- freely available
Religions 2017, 8(5), 86; doi:10.3390/rel8050086
When Rawls talks about “advantage” here, he is speaking, not directly about one’s well-being, but about one’s ability to pursue one’s rational plan of life. However, for Rawls, these are intimately related; see Part III of A Theory of Justice, which winds up endorsing a kind of desire-satisfaction view. (Ultimately, the things I say about the effects on our well-being of vast wealth according to desire satisfaction views should apply to Rawls’ own view of our well-being, as well as to the question of whether vast wealth is helpful or harmful in our pursuit of our rational plan of life). Besides this, two things are notable about this passage. One is that Rawls apparently thinks that extreme wealth could frustrate our preferences only if we have unusual preferences, such as wanting to be a religious ascetic. The other is that he thinks that, even if having more wealth would frustrate our preferences, this wouldn’t be very concerning, since we could just refuse it.I have assumed throughout that the persons in the original position are rational. But I have also assumed that they do not know their conception of the good. This means that while they know that they have some rational plan of life, they do not know the details of this plan...How, then, can they decide which conceptions of justice are most to their advantage?...I postulate that they...assume that they normally prefer more primary social goods rather than less. Of course, it may turn out, once the veil of ignorance is removed, that some of them for religious or other reasons may not, in fact, want more of these goods. But from the standpoint of the original position, it is rational for the parties to suppose that they do want a larger share, since in any case they are not compelled to accept more if they do not wish to.
Assuming that well-being consists of satisfying one’s preferences (see Section 2), agents who were like this usually couldn’t be harmed by excess wealth. As long as no one forced the agent to take it, they could just decline any excess wealth, and if they wound up with a harmful level of wealth (say, by inheriting it as a child, or because their plans changed), then as long as there were no barriers to getting rid of it, they could just give it away. While the parties in the original position are stipulated to be economically rational, however, they are supposed to be the representatives of real human agents, who are not. Real humans do not always know which actions will best fulfill their preferences, and I will argue in Section 3 that, contrary to what many of us suppose, it’s plausible that extreme wealth often tends to frustrate many of our most important preferences. Likewise, humans, being susceptible to akrasia—weakness of will—often act in ways which they realize will needlessly frustrate their preferences (see (Stroud 2014)). Furthermore, as I discuss in the next section, fulfilling your preferences may not always be good for you anyway. Of course, Rawls (as I explain in the final section) realized that actual human agents were not literally economically rational in the sense above; presumably, what he thought was that this conception was close enough to actual human behavior, while also being manageably simple, to justify the assumption for purposes of the original position. Part of what I hope to show here, however, is that, when it comes to the topic at hand, this may very well be false, and at any rate can’t just be assumed.The concept of rationality invoked here…is the standard one familiar in social theory. Thus in the usual way, a rational person is thought to have a coherent set of preferences between the options open to him. He ranks these options according to how well they further his purposes; he follows the plan which will satisfy more of his desires rather than less, and which has the greater chance of being successfully executed.
And Harry Frankfurt, in his recent book On Inequality, writes that:...there is an egalitarian tradition of questioning the value of material resources, and especially the culture of consumption. A good life is one of friendship, creation and appreciation of art and literature, development of creativity, and mutual support…This view, associated with William Morris and John Ruskin, is that material resources are a snare and a distraction...
But neither Wolff nor Frankfurt does much to develop these thoughts; Frankfurt (2015, 5, fn. 1 explicitly says that while the “moral and psychological problems arising from the fact that some people have too much are eminently worthy of study and analysis”, he will (understandably) instead focus on the “more pressing phenomenon of people who have too little”. I attempt to develop and defend the view here.In addition to the incidence of poverty, another part of our current economic disorder is that while many of our people have too little, quite a number of others have too much. The very rich have, indisputably, a great deal more than they need in order to live active, productive, and comfortable lives. In extracting from the economic wealth of the nation much more than they require in order to live well, those who are excessively affluent are guilty of a kind of economic gluttony…Apart from harmful psychological and moral effects upon the lives of the gluttons themselves, economic gluttony presents a ridiculous and disgusting spectacle. Taken together with the adjacent spectacle of a sizeable class of people who endure significant economic deprivation, and who are as a consequence more or less impotent, the general impression given by our economic arrangements is both ugly and morally offensive.
