Be­ing rich dam­ages your soul. We used to know that.

Re­li­gion schol­ars Charles Mathewes and Evan Sands­mark say we should still stig­ma­tize ex­treme wealth

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Out­look@wash­post.com

With a bil­lion­aire real es­tate ty­coon oc­cu­py­ing Amer­ica’s high­est of­fice, the ef­fects of riches upon the soul are a rea­son­able con­cern for all of us lit­tle guys. Af­ter all, one in­cred­i­bly wealthy soul cur­rently holds our coun­try in his hands. Ac­cord­ing to an apoc­ryphal ex­change be­tween F. Scott Fitzger­ald and Ernest Hem­ing­way, the only dif­fer­ence be­tween the rich and the rest of us is that they have more money. But is that the only dif­fer­ence?

We didn’t used to think so. We used to think that hav­ing vast sums of money was bad and in par­tic­u­lar bad for you — that it harmed your char­ac­ter, warp­ing your be­hav­ior and cor­rupt­ing your soul. We thought the rich were dif­fer­ent, and dif­fer­ent for the worse.

To­day, how­ever, we seem less con­fi­dent of this. We seem to view wealth as sim­ply good or neu­tral, and chalk up the fail­ures of in­di­vid­ual wealthy peo­ple to their own per­sonal flaws, not their riches. Those who are rich, we seem to think, are not in any more moral dan­ger than the rest of us. Com­pare how old movies preached the folk wis­dom of wealth’s morally calami­tous ef­fects to how con­tem­po­rary movies por­tray wealth: For ex­am­ple, the vil­lain­ous Mr. Pot­ter from “It’s A Won­der­ful Life” to the heroic Tony Stark (that is, Iron Man) in the Avengers films.

The idea that wealth is morally per­ilous has an im­pres­sive philo­soph­i­cal and re­li­gious pedi­gree. An­cient Stoic philoso­phers railed against greed and lux­ury, and Ro­man his­to­ri­ans such as Tac­i­tus lay many of the em­pire’s strug­gles at the feet of im­pe­rial avarice. Con­fu­cius lived an aus­tere life. The Bud­dha fa­mously left his op­u­lent palace be­hind. And Je­sus didn’t ex­actly go easy on the rich, ei­ther — think camels and nee­dles, for starters.

The point is not nec­es­sar­ily that wealth is in­trin­si­cally and ev­ery­where evil, but that it is dan­ger­ous — that it should be eyed with cau­tion and sus­pi­cion, and def­i­nitely not pur­sued as an end in it­self; that great riches pose great risks to their own­ers; and that so­ci­eties are right to stig­ma­tize the stor­ing up of un­told wealth. That’s why Aris­to­tle, for in­stance, ar­gued that wealth should be sought only for the sake of liv­ing vir­tu­ously — to man­age a house­hold, say, or to par­tic­i­pate in the life of the po­lis. Here wealth is use­ful but not in­her­ently good; in­deed, Aris­to­tle specif­i­cally warned that the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth for its own sake cor­rupts virtue in­stead of en­abling it. For Hin­dus, work­ing hard to earn money is a duty (dharma), but only when done through hon­est means and used for good ends. The func­tion of money is not to sa­ti­ate greed but to sup­port one­self and one’s fam­ily. The Ko­ran, too, warns against hoard­ing money and en­joins Mus­lims to dis­perse it to the needy.

Some con­tem­po­rary voices join this an­cient cho­rus, per­haps none more en­thu­si­as­ti­cally than Pope Fran­cis. He’s pro­claimed that un­less wealth is used for the good of so­ci­ety, and above all for the good of the poor, it is an in­stru­ment “of cor­rup­tion and death.” And Fran­cis lives what he teaches: De­spite ac­cess to some of the sweet­est real es­tate imag­in­able — the pala­tial pa­pal apart­ments are the sort of thing that Pres­i­dent Trump’s gold-plated extravagance is a par­ody of — the pope bunks in a small suite in what is ef­fec­tively the Vat­i­can’s hos­tel. In his of­fi­cial state visit to Wash­ing­ton, he pulled up to the White House in a Fiat so sen­si­ble that a denizen of North­west D.C. would be al­most em­bar­rassed to drive it. When Fran­cis en­tered the Je­suit or­der 59 years ago, he took a vow of poverty, and he’s kept it.

