An addendum to last week's class

Bob Corbett
Sept. 1986

In the discussion period last week questions arose as to whether or not I was arguing that wealth in and of itself was a deterrent to a good life, and whether or not I was arguing that wealthy people, as such, are wicked by the very fact of their wealth. I want to clarify my own position on these issues.

Is wealth in and of itself a deterrent? Well, it must be asked a deterrent to what? The aims we were discussing last week were four: spirituality, freedom, individuality and justice. My argument will be that wealth is not a necessary impediment in three of the cases (though I will also argue it is very unwise and makes the road difficult), but that it is a necessary impediment in the case of justice.

First of all the cases of one who aspires to spirituality, freedom or individuality. I would argue that wealth is not a necessary impediment. That is, in certain cases it would be possible for a person to be spiritual and rich, or free and rich, or individualistic and rich. There even seem to be historical examples of each category. However, I'm most suspicious that wealthy people can achieve spirituality, freedom or individuality without struggle. This suspicion is because of the activities usually associated with the amassing of wealth, and secondly, because of the activities associated with the protection of wealth once achieved. (The very fact of the protection suggests a likely attachment to it, thus a need to protect it if threatened.) The activities and attitudes usually associated with either activity are likely to threaten any of the three ideal aims specified. Such activities include greed, love of ease, willingness to allow others to be exploited for one's own sake, willingness to conform to socially acceptable behavior which rewards such behavior with wealth.

Thus, I argue that prudentially, though not necessarily, wealth will be an impediment to spirituality, freedom and individuality.

Note: Poverty, on the other hand, (defined as a condition of misery, i.e. not having the access to basic life sustaining goods and services) is often an impediment to each of these ideals aims, though, obviously, in a different manner than wealth.

Thus, I counsel simplicity without wealth or misery as the path to any of the three ends -- spirituality, freedom or individuality.

However, in the case of the aim of social justice, I argue that wealth is a clear deterrent except in extremely fortuitous cases, so few that I will not even consider the limiting cases here. I argue this on two grounds.

  1. The acquisition and maintenance of wealth almost always involves injustice. (i.e. the causing of others' misery, or at least the participation in and gaining from, systems which systematically cause others' misery). I qualify this argument to say that this has not always been true, but is universally true of the political economic systems of the late 20th century. The causing of such misery in the name of one's wealth--one's luxury--can never be justified as socially just.
  2. I make the exact same argument concerning the protection of wealth once acquired. Actually, the protection of wealth might cause even more of the present social injustice in the world.

Doesn't this mean that I regard wealthy people, as a class, as morally wicked? To this question I reply with a categorical NO!

I do not believe the mere fact of wealth--alone--makes a person bad. Consider the case of smoking. Smoking is an activity to be condemned on both social and health grounds. Like the analogy with wealth, the case for health is stronger; it parallels the social justice claim with wealth. The social argument is weaker; it parallels wealth in the cases of spirituality, freedom or individuality. Some smokers can and do smoke in ways respectful of others and do not pollute others' space without proper concern. But, to argue that smoking is wrong, dumb, socially and personally disadvantageous etc., is not to say that smokers are wicked people simply because they smoke.

There are three primary reasons why I argue that wealth has serious problems, but wealthy people need not be seen as wicked as a group.

  1. I may be wrong about the argument against wealth. There is serious disagreement as to the effects and causes of wealth. Intelligent people honestly disagree. Thus, while I continue to present my case against wealth as strongly as I can, I do recognize there are areas of controversy. Thus, I work on the case of wealth and leave the moral judgements of the group of people aside.
  2. Even if wealth is as disadvantageous as I argue, wealthy people may not KNOW this. To deserve moral approbation requires not only that one does wrong, but that one recognizes it as wrong. Well--I need to qualify that. Some people may do wrong without "knowing" it was wrong and we do justly condemn them. The Thomistic philosophers make a wise distinction between culpable and non-culpable ignorance. Culpable knowledge, on their view, is when one should have known better. Non-culpable knowledge is when one can honestly be sincere and intellectually responsible and still not know. This would be because of the limits of knowledge at the time, or the cultural milieu in which one lives.

    Since this whole area of wealth and its causal relationship to misery is poorly explored and seldom talked about in our culture, I regard such a lack of knowledge as often non-culpable, thus I do not condemn such people who do not know any better.

  3. Much more difficult is the case of those who know the damage, but do not really know what to do about it. What is required of people of good will? I'm not sure myself, so I cannot (will not) condemn others in this group. I would argue that the moral direction of one's life must be toward simplicity, justice and downward economic mobility. But I'm not sure that much more detail can be clearly provided at this time.

Thus: While my arguments are -- with no apologies -- strongly suspicious of wealth and its possible compatibility with justice, spirituality, freedom and/or individuality, I do not condemn wealthy people as a class, a morally wicked people.

If my attitudes seem to suggest such a stance (and I do not doubt that I sound that way at times), it is an error on my part and should be corrected. I mean to attack wealth, but not necessarily the wealthy. Just as one might vehemently attack smoking without condemning the smokers.

Lastly, I would point out that the position I've taken does not preclude my being very critical of certain wealthy people or corporations or governments, who, on my analysis, knowingly and willingly do serious harm to others (or the ecosphere) in the name of their own wealth, ease and security in that wealth and ease. But, I agree that such criticisms should be reserved for the individuals (or corporations or governments) to whom I can point as knowingly and willingly doing this, and not to the class as a whole.

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Bob Corbett