Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Ethics of Wealth

"There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." - Thoreau

Tony Shin sent me this info-graphic and asked if I'd add it to my blog.   Of course I have a few things to say about the 1% first.

Paul Feldman did a study in the 80s with bagels being sold on each floor of an office building using an honesty jar and price list.  He tracked who paid the right price for the bagels.  The people in the lowest floor - the mail room - paid about 95%, but as they went up the floors, and up the corporate ladder, the sales were worse and worse.  The richest people paid the least.

Now, the social science question is, is it an attitude of ripping off others that enables people to get rich in the first place?  Do some people, right from the start, decide they are better than others and take what they want and, because of that attitude, are able to collect more stuff.   Is it mainly bullies that get rich?  OR is it the case that once wealthy, people decide they deserve a donut or two free of charge for all their hard work?  Did the wealthy start out just like you or me but slowly saw themselves as better than us as they got richer.  Did they attribute their wealth to hard work and smarts instead of luck, and therefore began to see the poor as lazy and stupid?  Or is it a bit of both?

But the philosophical question is, is it unethical to be rich when others are suffering?  Beyond all the stealing and cheating listed in the graphic below, is it unethical just to have more when others have less?

Many philosophers (Epicurus, Epictetus, Jesus, etc.) have written something along the lines that the best way to become rich is to take away a person's desires.  If we want just what we have, then it's all good and we can be happy with the least amount of work.  I think that goes a long way in life.  It's an attitude that many of us would benefit from adopting, and when I contemplate it, I wonder why I continue to work full time.  It's a choice between things I love to do:  teaching and writing.  One pays substantially more, so I do it more of it even if I don't love it more.

But is there a stopper to this axiom at the lowest rungs of poverty?  I might think that people can't just decide to be happy and stop desiring basic necessities like food, clothes, and shelter, but then I'm reminded of Diogenes living in a barrel and telling the king that the only thing he needs from him is for him to move to the left to stop blocking the sunlight.  Like Montaigne said, it's crazy that once we get stuff, we fear losing it so much that we barely enjoy it. One of my greatest fears is losing everything and scrounging to get by, to get enough for my kids.  If it's the case that poverty isn't as terrible as we think - particularly in socialist countries with safety nets - then perhaps we should stop worrying about who has more and how they got it.

The "how they got it" is key, I think, to a connection between wealth and ethics.  But that's an easy one.  If you conned someone to get where you are, deceived someone in any way, then your riches are tainted.  And I wonder if some people start out small, lying in ways that feel justified, then, once they see they can get away with it and find they are even lauded in elite circles for their cleverness, then they go big and have the balls to destroy protected land for a pipeline.  This behaviour is most often the case, which maybe clarifies the problem with the 1%:  exploitation of resources and people.

But what if all your business dealing were fair and honest to everyone - then is it still unethical to amass a fortune when others are hungry?  What if you give much of it to charity, but still keep enough to have extra homes and cars?  Do I have to make sure everyone in the world is clothed and fed before I can relax into a life of leisure, or is it enough that I know I came by my riches in a virtuous manner?  And can I rise above whatever it is that drags many wealthy people down a road of greed and corruption or will I necessarily succumb?

Thoreau advised, "The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich...absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue."  I'm dubious.  Anyway, check out the graphic:

Rich People Are Unethical
Created by:

Cross-posted, more or less, at Project Earth.

ETA:  Hey, I wrote a much better post on the same thing two-and-a-half years ago!  

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