Wealth kills the soul. Our grandparents knew that. But we’ve lost that insight nowadays. Our rigidly individualistic modern culture — unequipped to probe anything deeper than personal fortune — fails to perceive the moral hazards of wealth.
Evidence of that moral hazard is abundant in psychological research, limited as they are to the behavioural trends of the rich. The cutest is the study comparing Mercedes and Lexus drivers to Ford and Honda drivers. Who’s more likely to cut you off? Fancier cars appear to have ruder drivers. Doesn’t say much, but there’s more.
A proliferation of psychological studies show that rich people score:
- higher in tax evasion,
- lower in proportional giving to charity,
- lower in compassion and empathy indicators,
- lower in ability to read emotions,
- higher in various theft and cheating indicators,
- and the kicker — higher in competitive, impulsive and reckless behaviour than control groups of medically diagnosed psychopaths.
One must be careful not to apply statistics to individuals. There are a great many rich individuals who are kind and considerate people. Statistics can indicate only — though indicate they do — the moral hazards of wealth.
And now can it be otherwise? Wealth is sustainable in the minds of the wealthy only through an attitude of entitlement. Elsewise how could they sleep at night? Entitlement means believing those who have less deserve to be stepped upon, and they’re doing just fine anyway. And entitlement means believing those who have nothing — well, it’s their own fault somehow, and they’re way over there in a hole of their own digging anyway. They can be respectably ignored. Moral hazard thrives on entitlement.
Plus — in the words of some commentator I can’t place — it’s easy to get rich if you care only about money and nothing else. While there are many who get rich by being highly productive, the super rich are mostly those who are so obsessed with money and capital — to the exclusion of all else — that they can’t do anything but make money. Everything is measured in money. That’s how you get filthy rich — and morally malformed.
However, a Christian approach to the morally malformed should be full of sympathy and support. The first victims of the rich are the rich themselves. Attempting to buy their happiness with money and find their only meaning in their wealth — they fly right past the meaningful things in life that lie in giving rather than taking, in caring rather than wanting. Their stunted empathy, and their isolation from the deeper satisfaction that lies in compassion, make for empty lives — whatever artificial excitement they can conjure up for themselves. And then there’s gratitude — the greatest wellspring of well-being. What do the entitled know of gratitude?
Before the statisticians ever started documenting the threat that wealth posed to our well-being, the philosophers were long warning all who would think deeply. The Greek Stoics were the first to rail against greed and luxury. Roman historians attributed the decline of the Empire crumbling around their feet to avarice. Confucius preached and practiced the austere life. Buddha left his riches behind. Hinduism said hard work should be rewarded, but only if honestly attained and virtuously used.
Aristotle dealt with possessions extensively. It’s ok to possess stuff if it’s used for the sake of living virtuosity — to help sustain family or community in modesty. But accumulation for its own sake — no way.
And Christ — omG — nothing could be worse than piling up useless riches. Give it all, all of it, away. The Koran warns against hoarding money and instructs Muslims to disperse it to the needy. The very soul — of Christians and Muslims alike — is at stake.
And yet our culture worships wealth, and most of us buy into the hype. We look up to the wealthy and pretend that poverty is a personal moral failure of the poor. Money is our god, and those who do not please its creator stand condemned to poverty.
Christ said one cannot serve God and Mammon (money) at the same time. But he didn’t say there’s anything incompatible about serving the Devil and money. It’s become the norm nowadays.