61. Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich

Rich ethicsCon­text: The mate­rial here com­prises dis­cus­sion points and some ref­er­ence links for a diverse group of peo­ple in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, who fancy them­selves as “gen­tle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “Eth­i­cal Behav­iour is Harder for the Rich”, is prob­a­bly of inter­est to thought­ful indi­vid­u­als in many lat­i­tudes, so I am putting it online as a gen­eral stim­u­lus for some cre­ative dis­cus­sion. Any opin­ions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dis­sected with­out mercy.

1. This lit­tle essay is about (my ideas of) the behav­iour of the rich. Of course all kinds of peo­ple are rich for all kinds of rea­sons (ditto for the poor). Nev­er­the­less I will argue that rich peo­ple demon­strate ethics in ways which are con­sis­tent with broad human ten­den­cies. Depend­ing upon the social con­text of their wealth (e.g. cor­po­rate ver­sus inherited) that wealth might influ­ence them to exhibit par­tic­u­lar behav­iours. Yet those habits will merely be a sub­set of some­thing much more gen­eral. Ethics, at bot­tom, is sourced in the evo­lu­tion­ary behav­iour of the species.

2. Humans are dom­i­nantly a herd­ing (tribal) species. That which pre­serves the nuclear fam­ily, and then the group is gen­er­ally encoded in cul­tures as ‘good’. That which threat­ens these group­ings is gen­er­ally encoded as ‘bad’.

3. The indi­vid­ual can con­tribute to the fam­ily and the group (“good”), ignore these units (“amoral”) or attack them (“bad”).

4. It hap­pens rea­son­ably often that dom­i­nant group behav­iour can threaten the wel­fare or even the sur­vival of the group as it goes, lem­ming-like into dis­as­ter. This sce­nario becomes acute when out­side forces threaten to destroy a com­mu­nity, tribe or nation. In these sit­u­a­tions, the sav­iour might be that indi­vid­ual who escapes group behav­iour and acts in an inno­v­a­tive way. He/she becomes a “hero”, while under sta­ble con­di­tions this per­son might be seen as an “immoral out­cast”. That is, there is often ten­sion in the good/bad par­a­digm as social, tech­no­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal envi­ron­ments change. Most often in fact these sit­u­a­tions are not imme­di­ately cat­a­strophic, but still leave space for new ini­tia­tives. One kind of ini­tia­tive is entre­pre­neur­ship, which does have a very high fail­ure rate, but also rewards which make some entre­pre­neurs rich. These entre­pre­neurs may or may not be “good” in a con­ven­tional way, but there is a fair chance that they have bent con­ven­tional eth­i­cal prac­tices along the way, espe­cially exist­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions (e.g. tax laws).

5. Indi­vid­u­als are inter­ested in self-preser­va­tion, usu­ally (not always) ahead of group preser­va­tion. In fact, indi­vid­u­als are inter­ested in self-opti­miza­tion. The terms of that individual’s self-opti­miza­tion will depend upon their own per­sonal analy­sis of their strengths and weak­nesses, oppor­tu­ni­ties, oblig­a­tions and restric­tions.

6. Self-opti­miza­tion could also be described as the search for per­sonal advan­tage. The arena of per­sonal advan­tage sought is partly a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual choice. For exam­ple, a con­ven­tion­ally hand­some male may seek to enhance sex­ual advan­tage by train­ing in a gym reg­u­larly, and even “cheat­ing” with some steroid enhance­ment. His acquain­tance, a hol­low-chested, timid fel­low may hold no hope for mas­ter­ing the Mr Uni­verse role, so seek advan­tage from an ency­clopaedic knowl­edge of pop music and gen­tle charm.

7. Within all cul­tures there are rec­og­nized and approved paths to self-opti­miza­tion. These paths are expressed through ide­ol­ogy, reli­gion, lit­er­a­ture and other media. They are implicit and explicit in child rais­ing prac­tices, and always a part of for­mal edu­ca­tion sys­tems. They are defined as accept­able role behav­iours within the sys­tem of laws and cus­toms of each cul­ture. They are also embed­ded within the self-image that the peo­ples of a cul­ture, eth­nic­ity or nation hold of them­selves. If you ask an Aus­tralian, or Chi­nese, Ghana­ian, or Argen­tinean what the peo­ple in their cul­ture are like, they will read­ily “paint you a pic­ture”. These are ide­al­ized con­cepts, often only loosely related to real behav­iours, but moral judge­ments are often framed by such expec­ta­tions.