2. Accounts of Well-Being
3. Living a Life of Vast Wealth
3.1. Hedonic States
Empirical evidence suggests that the average American’s overall evaluation of how well their life is going continues to improve into higher income levels (Kahneman and Deaton 2010). (This is what we would expect if they believe that having more money increases well-being, whether or not it does). However, their day-to-day evaluation of their emotional states—of “the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant” (Kahneman and Deaton 2010, p. 16489)—stops increasing somewhere around the decidedly middle-class amount of $75,000 a year (Kahneman and Deaton 2010, p. 16489). Even up to this point, increased income seems to increase happiness primarily by making it easier to cope with life’s misfortunes, rather than by, say, allowing one to buy nicer things. (That is to say, as one approaches $75,000, it’s not so much that one’s baseline level of happiness increases as it is that that the decreases in happiness caused by things like divorces or illnesses are less pronounced (Kahneman and Deaton 2010, p. 16489)).More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day.Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge…This pledge will leave my lifestyle untouched and that of my children as well. They have already received significant sums for their personal use and will receive more in the future. They live comfortable and productive lives. And I will continue to live in a manner that gives me everything that I could possibly want in life.
Additionally, in some cases, there are fairly concrete reasons for thinking that, by the metric of hedonic well-being, one will be made worse off by vast wealth. For instance, I’ll discuss in the next section the fact that extreme wealth may tend to have negative effects on one’s personal relationships. A vast body of research (e.g., (Feeney and Collins 2015)) suggests that healthy relationships are an important component of emotional well-being. So, I think that, if anything, the evidence makes it more likely that there tends to be a negative impact on one’s emotional well-being as income continues to increase.Some material things make my life more enjoyable; many, however, would not. I like having an expensive private plane, but owning a half-dozen homes would be a burden. Too often, a vast collection of possessions ends up possessing its owner. The asset I most value, aside from health, is interesting, diverse, and long-standing friends.
3.2. Desire Satisfaction and Objective Goods
3.2.1. Possible Benefits
3.2.2. Possible Harms
Willis likewise writes that ingratitude is another “curse” of family wealth:The biggest curse of intergenerational wealth for me and many other people is the illusion that you don’t have to do much with your life…My wandering 20s were an example of too much too soon. My parents wanted me to enjoy the freedom of youth. They meant for my financial ease to be a gift. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me to do anything with my life…Recently, a client said to me, “When you’re raised by rich people you’re not taught to do anything.” You’re not taught to do practical things, because everything is done for you. It’s a challenge to hone the skills you need to function outside of that setting.Many people who aren’t wealthy think it would be great to not have to learn to do anything, or just to learn what one chooses. Perhaps they don’t recognize the value of feeling confident and building a purposeful, meaningful life. The only way to get there is to tough out mistakes and failures. Though inheritors are given many things, no one is given a meaningful life. For that we all have to work.
Of course, we could find many other stories to the same effect. The point here is not to romanticize poverty, which puts strains of its own on one’s character. The point is instead that after one no longer faces the constant insecurity, or social stigma, or physical threats, or other factors which produce such strain, accumulating substantially more opens one up to the vices discussed above. From the perspective of well-being, this may be dangerous.Ingratitude. We all know what this looks like. It is the attitude of entitlement and arrogance. Ingratitude is insidious, based on fear and anger. It leads to low self-esteem, insecurity and the self-doubt that comes from never having become good at anything.When I was in my 20s, ingratitude ruled my life. Due to my lack of experience working with others, I thought everything had to be exactly the way I wanted it. Planning for my first wedding, at age 29, I threw a fit that there were no gardenias available in January. I was inconsolable. The florist provided some kind of white flowers, as close as they could come to the gardenias I coveted, and I was furious.
