Can the Truly Moral Billionaire Please Stand Up?

My quest to find Jesus Christ with a Gulfstream

DALL-E/Every illustration.

When I read about Steve Jobs’s life, I can’t help but feel a little sick. Of all our tech luminaries over the last 50 years, he is the one I relate to the most. His sense of product, his love of the humanities, his obsession with quality—it’s all part of an ethos by which I’ve tried to conduct my own life. 

What makes me sick about Jobs is that he was also objectively cruel. Time and time again, he demonstrated a capacity for brutal coldness that is hard to stomach. He abandoned his daughter and casually discarded the people he once regarded as friends. It is hard to reconcile the extremes of his life.

Jobs isn’t the only complicated billionaire. In my studies of famous tech founders, I have found people who did great things at terrible costs. This disparity gave me an urgent need to find someone who had obviously led an exemplary life by the standards I think are important: marriage, children, moral quality, and career. So I did what every fool and drunkard has done before me: I tweeted a loaded question.

Source: X/Evan Armstrong.

Dear reader: Many, many people had ideas. 

I got hundreds of DMs. The thread drove 1.5 million impressions. I was called a capitalist pig and a communist bastard. And, perhaps surprisingly for internet discourse, I got lots of useful feedback.

Many folks were eager to share the stories of billionaires who struck them as good people. I’ve spent the last week going through these names, fact-checking sources, and trying to build a final list.

Along the way, I struggled with deciding on a metric that would help me define morality. People get divorced for good reasons, have ungrateful kids, or face other unforeseen difficulties in life. Maybe Jobs was just afflicted with bad personal relationships, and maybe he’s forgivable. But as the wealthiest people in our society, billionaires, more than anyone else, have the power that comes with access to tremendous amounts of capital. The unreasonably powerful should be held to unreasonably high moral standards, too.

While my initial goal was to find people who obviously cleared the bar on all five metrics, I became more flexible during my research, as it was almost impossible to accurately analyze and judge each billionaire. The good news is there is at least one person who I think deserves this title. The rest, depending on the gradients of your moral compass, might get filtered out.

Marc Andreessen is the startup savior and liberal boogeyman (the purity problem)

One of the more surprisingly frequent names raised was Marc Andreessen, with 13 mentions. If you’re unfamiliar, the always-controversial venture capitalist is notorious for his political activism, scathing opinions, and absolute commitment to doing what he thinks is right. For those who voted in favor of tech’s favorite egghead, a remarkable number had a financial incentive to keep him happy. They were co-investors or founders who had received capital from his firm—that sort of thing.

To be fair, I can see their argument! Andreessen is a billionaire, married to his original spouse, and has young kids who I’m sure are delightful. Depending on which philosophy you, as a reader, ascribe to, you might take issue with his politics. But it feels presumptuous to say that people with different political opinions than me aren’t moral people. That was what these sources argued to me in their DMs: His financial commitment to the path laid out by his philosophy—even if some people find his ideas distasteful—is the mark of a moral man. 

This holds true for all of these billionaires. Either in the way they made their wealth or that they chose to deploy it, morality is relative, which makes universal agreement on a person as good nearly impossible. Most people argue that the only moral use of a billionaire’s wealth is if they give it away. While I may tend to agree, this feels a little prescriptive for my taste. (Forbes compiles an excellent database where you can track billionaires’ charity work.) 

So, while there were many people who would’ve qualified if I were the sole moral arbiter, there are questions as to whether they are universally approved. The more political someone was, the more complicated their career’s legacy, the less likely they are to be spotless. Take, for example, the Kushner brothers: one (Josh) a liberal technology investor who pours money into startups and has a sterling reputation in the tech community; the other (Jared) a real estate investor mostly remembered for his time in the Trump administration. Which one is the good billionaire? Whose political philosophy is moral? 

