It is no sin to be rich

A discussion of the morality of wealth is timely. In the past year, there has been an increase in the attention given to the behaviour of wealthy people. The courtroom battle between members of Doug Moran’s family gave the public a glimpse of alleged malice. The ‘cash for comment’ scandal raised questions about corporate integrity. Lindsay Fox’s plans to extend his beach house, thereby impeding public access to the beach, was portrayed by some as selfishness.

In many ways, the rich are easy targets for moral condemnation. But it does not follow that being wealthy equates to being immoral. Virtue and wealth are not mutually exclusive. How many times have we heard the expression ‘Money is the root of all evil’? This is a misquote. The actual text reads: ‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ (1 Timothy 6:10). Possessing wealth does not in itself make people bad—it is the choice to worship money that is evil. But, along with great moral challenges, wealth also confers innumerable opportunities for doing good, be it by creating jobs or through philanthropy.

Greed is certainly not good. But nor is it morally or logically coherent for us to lambast people simply for being rich. No doubt, some rich people have acquired wealth via morally dubious routes. But there are also academics, union officials, lawyers, and politicians who attain power through suspect means. Such simple truths surely indicate that it is time for us to grow up when it comes to discussing the morality of wealth, and leave the cliches and muddled analysis to die a long overdue death.

'In many ways, the rich are easy targets for moral condemnation'

None of this should cause us to underestimate the moral hazards associated with wealth. The desire to acquire wealth, for example, can encourage people to become materialistic. But poverty is also morally hazardous. It can create an environment that encourages people to choose to steal—or worse.

Morally speaking, most corporate leaders are probably no morally better or worse than the rest of us. In short, we need to question that element in the Australian psyche that leads many of us to regard wealthy people as ‘suspect until proven otherwise’.

A start could be made by highlighting some common myths about wealth. Perhaps the greatest is that if one person makes money, then it must be at someone else’s expense. This falsely presumes that there is a fixed sum of wealth in the economy. Since the late eighteenth century, however, we have enjoyed greater understanding about how people create new wealth. The material prosperity consequently enjoyed by most Australians today would simply not exist if new wealth were not constantly being generated.

Secondly, there is no necessary connection between acquiring wealth and morally dubious acts. It is entirely possible to do well and do good. Although the end never justifies the means, people can acquire particular moral virtues while creating wealth. Maintaining a successful business, for example, usually depends upon people developing the habit of good judgement. Moral philosophers call this the virtue of prudence.

Another moral habit that people often develop while building wealth is that of courage. Creating wealth requires those pursuing this goal to be courageous on an on-going basis. Courage (like prudence) is, after all, one of what St Thomas Aquinas called the four cardinal virtues (the other two are justice and prudence).

'We need to question that element in the Australian psyche that leads many of us to regard
wealthy people as "suspect"'

A third misconception concerns speculation. Many regard speculation as morally dubious because it allows some to become wealthier more quickly than others, and with apparently less effort. This perception, however, relies upon questionable assumptions. Everyone, rich or poor, engages in speculation—we all make judgements and take chances on the basis of what we guess is likely to happen. As human beings, we have only limited insights into the future. Hence, any choice about what to do with any financial surplus, however large or small, necessarily has a speculative dimension.

Lastly, rich people do not literally sit on large piles of money, rendering it sterile by hiding it away under the proverbial bed. Their wealth is at work. Some of it is spent in ways that stimulate various sectors of the economy. The wealth of the rich also contributes to the formation of a vital ingredient in any growing economy: capital. This is the source of the loans that fuel new enterprises, thereby often allowing others to improve their material circumstances.

The poor, Christ once said, will always be with us. So too will the rich. Like the rest of us, they can be greedy and make mistakes. But let us not forget the good that the wealthy can do, and many are doing. To do otherwise is hardly just.


About the Author:
Samuel Gregg is Adjunct Scholar of the Religion and the Free Society research programme at The Centre for Independent Studies.