Cohen goes on to argue that camping trip norms, rather than market norms, ought to govern the economy as a whole. That is supposed to be the controversial part of the argument; he plausibly supposes that no one would really want to run a camping trip as an exchange relationship. Yet the wealthy, whatever they want, are apparently more likely to form exchange relationships, not only on camping trips, but also everywhere else.You could imagine a camping trip where everybody asserts her rights over the pieces of equipment, and the talents, that she brings, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom to be allowed, for example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much he is going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes that he bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and the strictly private ownership of shared facilities.Now, most people would hate that.
Indeed, there exists an entire industry of books by counselors and wealth advisors (e.g., (Willis 2012); (Collier 2012); (Lombardo 2012)) aimed wholly or largely at helping the extremely wealthy deal with the potential impact of wealth on their families. (One of these books (Lombardo 2012) has the unsettling subtitle “Why Rich Kids Hate Their Parents!”) And many of the wealthy themselves seem to recognize the potential problem; one study focusing primarily on families with one hundred million dollars or more in assets, almost half of inheritors were “highly concerned” that their inheritance would negatively impact their personal relationships (Frank 2012a). (I am not aware of any data suggesting that this makes them noticeably more likely to turn down or give away their fortunes, however).This focus can be so big that families neglect human, intellectual and social capital in the family. As a result, there’s no balance. Instead, the emphasis is on the dollars, the assets, the strategies and the money managers. Family meetings only cover financial concerns. Some of my wealthy clients have spent years looking for a way to bring up family communication, relationships, and effective parenting.
We might quibble over the degree to which a difference in income of ten times will generate this lack of community. But if I make tens of thousands of times as much as my compatriots, it will be hard for me to even know about, much less share in, the struggles of ordinary people. In an important way, I am alienated.12We cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do, because my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that you could help me cope with, but do not, because you keep your money. To illustrate. I am rich, and I live an easy life, whereas you are poor…You have to ride the crowded bus every day, whereas I pass by you in my comfortable car. One day, however, I must take the bus, because my wife needs the car. I can reasonably complain about that to a fellow car driver, but not to you. I can’t say to you: “It’s awful that I have to take the bus today.” There is a lack of community between us of just the sort that naturally obtains between me and the fellow car-driver. And it will show itself in many other ways, for we enjoy widely different powers to care for ourselves, to protect and care for our offspring, to avoid danger, and so on.11
4. Egalitarian Societies
In fact, as noted earlier, concrete data shows that material inequality is associated with a wide range of social ills, from worsened health to higher crime (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010, chp. 4–12), and there is reason to think the relationship is at least partly causal (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010, pp. 190–96). These problems disproportionately affect the poor, but many also harm the rich, sometimes in surprising ways. For instance, increased material inequality seems to reduce health and life expectancy, not only for the poor, but also for the rich (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010, p. 84), perhaps for reasons having to do with status anxiety and reduced social trust (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010, chp. 3). Of course, there is plenty of room for further work here. But in light of these considerations, it seems plausible to me that those living lives of vast wealth would tend to be better off, and perhaps much better off, under a more egalitarian scheme.Let’s say that two societies differ only in their mixes of public and private spending. In one society, lower taxes on the wealthy allow them to drive very fine cars—say, $180,000 Bentleys. The streets and highways in this society, however, are riddled with foot-deep potholes. In the other society, the wealthy pay higher taxes that support well-maintained roads, but drive $120,000 BMWs...In which society would the wealthy be happier? Because product-quality improvements cost much more to achieve beyond some point, the absolute quality of a $180,000 car may be only slightly higher than one costing $120,000. Additionally, because not even the most sophisticated automotive suspensions can neutralize deep potholes, it’s little wonder that most people think the BMW drivers would be happier, not to mention safer.
