A Professor Of Ethics Writes To Mark Zuckerberg And Priscilla Chan


Dear Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg,

I am so very touched by the way you chose to give to your child. You have shown her that it is far greater to live in an enriched world than it is to be the sole beneficiary of great wealth. I am impressed that you decided to give your wealth away while you live and that you have committed to long-term change on behalf of our children and grandchildren. I write to you today as a teacher. I run a course on the history and ethics of philanthropy at Columbia University and I want to share some of the insights that have emerged from our class. I do so to start a conversation that I hope you and others will weigh in on.

The history of philanthropy is rife with a great desire to cure rather than to care; to eliminate disease rather than assist family members or caregivers in the challenges of bringing comfort and dignity to the ill and aged. For generations, great minds have claimed, like you, that “As technology accelerates, we have a real shot at preventing, curing or managing all or most of the rest [of the major diseases] in the next 100 years.” I am sure that in many areas you will be proven right. But I hope that you will also take a moment to look at the cases where amelioration and human touch still provide answers. In the 1950s politicians and scientists believed that they would cure old age and in their drive to do so left a new and swelling class of chronically ill aged without a way to pay for long-term housing and nursing care. I feel confident that you will find a way to do both: to think about a future cure while acknowledging the great need for dignified care.

I admire your focus on “advancing human potential” but I worry that you might be looking too closely at quantity rather than defining quality. In your section on this goal you posed a series of questions that centered exclusively on amounts. “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today? Can we connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity?” I would urge you to think carefully about the purpose of knowledge and technology. I would ask that you approach communities with humility and ask them what kind of education would help and which forms of technology would move them closer to a good life, as they would define it. Human progress can be as dangerous as it is uplifting, but with careful and humble thinking I trust the right path will emerge.

My last concern is the form in which you will give away your wealth. I agree that little change happens without governmental support and you are right to want the opportunity to influence policy. My hope is that you will find a way to do so that honors our political process. Before you give, think carefully about the structure and civilization that has nourished your wealth and find mechanisms to preserve the best parts of that structure. Imagine that someone you disagree with politically has your great wealth: What policies should be in place to guard against his or her undue influence? 

To be a truly great philanthropist, I think one has to be responsive to the world as it is and beholden to a future that can be. I feel confident that your Initiative will usher in another great era of our shared history. Thank you for your beneficence, your serious thinking and your optimism.

I wish you and your growing family a life filled with blessings.

Tamara Mann Tweel, Ph.D

Tamara Mann Tweel, Ph.D., is the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University where she teachers courses on the history and ethics of philanthropy and aging in America.