Elon Musk is a visionary, entrepreneur, and billionaire. You can check his Wikipedia page if you don’t believe us. In December 2016, Musk was ranked 21st on the Forbes’ list of The World's Most Powerful People, and as of February 2018, he has a net worth of $20.8 billion, which ranks him 53rd in Forbes’ list of richest people in the world. As one of our favourite philosophers, Spider-Man, often says: with great power comes great responsibility, and one kind of responsibility Musk seems to have trouble mustering is to keep his hubris in check. And to treat others kindly. And to do more for the world. Okay, that’s three responsibilities, to be fair.
Recently, Musk did try to do something for the world. He has repeatedly been asked to intervene with the awful and apparently largely forgotten situation in Flint, MI, where the local water is still contaminated by lead and nobody seems to give a damn. But Musk probably thought this too easy a task for his genius. Some malevolent people even insinuate that it wasn’t high profile enough, and thus not likely to generate positive publicity, of which he and his troubled Tesla car company are in desperate need. No matter, Musk quickly found a worthy cause: sending a submarine, rapidly assembled by his team of engineers, to save a group of young boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand (who have, thankfully, since been rescued).
When Musk floated the 'submarine' (basically, a sophisticated metal cylinder) idea on that highly technical platform for engineering and rescue operations discussions known as Twitter, he got widespread media coverage and lots of encouragement from his 22 million fans. So far so good.
But then Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer with a lot of actual experience on (and under!) the ground, pointed out that the submarine idea was wacky: “It just had absolutely no chance of working, [Musk] had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5ft 6in long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles.” Unsworth wasn’t the only one holding that opinion. Narongsak Osatanakorn, head of the joint command centre overseeing the rescue, also said the mini-submarine would not have been practical. (Further details on the Musk fiasco here.)
Instead of gracefully retreating, Musk lashed out. He responded to an earlier critic of the submarine idea with a very clear invitation: “Stay tuned jackass,” and then tweeted again about Unsworth: “sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
"It is not material possessions, fame, or power that count in life. Indeed, they all too often get in the way of doing what is right, and of our becoming better, more virtuous people."
There is no evidence whatsoever to justify such an accusation, and we probably don’t need to point out (but we will nevertheless) that making that sort of public accusation as a powerful figure with 22 million followers is reckless to say the least (not to mention, in the UK, open to legal action by Unsworth, because of libel laws). Well, perhaps it was a momentary lapse in judgment, like the hundreds of momentary lapses in judgement that the Twitter platform has apparently triggered in the current President of the United States. In fact the similarities don’t stop there. Both are 'self-made' billionaires who just happen to have extraordinarily rich parents. Both are obsessed with Twitter, and seem to love attention more than anything else. Both can’t stand the slightest criticism, lashing out at any negative press with personal insults. Both try to project a kind of 'alpha' personality, while somehow coming across as incredibly insecure. Both have a large, obsessive, cult-like following that treats them almost like a messiah, and are all too happy to feed into their bottomless narcissism.
The lapse in judgement in this case wasn’t so momentary, Musk really meant it. When he was given a chance to back down, he tweeted instead: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.” This is apparently part of a long established pattern of behaviour for Musk, who has embarrassed his companies before by going after his critics, especially journalists (another thing he has in common with Trump!). We are fairly confident that Spider-Man would not have done any of that.
Philosophers are supposed to speak truth to power, if necessary using sarcasm and ridicule to get their point across. And that is the intended spirit of this commentary, as the attentive reader may have already surmised. One of our inspirations (besides Spidey) is Diogenes the Cynic, a guy who roamed the streets at Athens and other ancient Greek cities in the late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE. Diogenes was famous for his minimalist lifestyle (he lived in a tub in the streets), for his disregard of societal niceties (when someone objected to his masturbating in public, Diogenes replied: “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly”), and for his — you guessed it — contemptuous attitude toward powerful men.
A famous story goes that Alexander the Great visited Diogenes, impressed by the fame of the philosopher. Alexander (who was well known for his hubris, and always in search of a good photo opportunity) asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him, as a token of his magnanimity. After all, he did call himself 'The Great.' Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander, a bit taken aback, declared, affecting a modesty that ill-fitted him: “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes,” came the further reply.
Since Musk is, in our eyes at least, sort of a modern day Alexander, fiercely battling not hordes of enemies, but equally dangerous multitudes of competitors, critics, and journalists, we have imagined a possible encounter between the billionaire and the philosopher. It would go something like this:
Musk: Hi, I am Elon the Great. I heard good things about you, Diogenes. I wish to do something to show you and especially the world my generosity and awesome power.