I know them and they suck (the PR problem)

According to Forbes, there are 2,781 billionaires in the world. How many of them can you name? Ask yourself why you know about them. The reality is that reputation is a purchasable good. Billionaires can hire PR agencies and the best ghost writers on the planet. If you know of a billionaire (outside of their committing criminal acts), it is safe to assume that they want you to know about them.

If a billionaire has a spotless public perception, it is likely artificially constructed. For example, a remarkable 18 people named one billionaire in particular as a paragon of virtue. This individual had a Brady Bunch-esque family—perfection in every way. The only problem? I’ve hung out with his kids and know that there are major issues within the family. The parental/filial relationship is challenging; the relationships between siblings are brutal contests for their parents’ favor. The only reason I know this is because I happen to travel in the same social circles, which isn’t true for all the other billionaires. I have to imagine that at least some of them have secret family discord. 

I’ve been reading an early copy of Anupreeta Das’s Billionaire, Nerd, Savior, King: Bill Gates and His Quest to Shape Our World, which is due out in August. If you had to pick someone who qualified for this list six years ago, Gates would’ve been at the top. He was a supposedly devoted husband and father who gave his billions to charity. Then, the Jeffrey Epstein situation rightfully threw everything we knew about Gates into question. The book, which is quite good, delves deeply into that relationship. How many other people on this list have Epstein-level secrets that never see the light of day?

In a fun inversion, I’d never heard of most of the names that qualified for my list. They are private individuals with short Wikipedia pages. Their presence was mostly scrubbed from the internet, and my sources—often family friends who had grown up with them—asked me not to share what I learned. So I mostly had to trust the words of individuals that some of the people on my list qualified. There are no articles, books, or essays on many of our billionaires today—the reverse PR problem. 

Remember: People are complicated, families even more so, and when you mix in more money than God, it is nearly impossible to ascertain the absolute truth. The task, then, becomes acknowledging that these stories we know about billionaires are exactly that—stories to learn from, not a science to dissect.

Rise up, comrades (the existence problem)

A few people recommended the names of several Indian billionaires with comments such as “we do it right in India,” “we aren’t corrupted by the West,” “shame on American family values,” etc. Mukesh Ambani (estimated $113 billion net worth) was one such name.

Ambani, in particular, had me returning to an argument that was popular among responders with raised fists in their profile pictures to my tweet: “There is no such thing as a moral billionaire.” Aside from Ambani’s business contributions in running the multinational conglomerate Reliance, I couldn’t help but think about his home, the Antila—the world’s most expensive single-family residence, which is estimated to have cost over $1 billion. It spans over 27 floors and has a room that makes its own snow, a staff of 600, a garage with 168 luxury vehicles, and a list of obscene amenities that could fill out the remaining length of this essay. It is also only a few miles away from heartbreakingly poor families. At the time of its construction in 2010, an estimated 62 percent of Mumbai’s population lived in slums. I couldn’t reconcile that with Ambani’s philanthropy work and the integral services his businesses have created (including mind-bogglingly cheap internet data). But, for many responders, his opulence didn’t matter.

I don’t know if I believe the sentiment about the impossibility of a moral billionaire, and the cultural differences between an American and an Indian billionaire are vast. But these questions are the conundrum at the heart of this exercise. Does the very existence of these individuals preclude them from moral authority? Or is it in the way they show and use their wealth? Is the only way to justify being a billionaire using the wealth in quiet ways? 

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions—they are likely a matter of personal religion as much as anything. But, again, the complication is what I am trying to avoid. 

Jesus in a Gulfstream

The origin of this exercise was personal, existential anguish. I may be naive, but I want something higher and better, a one-two combo of capitalist might and moral virtue. While this tweet thread was the first public manifestation, I’ve been thinking about this for years. Thankfully, finally, I found one, an unadulterated, unquestionable moral paragon: Chuck Feeney. 

