Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced in September, 2016, that they would invest more than $3 billion during the next decade to build tools that can facilitate medical research on diseases. The first outlay of funds ($600 million) would create a research lab of engineers and scientists from the area’s major research universities. “This focus on building on tools suggests a road map for how we might go about curing, preventing and managing all diseases this century,” Zuckerberg said at the announcement. Moreover, the couple had previously announced a year before that they would give away 99% of their wealth over their lifetimes through the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative in the areas of education and healthcare. I would like to point out a few implications that may not be readily apparent.
Firstly, such funds going to preventing and curing disease could bring the day nearer when—along with advances in anti-aging and stem-cell research—death is no longer inevitable for a human being. Even before the Zuckerberg-Chan announcements, some scientists were openly predicting that that day might come as early as the 2050s. To be sure, being able to grow replacement organs, apply an anti-aging treatment to the body’s cells, and prevent major diseases (I suspect the common cold will still be around, just to keep us humble) does not guarantee that death will be put off; running into a train or bus, or jumping off a high building could still mean death. Nevertheless, the notion that death can be put off indefinitely dwarfs the combined impact from all the twentieth-century’s technological progress put together.
Considering the costs involved, access to rendering death no longer inevitable would doubtlessly raise ethical issues in terms of the distribution. Moreover, ethical questions would suddenly arise concerning the species’ increasing population and reproduction-rights. Secondary issues such as climate change could become even more pressing. It could be, for example, that a drastically increasing human population outstrips the planet’s food-capacity as well as the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the species’ waste, including greenhouse gases. It would be highly ironic were the feat in removing the threat of death a major contributor to the extinction of the species. In short, the story could go as follows: we maximize our species’ size—which means success genetically—only for the increased numbers to cause extinction because the climate is no longer hospitable to human habitation or the lack of food causes wars ending in nuclear war. The first alternative would be particularly likely.
Secondly, that the couple could give up 99% of their wealth over their lifetimes may imply that they will have earned too much money, if being able to use it is at all relevant. Put another way, being able to give away almost all of their total earnings may suggest that they (namely Zuckerberg) earned too much. Does it even make sense for someone to get money that is beyond the capacity to be spent even through inheritance?
One implication is the question of whether Zuckerberg’s employees at Facebook should get a significant amount of what Zuckerberg earns, whether in salary or stock. Why such a huge difference in compensation? To be sure, ownership does have its privileges, but is there no limit? The fact that Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet could give vast sums of money to charity raises the question of whether founders and CEOs shouldn’t face some limit in terms of wealth, with a progressive tax system kicking in for multi-billionaires. Were elected representatives to decide how such vast sums should be spent, the legitimacy of the power behind such a decision would be greater.
1. Deepa Seetharaman, “Zuckerberg Fund to Invest #3 Billion,” The Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2016.