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Celebrity, Wealth, and Meaning in Life

Color photograph of reality star Paris Hilton sitting on a throne in front of a green screen while many cameras point at her.

People love celebrity and, in particular, they love rich celebrity. Reality TV makes a fortune by playing on people’s voyeuristic desires to see how rich people live. Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and the Jenners are noteworthy simply for being rich and famous. “The Real Wives” franchise has been so successful that it has launched iterations of its brand in at least 10 different states. Many people admire and hold a high opinion of the capacities of Donald Trump simply because he’s perceived as being wealthy. Our culture is less likely to convict or to require the rich and famous to do any hard time for their criminal behavior. We live vicariously through them; we don’t want for them that which we wouldn’t want for ourselves under the same circumstances. After all, each one of us may be inclined to reason, “I myself am just a temporarily embarrassed billionaire.”

This is an attitude that people have long taken toward the rich, and it is one that we would do well to reflect carefully upon. The 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith is a figure that people often associate with capitalism, but Smith was not impressed with the ways in which people in his day viewed wealth. He wrote not only about markets, but also about moral behavior and the kinds of things about which people are inclined to express approval and disapproval. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he writes:

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary to both establish and maintain the distinction of ranks and order in society is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

Though there may be much to criticize in the idea of necessary distinction in terms of rank, Smith speaks to our times when he points out that while we venerate the wealthy, we are more likely to engage in what we might today call attribution bias when it comes to the poor. We seem inclined to attribute bad behavior on the part of others to their enduring personality characteristics (for example, their laziness, their self-indulgence, their lack of vision, etc.), and might be contemptuous of them for those reasons, but that same person would attribute similar bad behavior on their part to the various particulars of their circumstances. So, for example, Jane engages in attribution bias when she blames the fact that Tom got nothing done on the weekend on what she views as his laziness but explains the fact that she got nothing done on the same weekend on the fact that she had a long hard week at work and needed a rest.

A similar phenomenon occurs when people consider the behavior of the poor. We are more likely to say that a person who is out of work, addicted to drugs, or finds themselves homeless is in one or more of those circumstances because of their vicious traits of character than we are to say that they find themselves where they are due to bad luck, poor treatment, or ill health. Society tends to be contemptuous of such people for that reason, and often even passes retributive legislation that makes these social problems worse. These sentiments prevent us from viewing poverty and its attendant consequences (for example, addiction, criminal behavior, and incarceration) as public health and safety challenges that should be dealt with in compassionate ways.

When it comes to the wealthy, on the other hand, we tend to attribute success to work ethic, talent, innovativeness, and worthiness. Those who rise to the top do so because they deserve to be there; surely there could be no flaws with the system of merit that ensures that anyone with the right set of traits gets where they deserve to be. We admire such people, even when, in fact, they have vicious characters and manipulated and exploited people to get where they are.

The explanation behind how we view the wealthy probably has much to do with how we are encouraged to think about meaning in life. Here in the United States, the “American Dream” is often presented in a way that focuses on the value of material success. People live this dream to the extent that they are able to find work which allows them to purchase an impressive house and fancy cars to store in a large garage. Young people often plan their lives in ways that are focused on maximizing profits, or, at least, they are often encouraged to do so by their parents or their peers and made to feel like failures if they don’t. At some point, many come to believe that this kind of meaning can be theirs if, and only if, they work at it, and those who have not achieved such success must simply not have worked hard enough. Contempt ensues.

As Adam Smith points out, people frequently make the mistake of confusing material success and social status for virtue. He says,

The respect which we feel for wisdom and virtue is, no doubt, different from that which we conceive for wealth and greatness; and it requires no very nice discernment to distinguish the difference. But, notwithstanding this difference, those sentiments bear a very considerable resemblance to one another. In some particular features they are, no doubt, different, but, in the general air of the countenance, they seem to be so very nearly the same, that inattentive observers are very apt to mistake the one for the other.

Similar as they may feel, wealth and status are not the same thing as virtue. If we want to live flourishing lives, it would be wise of us to change our attitudes toward the rich and famous. Philosophers have long engaged in debate regarding meaning in life, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, no philosopher of note has concluded that meaning (or, absent that, a good or virtuous life) consists in attaining wealth and power. Our moral sentiments on this point are increasingly important as oligarchs gain more and more control over the planet. When our attitudes are distorted by the seductive powers of wealth and status, we aren’t in a position to recognize that the things we value most (for example, autonomy, self-respect, the well-being of the planet etc.,) are being bought and sold in a way that recognizes no greater good than the dollar.

Who Can Help? Who Should? Being a Billionaire in a Suffering Society

Photograph of Jeff Bezos speaking at a podium and gesturing with arm

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and richest man in the world, announced on the 13th of September that he would dedicate $2 billion to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.

