A F. Scott Fitzgerald short story begins, ''Let me tell you about the
very rich. They are different from you and me.''
Several years later, Hemingway embellished on that line in a novel of his by having a character say, "Yes, they have more money."
Fitzgerald explored the corrupting effect of the pursuit of riches in novels and short stories. A new set of research adds a new wrinkle to these observations. The rich, the study implies, are also morally bankrupt.
As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers find that the wealthy are more likely to cheat, lie and act indifferently to those in need than those financially less well-off.
"Elevated wealth status seems to make you want even more, and that increased want leads you to bend the rules or break the rules to serve your self-interest," says Paul Piff, a UC Berkeley graduate student, who is the lead author of the joint study with the University of Toronto.
The researchers conducted seven separate studies involving more than 1,000 subjects. They found, for example, that higher status individuals tended to ignore pedestrians and cut off other cars.
In each of the seven studies, they found the same pattern: high status individuals (measured on several different scales) tend to act-or say they would-less ethically. Put another way: the rich act in their self-interest first and foremost.
The study may give an accurate picture of many wealthy in today's society. It is easy, though to draw the wrong conclusions from it, as I think the researchers do. Piff says the study "highlights the disparities in social environments. That different positions occupied give rise to almost natural tendencies and divergent social values."
My view is that the differences can be traced back to values and goals with which individuals identify. In today society, the overarching value is money. Critic Peter Schjeldahl finds that it has even corrupted the art world. He writes "the power of money celebrates itself by shedding all pretext of supporting illiquid values."
Ethics is an illiquid value that frequently finds itself low down on the list of values today. Parents say they want to raise moral children while, in fact, they put more stress on material success or popularity or a host of other values.
People who act ethically are those who have a strong moral sense. These individuals place ethical values at the center of their self-identity. While other values are important, they are unwilling to
compromise their integrity to achieve them.
The rich are morally bankrupt when ethical values aren't central to their lives. And ethical values aren't central because our society now celebrates money as a good in and of itself.
Wealth isn't an intrinsic good. It all depends upon how it is obtained and what is done with it. Many have gotten rich the right way and use their wealth to promote the well-being of others.
An ethical identity helps inoculate against moral bankruptcy.