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Editors' Picks Opinion

Wealth Is Not Immoral

According to journalist A.Q. Smith, you’re probably living an immoral life.

In his recent article in Current Affairs, Smith outright condemns the obscenely rich for their wealth, but the article is not only an attack against the millionaires and billionaires of the world—in arguing that keeping any amount of wealth is immoral, it is an assault against the lifestyle enjoyed by the majority of Western society.

Smith’s logic can be boiled down to the following excerpt: “Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others.”

What follows is a condemnation of the wealthy’s most outrageous spending habits. There is nothing scandalous about critiquing the rich; there are few among us who would find nothing incongruous about seeing in succession on one’s Facebook feed an article on the world’s most expensive pair of earrings ($57 million) and a video on the famine in Yemen.

This line of reasoning is not new. It has perhaps been examined most thoroughly by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who offers the following thought experiment: suppose a child is drowning in a pool, and you are walking by on your way to class. Are you not morally obliged to step in and save the child? Most people agree that a moral obligation exists, and inaction is thus morally wrong. Singer then points to the “drowning children” of the worldfor example, the thousands across the world who die each day from malaria. The charity Nothing But Nets notes on their webpage that sending a bednet costs just ten dollars. Is donating a small sum to save a child from malaria not equivalent to pulling a drowning child out of a pool? If it is, then it follows that a refusal to donate said ten dollars is as morally reprehensible as walking past a drowning child without offering to help.

The natural conclusion to both Smith and Singer’s arguments is that all of us who live lives of comfort and frivolity are living immorally. Both protest this. Smith attempts to defend the assertion that moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have, claiming the existence of some “maximum moral income” above which it is morally wrong to keep any money one may earn. First, there is the obvious fact that any such “maximum moral income” would be impossible in practice to determine. Should it be based upon what a person needs to survive? To flourish? To self-actualize? All of these are nebulous concepts with no universal dollar amounts attached. Second, this runs contrary to his most important line of reasoning: that it is wrong to use money for any purpose other than helping those who need it more. To illustrate this point, let us consider an amendment to Singer’s analogy.

Say that instead of one, there are two drowning children in a pool. If inaction is immoral in the case of one child, it must also be immoral to save one child but not the other. But rather than children in a pool, consider an ocean of misery–this, unfortunately, is the real world. If you give away $10 to save one person, you are still guilty of withholding the next $10. If inaction is grounds for condemnation, then we are all condemned. Whether I am a middle-class American spending $13 on a movie ticket or a billionaire spending $57 million on jewelry, I am–in Smith’s view–refusing the needy the sustenance they need to survive.

Smith says that his argument does not demand that we all make paupers of ourselves, but this is patently at odds with the natural and logical implications of his assumptions. He states clearly that every dollar spent frivolously is a dollar robbed from those who need it most. And what kind of spending does not seem frivolous when compared to the impact it could have on the lives of the most deprived?

Fortunately, I find it unnecessary to accept a vision of the world in which nearly all of us lead lives of moral degeneracy.

The question whose answer Smith assumes is this: should need alone determine who gets what? Are the neediest owed deliverance merely because of their need? While generosity is a virtue praised by virtually all cultures and religions, it is not a moral obligation.

Holding onto money that we do not need is no more immoral than holding onto that extra kidney we all don’t need. You could save a life by donating your second kidney just as you could save a life by donating your excess wealth. Still, we do not look askance at everyone in possession of all of their organs. If you are an organ donor, I commend you. You are exceptional. You have not simply fulfilled a moral obligation. As for the rest of us, we are not morally deficient–we are merely human.

Smith also presents a false dichotomy between the fair acquisition and the fair retention of wealth. One can earn one’s money fairly, says he, yet fall into moral contempt when one decides to keep this fairly earned money. However, our conception of justice is fundamentally based upon the fact that human beings should receive an equal reward for equal work. Denying a person the fruits of his or her labor is injustice, not a moral obligation.

Furthermore, if we look closely at the world which Smith and Singer would deem morally acceptable, we would see nothing less than economic collapse.

First, assume that we reallocate all of our frivolously spent money to alleviate suffering due to deprivation. Imagine each of the stores at your local shopping mall going under one by one. Eating out is a luxury in a world where children starve. Why buy flowers when you can instead devote your resources to helping the elderly who are homeless, the children who are unclothed, the mothers who can’t afford diapers for their children? And so disappear the restaurant industry and the floral industry, along with all the jobs associated with each.