If my arguments about the implications of the desire satisfaction theory of well-being are correct, then the “settled preferences” of the vastly wealthy would in fact be promoted by egalitarian economic policies. Accordingly, if my arguments have succeeded, then the remark from Rawls which I quoted in the introduction is misguided: past a certain point, the parties in the original position should perhaps consider denying themselves more primary goods.It is...rational for them to protect themselves against their own irrational inclinations by consenting to a scheme of penalties that may give them a sufficient motive to avoid foolish actions and by accepting certain impositions designed to undo the unfortunate consequences of their imprudent behavior. For these cases the parties adopt principles stipulating when others are authorized to act in their behalf and to override their present wishes if necessary; and this they do recognizing that sometimes their capacity to act rationally for their good may fail, or be lacking altogether. Thus the principles of paternalism are those that the parties would acknowledge in the original position to protect themselves against the weakness and infirmities of their reason and will in society. Others are authorized and sometimes required to act on our behalf and to do what we would do for ourselves if we were rational, this authorization coming into effect only when we cannot look after our own good. Paternalistic decisions are to be guided by the individual’s own settled preferences and interests insofar as they are not irrational, or failing a knowledge of these, by the theory of primary goods.
Anderson thinks that, instead of equality of resources of the sort defended by Dworkin, we should care fundamentally about social equality (or, as she calls it, “democratic equality”). And, like Jonathan Wolff, she thinks social equality with a fairly large degree of economic inequality; for instance, she rejects Rawls’ difference principle as too “demanding” (Anderson 1999, p. 326).If much recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives, could the results be any more embarrassing for egalitarians? Consider how much of this work leaves itself open to classic and devastating conservative criticisms. Ronald Dworkin defines equality as an ‘‘envy-free’’ distribution of resources. This feeds the suspicion that the motive behind egalitarian policies is mere envy....Envy’s thought is ‘‘I want what you have.’’ It is hard to see how such wants can generate obligations on the part of the envied. To even offer one’s own envy as a reason to the envied to satisfy one’s desire is profoundly disrespectful.17
Capitalism has proven extremely effective at harnessing the human inclination to look out for oneself. In doing so it has produced tremendous material prosperity, but also, very often, great economic inequality. However, if the arguments in earlier sections were to become widely endorsed, enlightened self-interest might be harnessed to promote economic equality, rather than hinder it.18 Disseminating arguments like this might then be a useful component in the egalitarian toolbox. I am substantially less sanguine than Frank appears to be about the prospects of converting the wealthy en masse. (I’d be happy if we convinced anyone at all). But in an era of increasing inequality, I think we should take what we can get.Although big-money donors are a diverse group, many of them want lower tax rates for themselves and less stringent regulations for their businesses—and they’ve been brilliantly effective in getting them. Their success has increased their incomes still further, allowing them to make even larger contributions and to demand even bigger favors. This vicious circle was strengthened considerably by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United Case. And so, each year, the possibility of new laws to curb money’s influence appears to recede…Reformers castigate wealthy donors for supporting self-serving policies. But instead, the reformers could call attention to the evidence that the donors themselves would fare better, in purely practical terms, without the tax cuts and deregulation they’ve been promoting. You don’t have to be a cynical economist to believe that the second strategy has brighter prospects.
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- 1Roughly speaking, the reason for focusing specifically on the vastly wealthy is that there clearly are some benefits of being very wealthy, and some reasons why it might be bad for one to be vastly wealthy, which don’t apply to merely being very wealthy. My thought is that there are greatly decreasing marginal benefits involved in going from very to vastly wealthy, as well as additional harms, so that the case for vast wealth being overall harmful is easier to make than the one for being merely very wealthy. This leaves open the question of whether being very wealthy is overall good or bad for someone.
- 2Of course, there has been a great deal of discussion about economic inequality more broadly (see, e.g., Lamont and Favor (2013) for an overview). What philosophers have dismissed is the specific claim that too much money might be bad for you.
- 3There are variants of the desire theory which treat some attitude other than desires as important; Heathwood (2014, p. 202) suggests as candidates “favoring something, wanting it, caring about it, valuing it, believing it valuable, liking it, trying to get it, having it as a goal, being fond of it, being for it, having an interest in it, and the like.” Nothing about which attitude we pick should make a big difference to my argument, so, for ease, I’ll just continue speaking of “desires.”
- 4For a similar approach, see James O’Sullivan’s account of capabilities theory in his essay in the current volume.