Ac­cord­ing to many philoso­phies and faiths, then, wealth should serve only as a step­ping­stone to some fur­ther good and is al­ways fraught with moral dan­ger. We all used to rec­og­nize this; it was a com­mon­place. And this in­tu­ition, shared by var­i­ous cul­tures across his­tory, stands on firm em­pir­i­cal ground.

Over the past few years, a pile of stud­ies from the be­hav­ioral sci­ences has ap­peared, and they all say, more or less, “Be­ing rich is re­ally bad for you.” Wealth, it turns out, leads to be­hav­ioral and psy­cho­log­i­cal mal­adies. The rich act and think in mis­di­rected ways.

When it comes to a broad range of vices, the rich out­per­form ev­ery­body else. They are much more likely than the rest of hu­man­ity to shoplift and cheat, for ex­am­ple, and they are more apt to be adul­ter­ers and to drink a great deal. They are even more likely to take candy that is meant for chil­dren. So what­ever you think about the moral nas­ti­ness of the rich, take that, mul­ti­ply it by the num­ber of Mercedes and Lexuses that cut you off, and you’re still short of the mark. In fact, those Mercedes and Lexuses are more likely to cut you off than Hon­das or Fords: Stud­ies have shown that peo­ple who drive ex­pen­sive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off other mo­torists.

The rich are the worst tax evaders, and, as The Wash­ing­ton Post has de­tailed, they are hid­ing vast sums from pub­lic scru­tiny in se­cret over­seas bank ac­counts.

They also give pro­por­tion­ally less to char­ity — not sur­pris­ing, since they ex­hibit sig­nif­i­cantly less com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy to­ward suf­fer­ing peo­ple. Stud­ies also find that mem­bers of the up­per class are worse than or­di­nary folks at “read­ing” peo­ple’s emo­tions and are far more likely to be dis­en­gaged from the peo­ple with whom they are in­ter­act­ing — in­stead ab­sorbed in doo­dling, check­ing their phones or what have you. Some stud­ies go even fur­ther, sug­gest­ing that rich peo­ple, es­pe­cially stock­bro­kers and their ilk (such as ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, whom we once called “rob­ber barons”), are more com­pet­i­tive, im­pul­sive and reck­less than med­i­cally di­ag­nosed psy­chopaths. And by the way, those vices do not make them bet­ter en­trepreneurs; they just have Mommy and Daddy’s bank ac­counts (in New York or the Cay­man Is­lands) to fall back on when they fail.

In­deed, lux­u­ries may numb you to other peo­ple — that Louis Vuit­ton bag may be a mi­nor league Ring of Sau­ron. Some stud­ies go so far as to sug­gest that sim­ply be­ing around great ma­te­rial wealth makes peo­ple less will­ing to share. That’s right: Vast sums of money poi­son not only those who pos­sess them but even those who are merely around them. This helps ex­plain why the nasty ethos of Wall Street has per­co­lated down, in­clud­ing to our pol­i­tics (though we re­ally didn’t need much help there).

So the rich are more likely to be de­spi­ca­ble char­ac­ters. And, as is typ­i­cally the case with the morally mal­formed, the first vic­tims of the rich are the rich them­selves. Be­cause they of­ten let money buy their hap­pi­ness and value them­selves for their wealth in­stead of any­thing mean­ing­ful, they are, by ex­ten­sion, more likely to al­low other as­pects of their lives to at­ro­phy. They seem to have a hard time en­joy­ing sim­ple things, sa­vor­ing the ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences that make so much of life worth­while. Be­cause they have lower lev­els of em­pa­thy, they have fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties to prac­tice acts of com­pas­sion — which stud­ies sug­gest give peo­ple a great deal of plea­sure. They tend to be­lieve that peo­ple have dif­fer­ent fi­nan­cial des­tinies be­cause of who they es­sen­tially are, so they be­lieve that they de­serve their wealth, thus damp­en­ing their ca­pac­ity for gratitude, a qual­ity that has been shown to sig­nif­i­cantly en­hance our sense of well-be­ing. All of this seems to make the rich more sus­cep­ti­ble to lone­li­ness; they may be more prone to sui­cide, as well.

