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The wealthy can be a smug bunch.  They are pleased with the comfort and status that their wealth brings them.  And, importantly, most would assert that they deserve their good fortune, assessing themselves as more talented and/or diligent than those who have less than they do.  Put simply, many consider themselves superior and believe that their superiority justifies their having more than others who are inferior.[1]

But this complacency can be irksome to those who have a clearer vision of reality and an understanding of how one achieves “success” in this world.  For many, their wealth is due to their having married or inherited well.  For those who did neither, it is still the case that their success has much less to do with their purported virtues than they might think.  Attributes like intelligence and assiduity that translate into financial success owe more to one’s genes and environment than the wealthy might realize or care to admit.  In this regard, the education one receives and the social contacts one makes, which have much to do with the socio-economic position of the family into which they are born, are important ingredients for financial success.  Seen in this way, one’s success really owes a great deal to luck.  And, of course, there are other types of luck that may contribute to one’s wealth, for example winning the lottery or fortuitous market conditions that contribute to the success of a person’s business but which were independent of any action taken by that person.  Thus, the wealthy owe much of their success to factors for which they were not responsible.  (For more on this subject, see my blog titled: Contemplating the Ethics of Luck.)

As much as many of the wealthy like to think that they are self-made, again reality presents a more complex picture.  The fact is that no one in this world does it alone.  For example, we all benefit from the services provided by the government.  No business could flourish without the transportation that roads make possible, the educated workforce made possible by schools, or the security provided by the police and armed forces.  These are services that all taxpayers pay for, not just wealthy ones.

I am not saying that the wealthy should not be proud of what they have accomplished, nor would I say that their talents and hard work aren’t admirable.  In the case of many wealthy people, they are indeed admirable.  What I am saying is that they need to keep their success in perspective, and, given the above, not give in to hubris.  Humility and generosity to those less fortunate by the wealthy are key virtues here.

However, I would suggest that no one should be complacent about their wealth when poverty remains in their midst.  As explained above, so much of what the wealthy have to be pleased about had nothing to do with any action or decision they took.  Seen in this vein, the impoverished are not less virtuous than the wealthy – they are just less fortunate.  They are less fortunate in their genetic disposition, less fortunate in the family and environment they were born into, less fortunate in the circumstances that have shaped their situation.  Given this perspective, I do not see why any wealthy person should be entirely content with their station when others are not enjoying similar success.  It is very difficult for me to enjoy whatever good fortune I have experienced when I gaze upon a homeless person living on the street.  For many people of means, they do not wish to experience this and so turn away and complain that the state should do more to move the homeless somewhere less visible.  Even for those inclined to help, they worry that any money they give to a homeless person will be spent on alcohol or drugs or they feel overwhelmed by the scale of the homelessness problem and give up on making any contribution to their plight.  When considering the plight of the impoverished, those of us who are well off should not avert our attention but rather should recite to ourselves the adage, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  There is no other proper response to these fellow humans.


[1] This essay uses the term “wealthy,” which is, of course, a relative term.  To someone living below the poverty line, a middle-class person is wealthy, though the middle-class person would probably not see themselves as such.  The Social Security Administration sets the upper income limit on the upper-middle-class at $100,000 per year, though the buying power of such an income would depend on where in the country the person lives.