Secondly, with the disappearance of the large concentrations of wealth which Smith so disdains disappears much of our capacity for innovation. It is not just the newest iPhone that we losealso gone is the capacity to develop new technologies which cheaply bring access to medical information to impoverished pregnant women or allow the safe storage and transport of vaccines. Without innovation, everyone losesand especially the most deprived.

I would not call it moral to reduce our current world, imperfect and often cruel as it is, to this.

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  • Clay

    There is so much wrong with this article that I do not know where to begin.

    I figured I would start here:

    “Say that instead of one, there are two drowning children in a pool. If inaction is immoral in the case of one child, it must also be immoral to save one child but not the other…………refusing the needy the sustenance they need to survive.”

    This hypothetical obfuscates the ethical problem at hand rather than clarifying it. It is also blatant false equivalency. Singer’s hypothetical is an ethical problem, the one you (falsely) propose to be an extension of its logic is not. If you have heard of the “Sophie’s Choice” hypothetical, you pretty much used the exact same model. Sophie has to choose which one of her children is going to die.

    An ethical decision requires a choice between better option(s). If the children are of equal value, which to say they aren’t equal would require a completely arbitrary decision, means that there is no choice involved. It is therefore that because the outcome is the same (one child lives, one child dies) that this cannot be considered an ethical problem. If we are to call something “ethical”, there is the implication of choice between better or worse options. Your hypothetical (like Sophie’s Choice) is not even a choice between two evils. It is only evil (singular). For these reasons, your argument is an egregious false equivalency on a fundamental level, that being in terms of a basic definition of the ethical.

    Wealth distribution on the other-hand is clearly an ethical problem unlike that which appears in “Sophie’s Choice.” There is the basic choice between hoarding wealth or investing, or redistributing the wealth towards the well-being of society (invest here meaning to actually use money for promoting a greater state of flourishing among those in a society, not Wall-Street speculation that commonly and falsely gets labeled”investment”).

    If a CEO takes a $100,000,000 golden parachute from a business that claims it does not have enough money to provide wage increases and better benefits to its employees, that is deeply unjust on the most commonsensical levels. You even recognize this kind of blatant inequality in the case of Yemen and the earrings, but then refuse to show and prove what level of inequality and wealth accumulation is justifiable. Because you fail to show what level of wealth inequality is justifiable, you blatantly contradict yourself by appearing to defend all accumulation of capital. Yes, I don’t think you truly meant to do that, but again, because you don’t specify, that is the effect your article has.

    ————-

    By the way, here is a list of people that received golden parachutes larger than $100,000,000:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-21-largest-golden-parachutes-of-the-new-millenium-2012-1#jim-kilts–164532192-11

    ————

    “Holding onto money that we do not need is no more immoral than holding onto that extra kidney we all don’t need. You could save a life by donating your second kidney just as you could save a life by donating your excess wealth.”

    ^ This analogy is also a false equivalency for reasons that I really should not even have to explain. As if excess wealth could be compared to a physical part of the body. This connection is certainly poetic, but for the sake of argumentation, is absurd. The risk of parting with vast excesses of capital to help those in need cannot be compared to the risk of parting with an organ. This is so commonsensical I do not need to argue further. That would be a waste of time.

    More things I would like to call out:

    “If you are an organ donor, I commend you. You are exceptional. You have not simply fulfilled a moral obligation. As for the rest of us, we are not morally deficient–we are merely human.”

    ^This statement is so absurd that I am having trouble wrapping my head around how you convinced yourself this was a reasonable thing to say.

    Consider me following the reasoning of your completely logically-bankrupt analogy (the false equivalency regarding the organ donor) in the following manner: A CEO receives a $100,000,000 golden parachute while the vast majority of his or her employees haven’t received a wage increase in years, and receive little to no benefits (this is not merely a hypothetical by the way, it is a social reality). The CEO then makes a public statement saying, “I am not morally deficient for wanting all this money for myself despite the strife that my low-level employees I rely on are experiencing. I am merely human.”

    Would that not be an absurdity? It would. It is absurd because to make this statement would require an abdication of will. It would require one to conceive of oneself as outside of the ethical; as not having a choice or being incapable of choice. The excuse “I am merely human” excuse basically means “I am subject to my desires and couldn’t properly deliberate what to do.” Again, this would be an attempt to absolve oneself responsibility to a more just and ethical decision on the grounds that one is human. That is absurd. The “merely human” portion of this claim is where the deeper-absurdity of your logic lives. It is absurd because, on a fundamental level (in terms of ethics), to be human is to possess dignity. To possess dignity means that you demand moral consideration. To demand moral consideration is to be an ethical subject. To be an ethical subject implies a sense of agency and therefore responsibility for one’s actions and choices.