The co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group gave away his $8 billion fortune, living out his final years in a one-bedroom rental in San Francisco. He flew coach until he was 75, only upgrading with miles once he needed more space for his old knees. His deeds span from helping facilitate peace talks between the IRA and England to funding new buildings at Stanford. Even then, he still wouldn’t technically clear my metrics! He and his first wife got divorced after differences over lifestyle—he just wanted to give his money away. She kept $100 million and several luxury homes. Divorce due to a desire to be philanthropic is a get-out-of-jail-free card. His life has been sufficiently documented by biographers, journalists, and colleagues that I feel he is most likely cleared of the PR problem. He also has the benefit of being dead, so he has run out of time to bring it all crashing down on himself. A real win-lose situation. 

Chuck Feeney lived in such a way that I don’t think anyone could reasonably say he doesn’t scratch that itch for what I was looking for. Mission accomplished! 

In addition to Feeney, I made a list of 84 billionaires who I would classify as “relatively moral”: They obviously cleared all the metrics except for the moral virtue one. Typically, they were so politically active, in one way or another, that a significant portion of the population would deem them “bad.” While I initially hoped to publish the list, it felt irresponsible to give out a large group of names, some of whom are very private individuals, for public examination. I was stunned at how many I had never heard of, quietly donating hundreds of millions of dollars to important causes, doing their best to care for others. While I often disagreed with how they made their money or what causes they were funding, it was inspiring that people would so strongly double down on what they believe. 

In the end, this quest for a moral billionaire forced me to confront my own beliefs about wealth, power, and the nature of goodness in a complex world. I finished the exercise with hope—not because I found a simple answer to the question of what it means to be both wealthy and virtuous, but because I have discovered that even among the most powerful, there are those who strive to make a positive difference. While money corrupts, it does not corrupt absolutely. Even within a system that often rewards greed and self-interest, there is room for those who choose to prioritize the greater good. And that, in itself, is a reason for hope.

Evan Armstrong is the lead writer for Every, where he writes the Napkin Math column. You can follow him on X at @itsurboyevan and on LinkedIn, and Every on X at @every and on LinkedIn.

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Carl Baker about 1 month ago

Thought-provoking. I’ve always had the prejudice that coming out on top in the business world requires a certain degree of sociopathy. Perhaps the only hope is the “accidental” billionaire that Evan alluded to last week - the AI-assisted One-person Billion-dollar company founder. In other words, someone that didn’t have to claw their way to the top stepping on the backs of others to reach their pinnacle of success. I think with an AI-assist someone could reach the billion dollar mark with their good-guy moral fiber in place.

vaguely feel about 1 month ago

James Cash Penney (JC Penney's) would probably have qualified. old school example though

Chris Ogunlowo about 1 month ago

A fascinating post. If I wrote it, I would have contended with the same issues. Reading Steve Jobs' biography was the first charge about my understanding of (most) wealthy folks. The same feeling after reading Elon Musk's biography, although I must mention that Elon seems more humane in comparison with Steve. Or it comes down to their biographers. Through my work, I've been able to engage with some and I've since been asking if I would wish to be wealthy if it comes with being inhumane and cold! It makes one wonder if it's a reasonable price after all, one couldn't have become wealthy by merely beating a compassionate path. I haven't found the answer. But I keep burning the candle of hope. If there's never been a truly moral, compassionate, humble one, maybe I will be The One. *Amen with a righteous grin*

@nachellebrooks about 1 month ago

This was an extremely, extraordinaire article. I have struggle for so long trying to define what it looked like to gain riches for security, but not to over indulge in selfish purposes. Do you work as the humanitarian and your family may receive a reward through your contributions to society when your decease or work hard, cut corners and operate in the space of one day acquiring enough wealth to give it away to charitable organization. We live in the good ole USA and we're a capitalist society. Is is best to live in a socialist country if you have humanitarian views?

Working under the radar is often a good correlate to a low ego, moral billionaire (or anyone really).

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