Are the Rich More Selfish?

Posted on 2011 August 12


Don't you wish you had this bag?A left-wing friend sent a link to an article that cites research by a University of California professor that casts aspersions on wealthy people’s morals. The results seem to demonstrate that rich people are relatively selfish and poor people are, in comparison, kind and thoughtful.

Here’s the article:

Oh, puh-leeeze! I receive comparable mailings from right-wingers who cite “studies” that prove that Muslims are barbarians or immigrants are here to steal our jobs or Africans have smaller brains. These “proofs” have built-in biases that guide the reader toward pre-set conclusions. Surely this latest study about the upper crust wouldn’t have such biases, would it? Let’s take a look.

” . . . [T]he rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped . . . . Unlike the rich, lower class people have to depend on others for survival, Keltner argued.” Wait a minute! He can’t have it both ways: either the rich also depend on others or they don’t. If he argues one way for his convenience and then the opposite way when it suits him, how can we trust his research? Let’s have his work replicated numerous times, peer-reviewed, and then checked again, before we go off half-cocked and decry an entire group of people.

“’They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic,’ said Keltner . . . ” They don’t?? He seems to assume that the rich are callous for believing that a person’s own efforts might have something to do with his or her success. What stands in most people’s way, then? Rich people? That’d be like saying, “The rich won’t let the rest of us succeed because they’re selfish and won’t give us some of their money!”

Why do we focus so much envy on the rich? Why aren’t we mad at beautiful people, or geniuses, or creative types, or great athletes? They sure have more of these qualities than the rest of us. Yes, we envy them, too, but we don’t pass laws to regulate good looks or restrict brilliance. The truth is, we can’t take those traits from them and give them to ourselves. But we can take away money. So rich people make easy targets.

Testing wealthy people’s empathy is tantamount to asking them how generous they’d be to (a) their neighbors and relatives, who are largely well off and don’t need their help, or (b) less wealthy strangers, many of whom have tried to scam them for their money over the years, teaching them suspicion rather than trust. Simply to ask the question, then, makes rich people look bad, even when they aren’t. It’s political grandstanding dressed up as science.

Could Keltner possibly have an agenda? We’re not supposed to think ill of our scholars’ motives, but I’ve seen this sort of “research” before from the other side: the Right Wing does exactly the same thing, trotting out its own list of PhDs who can “prove” all sorts of nonsense. If you question any of it from either side, you’re accused of disbelieving the scientific process. “They’re experts! And they’re just trying to find the facts.” When both sides claim that, am I in receipt of the truth or being sold a bill of goods?

It’s healthy, by the way, that liberal MSNBC (which posted the article) provides a counterbalance to conservative Fox News, but they both sport their share of experts with agendas; neither network gets high marks for even-handeness. Partisans may respond, “Maybe, but our side is less biased than their side.” In fact, recently I read a conservative column that made that very argument. ( ) But that’s merely a continuation of the same prejudice, a way of saying, “Their side is less civilized than we are.” Pretty soon “their side” is a bunch of barbaric monkeys who have no right to civil treatment. And it’s all downhill from there.

If a rich person has somehow managed to prevent you from making a living, you should sue the bastard! If there’s any case at all, the scofflaw will likely settle with a big check just to make the problem go away. (An acquaintance recently battled a major corporation — it had refused to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars on a contract, thinking he would cave under their heavy-handed delay tactics — and in court he won a lucrative settlement.) While we’re at it, we might acquire some of their money by providing high-end services the wealthy are eager to pay for. (Another acquaintance — a member of a disaffected group known for its relative poverty — specializes in high-end clients; his paychecks reflect it handsomely. He isn’t exactly waiting around for the world to become fair.) If we must even the score, those are the honorable and effective ways to do it.

Otherwise, we end up aching to bring down all the well-off, hoping desperately that our wide angle of fire will hit the real perpetrator by chance. (The rage for revenge doesn’t stop to consider collateral damage.) Meanwhile, we torture ourselves with bitter resentment toward an entire group. And what, really, is the difference between that and the bigotry of right-wingers? It’s only that the blank for “the enemy” has been filled in differently. Condemning all the wealthy because some of them do bad things is essentially no different from the way racists and religious zealots think. It’s uncivilized and unbecoming for liberals. They should know better.

There’s a story where a student says to a guru, “I want people to be tolerant of everyone!” The guru — who knew the supplicant well — inquired, “Does this include tolerance for the rich?” The student replied, sheepishly, “Except for them.”

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UPDATE: Why do we tax wealth but not beauty?