    You lack a basic understanding of what the “ethical” is in relationship to what the “human” is. If you had said “we are merely INhuman”, your statement may have been more logically consistent within the already poisoned-logic of on an analogy based on a false equivalency.

    Yes, human beings are morally imperfect. But to use the excuse of moral imperfection (which I think you were unclearly hinting at) to justify a blatantly unjust state of affairs is wrong on the most commonsensical of levels. A child with the most rudimentary sense of ethics and justice would be outraged if someone used moral imperfection to justify a blatantly unfair decision.

    You also make the claim accumulation of wealth in private hands is causally connected to innovation. This is just factually false. Most innovations in the last few decades, including the Internet, were the result of state subsidies and government funded research. The will of those seeking to amass wealth, which is commonly done through the erosion of state institutions that rely on tax revenue from their coffers, is in direct contradiction to the potential for innovation, especially at the current scale of wealth maldistribution in both the public and private sectors. The massive defunding of government sciences in order to transfer wealth into the hands of the rich is a clear example of this. The will to amass useless amounts of private capital does not equate to more innovation. Your claim is pure ideology, absolutely detached from reality. The reality is, by-and-large, the opposite of your claim.

    The Trump administration, which, as I’m sure you know, has the richest cabinet in history. It is not a coincidence that they are seeking to defund government scientific research and public education for the sake of tax cuts. How does innovation happen? It happens by and large through providing good and accessible education to the public and funding public institutions to conduct research. Therefore, the will to amass private profits in the current political and economic paradigm is basically at odds with innovation. This is the opposite of what you claim (a claim that you also did not provide any evidence for).

    Almost every one of your paragraphs is filled with utter perversities. This means that you are speaking basically from the place of pure ideology! Thank you for showing me how ideology works to justify the unjustifiable; it was actually a really helpful demonstration.

    O.K. I can’t resist. I have to talk about one more thing: Did you really just draw a thick line between justice and moral obligation? The most limited definition of political and ethical obligation the obligation one has to the laws of one’s state or country. “Establishing justice” is in the preamble of the constitution. Do the leaders of our society not have an obligation to establish justice, to work toward a more just state of affairs for all? Almost every widely-read moral philosopher claims that human advancement consists in a movement towards a more just state of affairs. Read Tocqueville. Read John Rawls. Read Mill. Just to name a few. Do we not have a moral obligation to justice? Only someone with a perverse sense of the ethical could make the claim that one ought not be obligated to promote justice, especially if it is well within their ability to do so.

    I could go on, but I think that is sufficient.

    Here is my recommendation: Before you write an argument about moral theory, please at least have a basic understanding of what morality and ethics are.

    I would like to hear also, what you think IS a moral obligation. If you have time to comment, please do.

    • Clay

      I felt the need to reply in such a lengthy way because the ideology you are speaking from is incredibly dangerous to the relative stability and longevity of American society, as well as the global economy. It needs to be addressed.

  • Bungle

    “Fortunately, I find it unnecessary to accept a vision of the world in which nearly all of us lead lives of moral degeneracy.”

    This is the crux of the article. Basically, the author is uncomfortable with the implications of Smith’s argument, so she considers it false. That’s intellectually dishonest.

    I’ve had thoughts similar to Smith’s, and I’m willing to accept that my living a middle-class American life – fairly lavish in relation to the rest of the world – is, in fact, immoral. That doesn’t make me feel good, but it also happens to be true. I’ll have to either do something about it, or decide to accept the immorality of my inaction.

    Think of this analogy: You have a pantry full of food, more than you could ever eat. Your neighbor is starving. Is it immoral to not share with your neighbor? I think most would agree that it is. So, change the variables: food becomes money, and your neighbor becomes an unknown person in a foreign country. Why exactly would that fundamentally change the point of the analogy?

    You may well have harvested the food or earned the money through your own hard work and ingenuity, but nevertheless, you now have more than you need. Defining “more than you need” is most certainly debatable, but at some point, it becomes undeniable. Does Bill Gates “need” 90 billion dollars? That’s at least 8 million dollars for every day that he has left. With that money, he could literally save tens of millions of human lives. So the question is, is it morally required that he do so?

    If you agree with the premise of the starving neighbor analogy, I don’t see how you can’t also conclude that Bill Gates has a moral imperative to save lives, or that unless you’re starving, you personally have the same.