This move is controversial for a number of reasons, perhaps primarily given the relative amount of funds dedicated to Bezos’ spectacular fortune of 164 billion dollars. The two billion dollars amounts to 1.2 percent of Bezos’ fortune. Bezos has long been criticized for his lack of commitment to philanthropic work, and is the only American in Bloomberg’s top 5 world’s richest people who hasn’t joined the Giving Pledge, which would commit him to donating at least 50% of his fortune to charity.

Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest man in the world in 1899, wrote about the moral obligation of the wealthy in an essay entitled The Gospel of Wealth: “The man of wealth thus becoming the sole agent and trustee for his poorer brethren.” Carnegie spend approximately 90% of his wealth on public programs and scientific discovery. It’s noteworthy that during that era, the tycoons who earned their massive wealth through monopolies and breaking labor unions operated in a society pre-New Deal, so that government assistance programs of the twentieth century were not yet established.The philanthropic work of the barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller that paid teachers and established libraries were a sharp contrast to the working conditions of their employees.

The conditions of Bezos’ own employees have been raked over in the news for years, creating a contrast between his wealth and the conditions of employees that allow his fortune to amass. Amazon floor workers have been reported to resorting to sleeping in tents in the warehouses in which they work and urinating in bottles in order to meet work quotas. Amazon is one of the country’s top employers whose employees receive food stamps. When those under Bezos’ direct influence are living in such conditions, his recent philanthropic announcement seems hypocritical or a media grab.

Beside concerns over publicity, the real impact of the charitable contribution of the mega-rich raises real moral questions. In a society that allows such drastic inequality that there are individuals that have amassed enough wealth to create programs to dramatically alter the lives of significant swaths of worse-off, is donating from their fortune a sufficient act of benevolence, discharging their moral burden for benefitting for the inequality-sustaining society? A recent critique by BBC news references Anand Giridharadas, “whose book Winners Take All tackles the so-called ‘charade’ of modern philanthropy, characterises Carnegie’s approach as ‘extreme taking followed by extreme giving.’ The super rich,” he argues, “stop short of ‘transforming the system atop which they stand.’”

To further complicate the moral evaluation of Bezos’ charitable actions, Senator Bernie Sanders recently claimed that Amazon paid no federal tax in 2017. This draws out the questions of responsibilities of corporations and businesses to contribute to society. While many of Bezos’ workers rely on government support programs, the corporation they work for does not support those programs.

In such circumstances, what obligations does the founder of the corporation, who can make nine billion dollars in two days, have to society, the government, and his workers? Bezos’ philanthropic move can be read as prioritizing private subsistence assistance, sidestepping government support that taxation would help, or directly supporting his employees by providing employment that would allow members of society to live without working multiple jobs and relying on government assistance.

With Bezos, the contrast between working conditions and philanthropic goals remains, but today it is less clear what the obligations of the wealthy are towards society en masse. The issue of what corporations owe to society is a complicated one in business ethics, for businesses are purportedly aimed at profit, not beneficence, but what obligations remain for the individuals that gain from the profits of the businesses like Bezos, Buffet, Musk, etc.?  When individuals have enough money to effectively run government programs of their own, while not paying taxes, the influence on society and the public good is significant.

When the public rely on the charitable feelings of the super-wealthy, and these wealthy individuals and their corporations can so easily side-step contributing to government programs via taxation, then problems of society become even more difficult to tackle. Public education, a long-term legislative log-jam, has attracted a number of uber wealthy, Bezos included. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has been most attended to by private charities rather than the government. Elon Musk is currently addressing the problem along with celebrities such as Will Smith, the Game, and Eminem.

The obligations of individuals with wealth are complicated. As Giridharadas points out, the origin of one’s wealth is morally significant, and if there are massive inequalities between the wealthy and poor, or if the wealthy continue to rely on an economically exploitative system, it suggests there are real moral obligations on the wealthy. It may be wrong to remain that wealthy, to not take action using that wealth to adjust the system to produce less inequality, and to ensure that the production of wealth does not rely on unjust working conditions. The ways in which private philanthropy can undermine government efforts further complicates these questions — when should individuals step in where government fails and when should individuals work to adjust the way that government is being sensitive to the needs of society so that it won’t fail in the future?

Individuals with great wealth must grapple with these moral issues. The Giving Pledge is an overt statement that it does not make sense (potentially morally) for individuals to have as much money as those that top the Forbes list currently do. The amount of money that it would be permissible to keep, and what to do with the surplus, is difficult to determine, perhaps, but these observations put pressure on the complicity of the wealthy in an economic and political system that could be more morally permissible.