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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.