8.  For a per­son who greatly val­ues mon­e­tary wealth, to achieve wealth and to main­tain it is to be highly pro­duc­tive. In the scale of per­sonal pri­or­i­ties most peo­ple rec­og­nize a dif­fer­ence between suf­fi­cient mon­e­tary wealth and high mon­e­tary wealth. They will vary in their opin­ion of suf­fi­ciency, but once basic needs are met they will gen­er­ally assign higher pri­or­i­ties in life to achieve­ments other than than mon­e­tary wealth. The pri­or­i­ties might be com­mon or uncom­mon. For some, opti­mal fam­ily life might be the num­ber one goal, and achiev­ing that would be max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­ity. For other peo­ple it might be naked power, career pro­mo­tion, research suc­cess, respectabil­ity, danc­ing the tango or col­lect­ing bot­tle-tops.

9. Within their set of cho­sen life pri­or­i­ties of the moment, almost every­one seeks per­sonal advan­tage. For young women, ide­al­iz­ing some notion of beauty amongst their peers, com­pe­ti­tion may be intense and any path to per­ceived advan­tage may grad­u­ally shift from the morally dubi­ous (within that culture’s gen­eral val­ues) to main­stream. For exam­ple, the image of plas­tic surgery has shifted in many cul­tures from “cheat­ing” to nor­mal.

10. Amongst all pos­si­ble life pri­or­i­ties, the ele­va­tion of great per­sonal wealth to the appar­ent prime spot seems extremely com­mon in casual con­ver­sa­tion, but in behav­ioural prac­tice remains a minor­ity activ­ity. How much of a minor­ity activ­ity does vary between cul­tures. For exam­ple, you could say broadly that large num­bers of Chi­nese in the PRC (at this moment in his­tory) prob­a­bly put a greater value on the pur­suit of mon­e­tary wealth than most Anglo-Aus­tralians.

11. Those peo­ple within a cul­ture who are in fact rich (as seen by the mem­bers of that com­mu­nity), are likely to under­stand their posi­tion in dif­fer­ent terms from those who are not rich. Some of the rich will have inherited wealth, while some will have achieved it. The achieve­ment of wealth can come from pure luck (e.g. a lot­tery), nepo­tism, mar­riage, career ele­va­tion within a cor­po­ra­tion, entre­pre­neur­ship, gen­uine inven­tion, and doubtless other ways too. The kinds of peo­ple who tread these var­i­ous paths are likely to be very dif­fer­ent, and that will include their eth­i­cal per­cep­tions. There will be dif­fer­ences in the ways they ratio­nal­ize these sit­u­a­tions. How­ever, most of them are likely to see them­selves advan­taged as com­pared to those who have much less wealth. Most of them will be moti­vated to pre­serve their advan­tage.

12. The drive to pre­serve advan­tage may be where the rich show most com­mon­al­ity. Hav­ing the advan­tage of great wealth is some­what dif­fer­ent from the advan­tage of hav­ing great beauty, great pop­u­lar­ity, sport­ing tal­ent, musi­cal genius, cre­ativ­ity, and so on. This is because money is a uni­ver­sal medium of exchange and much lusted after. Those with wealth can buy (or appear to buy) many of the advan­tages enjoyed more inflex­i­bly by those nar­rowly focused on other areas of life. The rich can usu­ally buy social power, hire tal­ent, buy expen­sive mate­rial goods, buy the best edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren, and even buy a rep­u­ta­tion. It is this uni­ver­sal qual­ity of money’s advan­tage which may incen­tivize the rich to pre­serve their posi­tion more ruth­lessly than a local sport­ing favourite or a sought after motor mechanic. That is, the temp­ta­tion for eth­i­cal devi­a­tion may be greater for the rich than for most oth­ers.

