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Musk shows us that moral binaries are of little use

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I have spent a fair amount of time dunking on Elon Musk over the years. Among the things I have poured scorn upon are his puerile sense of humour, his asinine “lib-trolling”, his naive war on the “legacy media” and his facile approach to how free speech can function in an online setting. 

There continues to be a lot to criticise. This week, Musk suddenly fired the entire “Supercharger” division of his electric car company Tesla, news of which was delivered via “nothing more than a ‘Dear Employee’ email in middle of the night”, according to one such dear (now former) employee.

“Hopefully these actions are making it clear that we need to be absolutely hard core [sic] about headcount and cost reduction,” Musk wrote of the latest cuts in a memo to staff on Monday. The note echoed the middle-of-the-night email he sent Twitter employees in 2022, in which he said they needed to be “extremely hardcore” and log “long hours at high intensity”. Any manager “who retains more than three people who don’t obviously pass the excellent, necessary and trustworthy test” should resign, he added in Monday’s memo.

Many of us have become used to the coldbloodedness and impulsivity of the Musk school of management. But what I was more struck by this week were some of the comments being made in the aftermath of the lay-off news.

Musk’s own fans took to online forums to complain of his “unhinged” behaviour. And on social media platform Threads, CNBC tech reporter Lora Kolodny wrote: “Lotta folks have started taking a critical look at Tesla and Elon Musk of late. Some are acting like they’ve been Cassandra the whole time . . . You’re not in the club.” “I couldn’t agree with this more” said Paris Marx, host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, sharing Kolodny’s comments on X. “Elon Musk has been terrible for a long time.”

Holding the world’s richest and most powerful people to account is of crucial importance, and I, like these journalists, remain committed to calling out Musk’s many wrongdoings.

I also recognise the impulse to consign him to a good or bad bucket — I veer towards the former when I see him posing in an endearingly awkward manner on a red carpet or speaking passionately about his projects and towards the latter every time I see him post yet another offensive comment on X. But such virtue-cataloguing is misguided and dangerous.

None of us are so straightforwardly “terrible” as Musk’s critics would have him; nor are we as heroic as his fans think he is. And the funny thing is that by creating a taxonomy of heroes and villains, we are in fact tied up in the same moral framework as Musk himself.

In this framework, the means — whether they involve deeming someone beyond redemption because their politics and behaviour are so obviously wrong that they need to be cast out, or treating your employees as utterly disposable cogs in a machine — are always justified by the self-evident moral righteousness of the ends.

It came as no surprise when Musk revealed his fondness of the neo-utilitarian movement known as effective altruism, infamously popularised by the now jailed crypto founder Sam Bankman-Fried. This is a philosophy that posits that you should do “the most you can do” and emphasises the importance of where your actions get to, rather than what those actions actually are. Virtue and character do not count; consequences are all that matter.

With this worldview in mind, one can see why Musk, like many other Silicon Valley executives, regards his living, breathing, human employees as mere “headcount” and the loss of their livelihoods as simply “cost reduction”. His grand cause — the various ways he believes he is saving humanity — is so obviously more important than any one worker (or even 14,000 of them), that pretty much any treatment of them is justifiable.

But working out what is wrong and what is right is not as easy as putting some numbers into a spreadsheet and seeing what it spits out. It requires real moral debate about which values we consider most important.

“We have all these deep moral questions, but there’s really an absence of proper moral debate,” says Edward Brooks, director of the Oxford Character Project, of the current state of much of our public discourse. “It’s just a shouting match between ‘this is so obviously wrong’ on one side and ‘it’s so obviously right’ on the other.”  

I once wrote that the world does not need more Elon Musks. I feel less confident about that argument than I used to — we do need more risk-takers and innovators and people who are willing to push boundaries. Given his flaws, maybe one Elon is enough. But what all of us certainly could do with more of is some nuance in the way we view and judge the actions of other people.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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