which seems to write off so many lives? Or are thousands of deaths worth the cheaper goods for us and the jobs it makes for those miners who survive?

We make moral decisions every day, even if we don't know it.

And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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