Friday, March 02, 2012

Wealth and Immorality

An interesting set of studies out of Berkeley contends that there is a correlation between wealth and the lack of ethical behavior.  Rich people, the study shows, are more likely to cheat, lie, and be greedy, self-serving, and rude to strangers. The primary investigator posits a causal claim.

"The increased unethical tendencies of upper-class individuals are driven, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed,” said Paul Piff, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today (Monday, Feb. 27) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

No doubt, the idea that greed is seen as a virtue and not a vice plays a role.  Since I got where I did through my own greed or the greed of the person from whom I inherited my wealth, and since I am by definition (or at least by the fundamental attribution error) the model of the way things should be, then greed is good.  

But there also has to be a second factor at play, privilege.  I've always gotten whatever I want, so I should get and thereby deserve whatever I want.  When you do a favor for someone more than once without declining, it ceases to be a favor, the other person just expects that you will do it -- that's just the way it works.  The rich are not thankful for their wealth or their tax breaks or their special treatment.  You are only thankful for that which you think could be otherwise.  It is inherent in the way they see the world that things are unequal and they are the ones who get the big end of the stick.  These star-bellied sneetches expect everything and so it is unremarkable that they have and get it.  That lack of mindfulness that comes with being "the haves" also plays a role here.

A colleague at a conference a few months back commented on a similar phenomenon he was observing.  Moving from a working class campus of his large state university full of first generation college students to another campus populated by the children of the wealthy, he noticed a stunning increase in plagiarism and other sorts of academic misconduct.In this case, it is not greed per se, since there is not the accumulation of stuff here.  But there is the quick move to the immoral without much thought or regret.  It is the end and not the means that is important -- something that will be normal for those who are used to having their ends satisfied (or at least kissed). 

What ramifications ought this have on policy?  If we strive to create a more moral culture, what might this mean?