Are rich people morally obligated to give part of their wealth to the poor? Financially speaking, 90% of the American population, the part you and I are in, share one-third of the nations personal assets. Nine percent share a third and the top one percent of the population share a third. One out of three people are uninsured and we are experiencing double digit unemployment while….the rich are getting richer. In fact in the last year only 12 percent of the billionaires have seen a small decline in their fortunes and others have enjoyed large increases in theirs. The combined assets of 385 billionaires equals the combined assets of 2.5 billion people on the bottom of the financial spectrum. In the workplace the pay gap between the CEO and the majority of the workers has risen from 37 times greater in 1965 to 475 times greater in 2008. So if you are making $20.00 per hour the CEO is making $9500.00 in the same hour.
While writing this intro a question occurred to me ‘does anyone believe these people earn (deserve) this money?’ I have read several commentaries in which people make the comment ‘they earned it’. Come on, who earns almost $10,000.00 per hour? Because they were able to wrangle into these positions–they earned it?
Are rich people morally obligated to give part of their wealth to the poor? The contention developed from trying to answer this question is between those who think whatever a person acquires is theirs and those who believe we should all benefit from being part of the human community. As for me I say ‘those able are morally obligated to give to the poor.’ I would prefer that there wasn’t such an income disparity and I would have suggestions for that but, while stuck with the system we have I will stick to my position: The rich are obligated to the poor.
People don’t usually get rich in a vacuum. In a modern society such as ours a person may get rich legally or illegally, morally or immorally, eventually it won’t matter. They’ll be rich!
The laws and the morals of a society, right or wrong, are the production of that population and its predecessors. And it’s within the purview of the legalities and ethics of any community in which a person gets rich. Therefore; it seems any person who gets rich as the result of affiliation within a human community owes something back to the community that made it possible for him or her get rich?
So what does morally obligated mean? A simple answer ‘wanting to do something because it’s the right thing to do.’ The dictionary definition of moral is ‘conformity to the rules of ‘right conduct.’ But how can we know when we act according to the rules of right conduct? To answer this I will defer to Kant. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” What makes giving to the poor the right thing to do? As I stated in the introduction, because we are part of a community we have obligations to the community. And in this case this obligation extends specifically to those who are able to do something about the generally poor condition of life for those in or near poverty.
In defense of my proposition that there is an obligation I will refer to Rousseau and his concept of ‘Social Contract.’ “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate , and in which each, while uniting himself with all , may still obey himself along, and remain as free a s before….Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
From these statements I conclude we’re all obligated to the individuals in our community.
According to Rousseau we are born under a social contract; we have the right to expect something from society and society has the right to expect something from us. Rich people need the population’s support, whatever they are doing to obtain or maintain their wealth.
To further support the notion the rich should feel a moral obligation to the poor I think an order of magnitude leap is required. Not so long ago the people in this country enslaved other people and forced them to do their work for them. Many people became rich and powerful as a result of the blatant exploitation of humans. Consequently the economy thrived, the country prospered and they shipped their products to Europe. The slave owners extracted from the slaves what they wanted and the customers in Europe got what they wanted. (Sound familiar) Did anyone owe anything to the slaves? The slaves were a component in a system in which people benefited from their presence as the capitalists benefit from the poor class today. We can tell ourselves out loud this behavior disappeared with our ancestors, but it didn’t. It’s just less blatant now.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen,1943.
Neither the capitalist’s right to profits nor the laborer’s right to organization are absolute and unlimited; they are both subject to the common good of all. Both the right to profits and the right to organization are means, and as means they are to be judged by the way they promote the true ends of life. These rights therefore can be suspended for the common good of all.
I added this quote because this ideal gets lost in capitalism—in fact it’s trained out of us. In fact I suggest capitalism would be in trouble if not for the never ending supply of slave type labor. Most of the things purchased at Walmart’s 7000 stores are made in other countries by people who can’t afford to buy them. The prices are set by Walmart and the suppliers comply even when below profitability. But, because other people are forced to live this way, we in this country have more. And we get to have the illusion we are doing okay. At least two of Walmart’s owners are in the top 10 richest people in the world. They didn’t start Walmart and they force their suppliers below a reasonable living standard as they do their employees. Are they morally obligated to help the poor and the poor working class they help create?
In his 1883 essay the 19th century polymath, Yale professor, William Sumner is the epitome of the opposition. Quoting from an internet article,
Some of his ideas about the economic survival of the fittest and opposition to government intervention in the economy were applications of Darwin’s scientific ideas of evolution to the social sphere. He also drew upon the doctrines of laissez-faire….to argue that government intervention would disturb the “natural” and self-regulating market. Sumner’s writings justified government inaction in the face of vast social dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and the periodic economic depressions that accompanied it.
When people take the position of the survival of the financial fittest I think they confuse how things happen at the most basic level of life with how they should happen at the most complex. ‘Survival of the fittest’ denotes a struggle to succeed. This is a completely inaccurate depiction. But this distorted analogy might suffice if we lived in total anarchy and everyone was literally fighting for their own survival; but we are by choice, and by default, part of a community. The ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra is not applicable to the concept of a community working together for the betterment of its individuals.
The word natural is also injected where it doesn’t belong. How can we say what a natural market is? A natural market in reference to how humans should interact with each other cannot be defined by looking at how wild animals fight over food. And the term ‘self-regulating market’ is used as if to imply ‘fair market.’ I also think it is interesting that the people complaining about government intervention are usually complaining when it negatively impacts their ability to accumulate money. Even Sam Walton started out working for someone else. When he bought a franchise people came to his store—so he expanded. Bill Gates was fortunate that IBM wanted an operating system and that the first company they asked dropped the ball. Did these two benefit from being part of a community? Could they have succeeded without their respective communities? Do they owe something? There is little doubt….in advanced societies there is obligation. Personally I think our confusion about our moral obligation contributes to cognitive dissonance and therefore, depression in our culture.
In conclusion, there are innumerable reasons some succeed financially and some hit the bottom. According to Michael Sandel (Professor of Government at Harvard) those who succeed may do so for reasons they aren’t able to take credit for. When someone succeeds they get to enjoy the bounty. But they also seem to incur the adulation of a significant portion of the population. Perhaps it is reasonable for the same population to give credit to those who failed to succeed financially but perhaps would have, given similar circumstances. The founders of this country fought for the ideal we are all equal and deserve the right of the pursuit of happiness. But still—not everyone gets that right!