13. The process of attain­ing wealth, and the strat­a­gems to pre­serve it are rarely achieved in social iso­la­tion. In the vast major­ity of cases, wealth achieved by one indi­vid­ual depends upon the assis­tance, com­pli­ance or sub­mis­sion of count­less oth­ers. These oth­ers, in var­i­ous ways, will have lacked entre­pre­neurial ini­tia­tive them­selves, or con­sider them­selves appren­tices for a later strike at fame, or have made a con­scious cal­cu­la­tion that they prefer to work within the rel­a­tively safer frame­work of an exist­ing insti­tu­tion and receive lesser mon­e­tary rewards. The deci­sion to remain a foot sol­dier often car­ries other costs, such as a will­ing­ness to over­look eth­i­cal trans­gres­sions by the wealth-seeker, or even active assis­tance for him/her to pur­sue those activ­i­ties. Those who have worked within orga­ni­za­tions will be aware that there are always pres­sures to con­form to “the com­pany cul­ture”, and at any level of respon­si­bil­ity it is typ­i­cally hard to avoid becom­ing eth­i­cally com­pro­mised in some way. Insti­tu­tional con­fi­den­tial­ity, infor­mal or legally bind­ing, is a per­fect cover for the ambi­tious, and a per­sua­sive bar­rier to the more timid who become aware of trans­gres­sions. Whistle blow­ers may be heroes in the wider social con­text, but are vil­i­fied within orga­ni­za­tions and usu­ally have an unhappy future.

14. The psy­cho­log­i­cal, social and legal pro­tec­tions afforded to those who pur­sue wealth in less than eth­i­cal ways may facil­i­tate the wealth-seek­ing suc­cess of cer­tain per­son­al­ity types more than oth­ers. For exam­ple, it is well estab­lished that psy­cho­pathic traits amongst CEOs are at least four times higher than in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion (which of course is far from say­ing that every CEO is a psy­chopath). His­tory, lit­er­a­ture and tra­di­tional mythol­ogy are replete with exam­ples of what we might call psy­cho­pathic win­ners achiev­ing fame and wealth. The clas­si­cal Greek hero, Ulysses (Odysseus) liv­ing around 1200 B.C. would prob­a­bly fit the pro­file. In Chi­nese cul­ture, one of the best respected and loved char­ac­ters is Sun Wukong (孙悟空) or “The Mon­key King” (see Arthur Waley’s Mon­key trans­la­tion of Wu Ch’eng-en’s The Jour­ney to the West, 西游记). With untram­meled exu­ber­ance, this undoubt­edly psy­cho­pathic char­ac­ter does immense dam­age until the Bud­dha him­self chains Sun Wukong under a moun­tain for 500 years. Even­tu­ally Sun Wukong is fit­ted with a magic gold head­band which tight­ens painfully when­ever he starts to drift out of con­trol. Thus con­strained he is of indis­pens­able assis­tance in help­ing the monk, Xuan­zang, bring the Bud­dhist scrip­tures back from India to China. In the 21st Cen­tury we seem to be badly in need of magic gold head­bands to keep our Sun Wukong’s under con­trol. These volatile but valu­able indi­vid­u­als nowa­days are often anonymized behind the cover of cor­po­ra­tions, and more or less untouch­able. For exam­ple in 2011 the Google Cor­po­ra­tion took two bil­lion dol­lars out of Aus­tralia in profit while pay­ing a laugh­able sev­enty-four thou­sand dol­lars in tax (Wilkins 2013).

15. There is now a con­sid­er­able body of psy­cho­log­i­cal research claim­ing to show that those who per­ceive them­selves to be richer than oth­ers act in ways that are more self­ish, less hon­est and more dri­ven by con­vic­tions of self-enti­tle­ment. In the con­text of such exper­i­ments oth­er­wise aver­age peo­ple also begin to exhibit these unde­sir­able “traits of wealth” even when their advan­tage is rather triv­ial, as in a game of Monopoly. Some of the ref­er­ences at the end of this essay deal with these stud­ies. My own feel­ing about research of this kind is rather cau­tious. Psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ments are almost always highly con­strained (in order to con­trol vari­ables) and over­whelm­ingly arti­fi­cial. The real acqui­si­tion and preser­va­tion of wealth is a com­plex, usu­ally long term process, shifted by count­less vari­ables, even luck. A dan­ger I see with such “exper­i­men­tal proofs” is that the fac­toid junkies in HR depart­ments, recruiters, career advi­sors, MBA hacks, and so on will quickly turn vari­ables and out­comes on their head: e.g. “sci­ence has proved that the rich are self­ish, less hon­est and con­vinced of their own enti­tle­ment … there­fore to become rich you need to become dis­hon­est …. etc”

16. My per­sonal feel­ings about the moral cal­i­bre of the rich is that as indi­vid­u­als I take them as I find them. As a group of 5 star hotel patrons, when placed against my own wealth, social sta­tus and influ­ence (I have next to none), these peo­ple are hugely advan­taged in most soci­eties. For exam­ple, it is demon­stra­ble that in the major­ity of locales, there has always been one law for the rich & pow­er­ful, another law for the peas­ants. Rich indi­vid­u­als advan­taged in this way are entirely likely to have their per­son­al­i­ties coloured by priv­i­lege, and unless given to great empa­thy, may remain rather igno­rant or indif­fer­ent to the restric­tions ordi­nary peo­ple live under.