How did we lose sight of the an­cient wis­dom about wealth, es­pe­cially given its am­ple ev­i­denc­ing in re­cent stud­ies?

Some will say that we have not en­tirely for­got­ten it and that we do com­plain about wealth to­day, at least oc­ca­sion­ally. Think, they’ll say, about Oc­cupy Wall Street; the blow­back af­ter Mitt Rom­ney’s com­ment about the “47 per­cent”; how Ge­orge W. Bush painted John Kerry as out of touch. But think again: By and large, those com­plaints were not about wealth per se but about cor­rupt wealth — about wealth “gone wrong” and about un­fair­ness. The idea that there is no way for the vast ac­cu­mu­la­tion of money to “go right” is hardly any­where to be seen.

Get­ting here wasn’t straight­for­ward. Wealth has ar­guably been seen as less threat­en­ing to one’s moral health since the Re­for­ma­tion, af­ter which ma­te­rial suc­cess was some­times taken as ev­i­dence of divine elec­tion. But ex­treme wealth re­mained morally sus­pect, with the rich bear­ing par­tic­u­lar scru­tiny and stigma­ti­za­tion dur­ing pe­ri­ods like the Gilded Age. This stigma per­sisted un­til rel­a­tively re­cently; only in the 1970s did po­lit­i­cal shifts cause ex­ec­u­tive salaries sky­rocket, and the cur­rent ef­fec­tively un­prece­dented in­equal­ity in in­come (and wealth) be­gin to ap­pear, with­out any sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic com­plaint or lament.

The story of how a stigma fades is al­ways murky, but con­tribut­ing fac­tors are not hard to iden­tify. For one, think tanks have be­come in­creas­ingly par­ti­san over the past sev­eral decades, par­tic­u­larly on the right: Cer­tain con­ser­va­tive in­sti­tu­tions, en­joy­ing the back­ing of bil­lion­aires such as the Koch brothers, have thrown a ton of money at pseudo-aca­demics and “thought lead­ers” to nor­mal­ize and le­git­i­mate ob­scene piles of lu­cre. They pro­duced ar­gu­ments that sug­gest that high salaries nat­u­rally flowed from ex­treme tal­ent and merit, thus bap­tiz­ing wealth as sim­ply some ex­cel­lent peo­ple’s wholly le­git­i­mate re­wards. These ar­gu­ments were hap­pily re­gur­gi­tated by con­ser­va­tive me­dia fig­ures and politi­cians, even­tu­ally seep­ing into the broader pub­lic and re­plac­ing the folk wis­dom of yore. But it is hard to ar­gue that a com­pany’s top earn­ers are lit­er­ally hun­dreds of times more tal­ented than the low­est-paid em­ploy­ees.

As strato­spheric salaries be­came in­creas­ingly com­mon, and as the stigma of wildly dis­pro­por­tion­ate pay faded, the moral haz­ards of wealth were largely for­got­ten. But it’s time to put the apol­o­gists for plu­toc­racy back on the de­fen­sive, where they be­long — not least for their own sake. Af­ter all, the Bud­dha, Aris­to­tle, Je­sus, the Ko­ran, Jimmy Ste­wart, Pope Fran­cis and now even sci­ence all agree: If you are wealthy and are read­ing this, give away your money as fast as you can. Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Bar­bour pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, where he teaches cour­ses on re­li­gion, pol­i­tics and ethics. Evan Sands­mark is a PhD stu­dent in re­li­gious stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.

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