More Than Money
Issue #31

The Everyday Ethics of Wealth

Table of Contents

“The Unresolved Dilemma”

The largest part of my brain is devoted to some of the dilemmas I face in working with people who are desperately poor. I spent a lot of time teaching in a village school in Africa, living among subsistence farmers, in a mud house with a grass roof, and I return there regularly to visit. Wherever I am in the world, I have to decide whether and how much to give to someone in need. Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I make the right decision, sometimes a wrong one, and sometimes I have no way of knowing. One evening, I told my husband, "So-and-So asked me for money. I said no, and I feel guilty." He replied, "Then don't go to Africa. If you continue to engage with the poor and destitute, the result will be a predictable sense of lifelong confusion—because you'll make some calls right, some wrong, and you will feel bad about the wrong ones for the rest of your life. If you are a person of conscience, it will stay with you as long as you live."

Those words have remained with me. Not that I shouldn't go to Africa or spend time with the poor, but it helps to be aware that the dilemma of having so much when others have so little won't ever go away.

— anonymous author

The one fundamental question I live with daily is: How can I possess and enjoy so much wealth in the face of so many unmet needs in others' lives? By what virtue should any human being have so much more and live so much more comfortably than the rest of the population? If anybody deserves wealth, everybody deserves it.

So how do I resolve that? I don't. I used to think I was ducking the issue by hiding behind my marriage. Because my husband is the generator of our wealth, I used to say that I deferred to him in matters of spending it, essentially letting him choose my lifestyle. I'm enjoying a far more luxurious life than I could have afforded before we married, more expensive than I'd choose if I were on my own. Yet, in truth, I do indeed choose this rich lifestyle right now. The philosopher Stephen Gaskin says, "You can always tell what somebody really wants to do, because that's what they're doing."

I cannot deny that I enjoy using the power of the privilege that comes from having money. Money lets you buy unique access, favored treatment, better seats. The whole society moves over to give you all sorts of goodies and perks and prizes, just for having a high net worth. It's like if you're white. You can say, "I didn't participate in slavery," but if you were born white, in this country that is a legacy with 200 years of advantage. The advantages of wealth are so many they are inescapable. Talking about whether it's "right" or "ethical" for the rich to be so favored doesn't make the privilege go away. The only way to get rid of the privilege is to give all your money away, but then you lose the potential impact you can have by using your wealth strategically.

It doesn't justify having wealth, but using a good proportion of my money to create social change allows me to enjoy using some of my cash for more self-indulgent purposes.

- anonymous author


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