Diogenes: The only worthy thing a wealthy man can do is give away his fortune, and live in virtuous poverty.
Musk: Give it away?! Are you crazy, I earned this money, every cent! I'm not going to live like some loser, who wasn't smart enough to get rich. Poverty isn't a virtue, haven't you read Ayn Rand?
Diogenes: Actually, poverty is the highest virtue, because it is the one thing that you can't buy.
Musk: Sounds a lot like a loser to me. I'm a great man, I'm going to go down in history, I'm going to drag humanity into the future, I'm going to build a colony on Mars!
Diogenes: Is that so? It sounds more like you are going to drag humanity to the past, to the days when Capitalism wasn't much different from Feudalism, and build a company town with you as king. There is a reason they called your predecessors 'robber barons'...
Musk: On Mars!
Diogenes: Going to Mars won't save you from your insecurities, because you'll still have to be you. Have you not heard of the Oracle at Delphi? Know thyself, my friend.
Musk: What are you, some kind of pedofile?
Diogenes: Have you ever considered that the way to make yourself feel good isn't to have strangers praise you for spending your money on toys, but by becoming a genuinely good person, through virtue, selflessness, and humility?
Musk: A good person? I am a great person! Time magazine says I’m the 23rd most powerful person! I'll get to be number one on Mars though.
Diogenes: Why would you prefer the remote chance of putting a man on Mars -- which would do little good to anyone, though it would likely bring much praise to yourself -- to helping a lot of people right here on earth, right now? Take my advice, build a company that is good, and use the money to help others, you’ll be much happier. Fix the pipes in Flint. Give to the poor and let them decide how to spend it, instead of you telling them what they need. Let your workers unionise, so they can have a say in what they build. Virtue and glory seldom mix.
Musk: You obviously don't know anything about progress!
Diogenes: As you can readily see from the sort of life I am living, I don’t give a fig about either wealth, technology, or power. They do not make a person happy, or virtuous. But I know something about progress, for when a man is hungry and he eats, he is sated. What he has lost in food he has gained in satisfaction, this is progress! Likewise, when a man has gold and buys food for the hungry, this too is progress. For what he has lost in wealth he has gained in virtue.
Musk: You are just jealous of my success, obviously.
Diogenes: Am I? And what about my dog, is he jealous too? No, he is just happy to have a bit of sun. Would that we were all be so wise as him. Now off with you, you are standing in his light.
And with that, Diogenes retired to his tub to masturbate in peace.
The moral of the story is that according to Cynic philosophy, it is not material possessions, fame, or power that count in life. Indeed, they all too often get in the way of doing what is right, and of our becoming better, more virtuous people through the cultivation of our character and the actual help we provide to others.
As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in an op-ed in the New York Times commenting on the submarine fiasco, Musk's general attitude is not at all unique to him. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook certainly shares the character trait of hubris with Musk: in 2010 he thought it a good idea to just throw some money (a whopping $100 million!) at the problem of public education in New Jersey, being accustomed to the notion that throwing money around is the way to solve anything, regardless of actual expertise and disregarding nuanced analysis. After years of efforts, the attempt backfired, arguably making the situation worse. Education is a complex problem, which requires patience, political will, and a lot of specific technical knowledge. None of which are among Zuckerberg’s traits. As for the other big guy in Silicon Valley, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, here is what Tufekci wrote about him: “[he] has declared that space exploration is one of the main things he should spend his money on. But poorly paid workers in Amazon warehouses, who work under grueling conditions, may have other ideas about how Mr. Bezos might best spend his money.” What is it with these guys and rockets, anyway? Oh, right...
Now here is the thing. We philosophers just can’t do this by ourselves. To begin with, it’s a dangerous job (just ask Socrates). But more importantly, it takes a (large) village to bring the Musks, Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world down several or more notches, reminding them of what is truly important in life and teaching them how to do the right thing. Most crucially, it takes a joint effort to remind the rest of the world that hubris and greed are both ugly and really, really dangerous.
Post-scriptum: Elon Musk has since (somewhat) apologised for his comment about Vernon Unsworth sexual proclivities. As you can see, not even billionaire hubris is entirely unredeemable. There is still hope for the world.
Post-post-scriptum: On 28th August, Musk decided to double down on this baseless claim again in a Twitter exchange. Abandon all hope.