- 5Hybrid theorists have a number of options about what constitutes harm; see Shelly Kagan’s (as far as I know, unpublished) paper “What is Ill-being when Well-being is Enjoying the Good?”
- 6E.g., Heathwood (2006) argues, I think implausibly, that the most credible versions of hedonism and the desire theory are actually the same theory.
- 7The section is about desire theories of reasons, rather than well-being, but most of the suggestions have relevant analogues.
- 8There are two ways to think about what’s happening in these cases. One is to say that the value for me of the state of affairs my experiencing pleasure changes depending on what the pleasure is taken in. The other is to say that the value of the state of affairs my experiencing pleasure is constant regardless of what the pleasure is taken in, but that the value for me of the state of affairs my experiencing pleasure in some innocent stranger’s suffering is less the sum of the values for me of the states of affairs my experiencing pleasure and some innocent stranger suffering. (For a relevant discussion, see (Dancy 2004, chp. 10)). This is a technical point without practical implications for us here. I think the latter view is correct, but will sometimes speak as if the former view is true, just because doing so is easier.
- 9Nineteen million dollars divided by seventy-five thousand dollars is 253.333…, meaning it could run from 2017 until a few months into 2271. The Enterprise’s mission lasts from 2265–2270.
- 10I’m grateful to Paul Weithman for pressing me on this point.
- 11For more (in a very different context) on how shared adversity can deepen relationships, see (Ekstrom 2013), esp. p. 271.
- 12Wealthy people also tend to be literally, physically separated from everyone else; see (Florida and Mellander 2015).
- 13For a review of one such policy, the Earned Income Tax Credit, see the essay by Quinn and Cahill in the present volume.
- 14People are substantially more bothered by losing money they already have than by failing to gain additional money, as the literature on “loss aversion” in behavioral economics (e.g., (Kahneman et al. 1991)) has shown.
- 15The philosophical literature on “adaptive preferences” shows us that sometimes, the fact that someone will adjust to a hardship does not make things much better. If, say, a member of a marginalized group, believing that they will never gain basic rights, decides, sour-grapes style, that they don’t want such rights anyway, or never aspires to having such rights to begin with, this doesn’t seem to make the denial of basic rights any less harmful or any more morally justifiable. It might be thought that appealing to the fact that the vastly wealthy will adjust is objectionable in a way analogous to appealing to the fact that some members of marginalized may adjust. But the case for being worried about adaptive preferences is strongest when adapting one’s preference involves giving up a desire for a basic constituent of well-being, or to something which forms a core part of one’s identity. Being content with merely having plenty of money is hardly like this. So, for instance, Serene Khader (2011, p. 42), appealing to an objectivist understanding of well-being, suggests that adaptive preferences are problematic when they are “(1) preferences inconsistent with basic flourishing that are (2) formed under conditions unconducive to basic flourishing and (3) that we believe people might be persuaded to transform upon normative scrutiny of their preferences and exposure to conditions more conducive to flourishing.” But learning to be content while living under the sort of economic scheme possessed by, say, the European social democracies does not meet any of these conditions. (If anything, if the argument of this paper is correct, the opposite is true!)
- 16An anonymous referee for Religions suggests another interesting way in which this might work. I noted in Section 3.2.2 that the wealthy often given their children substantial inheritances, against their better judgment. Presumably, part of the reason for this is that social norms put strong pressure on them to do so. It’s possible that certain egalitarian policies, like very high estate taxes, might remove this pressure by making it the case that rich people generally can’t give their children very large inheritances. The fact that others can’t do so would then be a benefit to those who don’t want to, but are pressured into doing so.
- 17I think Anderson is actually unfair to Dworkin here. The envy test is a test; it is supposed to tell us that, when a distribution is envy free, it is just. That doesn’t mean that the fact that the distribution is envy free is why it is just, or is the reason for aiming at that distribution, and, in fact, I think Dworkin would reject those claims. But this doesn’t matter too much, since, if I am right, the envy test fails anyway.
- 18This way of putting the point was suggested by one of the referees for Religions.
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