17. Through­out recorded his­tory there have been many instances of the rich and priv­i­leged giv­ing “gen­er­ously” to those less for­tu­nate. The code of noblesse oblige describes such an ideal. Reli­gions of all kinds inscribe char­ity as a duty. Mod­ern char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions, phil­an­thropy and even uni­ver­sity alumni asso­ci­a­tions reflect this pat­tern strongly. The pub­lic face of these activ­i­ties by rich indi­vid­u­als can be wrapped in reli­gious moral­ity, wor­thi­ness, com­pas­sion, and so on. In Amer­ica (for exam­ple) they may even be dri­ven by tax­a­tion con­ces­sions. The rich peo­ple con­cerned will per­haps see phil­ant­hropic activ­ity as a per­sonal val­i­da­tion of self-worth. I find none of this search for merit points to be incon­sis­tent with eth­i­cally dubi­ous behav­iour by the rich (where it occurs). The salient point of phil­an­thropy etc is that it pub­licly reaf­firms advan­tage. That is, seri­ous phil­an­thropy is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from giv­ing a dol­lar to a Sal­va­tion Army col­lec­tor. To be a phil­an­thropist is to say very loudly and clearly to soci­ety that “I have made it. I can afford to do this. I am rich. I am not ordi­nary. I have assured advan­tage and am choos­ing to use it gra­ciously.”


Extra reading(jour­nal­is­tic report­ing, not aca­d­e­mic ref­er­ence)

Aquino, Judith & Abby Rogers (February 10, 2013) “20 Signs That You Are A Psychopath”. Business Insider Australia @ http://au.businessinsider.com/how-do-you-know-if-youre-a-psychopath-2013–2#you-have-glibness-and-superficial-charm-see-scoring-rubric-below-keep-a-tally-and-well-tell-you-at-the-end-if-youre-a-psychopath-1 

Bercovici, Jeff (June 14, 2011) “Why (some) Psy­chopaths Make Great CEOs”. Forbes mag­a­zine @ http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/

Cubeta, Phil (Feb­ru­ary 28, 2012) “On the ethics of the rich” http://www.gifthub.org/2012/02/on-the-ethics-of-the-rich.html

de Brito, Sam (July 22, 2013) “Lying to chil­dren: Are you rais­ing a sucker?”. Bris­bane Times @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/executive-style/culture/blogs/all-men-are-liars/are-you-raising-a-sucker-20130720-2qa6c.html [ TM: the com­ments sec­tion to this arti­cle are illu­mi­nat­ing ]

James, Rich (March 20, 2013) “Not every­one defines ethics the same way” http://www.nwitimes.com/news/opinion/columnists/rich-james/rich-james-not-everyone-defines-ethics-the-same-way/article_b82e2864-efb4-5e08-8bb0-fd613bb7e408.html

Sulek, Julia Prodis (July 15, 2013) “Some helped, oth­ers didn’t, after US jet crash”. Bris­bane Times @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/some-helped-others-didnt-after-us-jet-crash-20130715-2pzha.html

Ron­son, Jon (2011) The Psy­chopath Test: A Jour­ney Through the Mad­ness Indus­try. River­head Hard­cover; 6th Print­ing edi­tion.

Singer, Peter (2013) “It’s our duty to give”. BBC online @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/charity/duty_1.shtml

Waley, Arthur (1942) Monkey, translation of Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West (西游记). Online versions, see http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_19?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=arthur+waley+monkey&sprefix=Arthur+Waley+monkey%2Caps%2C483

Wilkins, Georgia (July 24, 2013) “Tax System at Risk: Treasury”. Sydney Morning Herald @ http://www.smh.com.au/business/tax-system-at-risk-treasury-20130723-2qhkr.html


Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thormay@yahoo.com

aca­d­e­mic repos­i­tory: Academia.edu at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay
dis­cus­sion: Thor’s Unwise Ideas at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/unwisendx.html

Note: “Eth­i­cal Behav­iour is Harder for the Rich” is online at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/Ethical-Behaviour-is-Harder-for-the-Rich.htm and also linked from Dis­cus­sion Top­ics at http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/

Eth­i­cal Behav­iour is Harder for the Rich” © copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013

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