Noblesse Oblige in a “Let Them Eat Cake” Nouveau Riche Era

Studies show: Generosity makes people happier than "greed is good" profiteering.

Posted Jan 25, 2017

Source: Gordan/Shutterstock

Lately, it seems to me as if we've entered an Orwellian media landscape in which the doublespeak surrounding “alternative facts" makes the daily process of trying to decipher between fake news and legitimate journalism a potentially mind-boggling challenge.

This confusion is exacerbated by some people within the new Trump administration proclaiming that they're fighting for the vulnerable underdogs of society—and that they care about the environment—while their actions make it seem as if they believe the opposite. And might just be trying to pull the wool over our eyes by using alternative facts, as they line their pockets with corporate profits. 

For example, this morning's headlines are filled with articles about President Trump claiming he is "to a large extent, an environmentalist" at the same time his administration was issuing a gag order to silence the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from speaking to the media. Yesterday, Tweets from the National Park Service that presented science-based facts disproving any claims that climate change is a hoax were swiftly deleted.

A New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben summed up the events of yesterday in an article, "A Bad Day for the Environment, with Many More to Come." After reading this, I have a gut-wrenching feeling that five decades of environmental protections and the science-based consensus on climate change are in danger of being eradicated.

The angst I'm feeling about our environment being under attack by the Trump administration reminds me of the distress my nature loving 9-year-old daughter expressed whenever I read her my hand-me-down copy of The Lorax. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a tattered first edition hardcover copy that is now housed on a bookshelf in her bedroom. 

The Lorax is a children's story of how greed can destroy the environment. The narrative seems especially apropos today. These quotations sum up The Lorax:

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues . . .  Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Both of my grandparents (on my mom's side) had serendipitous personal ties to the legendary childhood author and illustrator known as "Dr. Seuss" (Theodor Geisel) who wrote The Lorax.

My grandmother, Gabby, grew up near Springfield, Massachusetts and dated Theodor when they attended high school together. In fact, her initials are etched in the mandolin he played as a teenager that is in a glass case at the Dr. Seuss museum. Coincidentally, my grandfather, Cory Litchard, was in the same 1920s class with Theodor Seuss Geisel at Dartmouth College. They were also in the same drinking fraternity.

When it came to their love of Nature, my grandparents were cut from the same cloth as the Transcendilists from outside of Boston (that included Emerson and Thoreau) of an earlier generation. Like Geisel, my grandparents lived and breathed a New England value system rooted in giving back through philanthropic conservancy to protect the environment from mercenary capitalists. 

Screenshot by Christopher Bergland
Source: Screenshot by Christopher Bergland

This environmental mindset got into my mother's DNA, too. As a recent example, last night, my mom texted me after seeing a screening of Marina Zenovich's new Sundance Film Festival documentary that examines who controls water rights in California. Her text read. "Just saw "Water and Power." It's a must see. Never underestimate the power of greed!!!" She also texted a snapshot of a new button (on the left) she was proudly wearing that must have been handed out at the movie. 

Reading about the recent media blackout for the EPA this morning made me reminisce about all the bucolic times I spent throughout my childhood sitting on my grandparent's back porch in Longmeadow, Massachusetts or at the Ausable Club in the Adirondacks. These memories bring back a wave of the ecstatic joy I felt when I was with my grandparents and surrounded by all the sounds, smells, and beauty of nature.

Both of my grandparents cherished the wilderness and contributed generously to the National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy. My grandfather lived by his alma mater's motto and song, "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" (Latin for "A voice calling out in the wilderness"). 

What Is the Origin of Noblesse Oblige?

Noblesse Oblige is a French term that literally means “nobility obligates.” The general definition of "noblesse oblige" is: "the moral obligation of people born into powerful social positions (or who acquire wealth and power) to act with kindness, honor, and generosity."

At the core of noblesse oblige is the concept that along with being part of a powerful class of people comes social responsibility—especially if you are in a role of leadership.

As a historical example, Marie Antoinette is considered by many to be the antithesis of noblesse oblige. Although she was part of the royal nobility in France, she is notorious for having zero empathy or compassion for French peasants who were starving from lack of bread during the famine of 1789.

In fact, Antoinette's famous phrase “let them eat cake” is a timeless sentiment that may have added fuel to the French Revolution (1787-1790). In my opinion, the phrase "let them eat cake" captures the essence any über-wealthy person who is out of touch with how the other 99 percent of the population lives.

Unfortunately, so many 21st-century millionaires and billionaires are part of a nouveau riche clique that seems oblivious to the concept of noblesse oblige. Instead, it seems the majority of our modern day 'nobility' propagate an "us" against "them" mentality and live by the credo of every man for himself and "greed is good." 

As a parent and public health advocate who feels extremely fortunate for when and where I was born, I believe the least I can do at this particular moment in time is to try and make "noblesse oblige" a household phrase and part of our zeitgeist for generations to come. (For the record: I'm writing this Psychology Today blog post that includes rarefied French phrases with the ultimate goal of making the use of "noblesse oblige" more commonplace.)

Vox Clamantis in Deserto (A Calling Voice in the Wilderness)

Screenshot by Christopher Bergland
My grandparents lived their entire adult lives in this New England house built around 1770 and located in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. 
Source: Screenshot by Christopher Bergland

At first glance, some onlookers might label my grandparents disparagingly for being a part of the “Ivy League elite.” Yes, they were born into enough privilege to attend top-notch New England colleges, etc. But, if anything, they were more likely to be reverse-snobs who looked down on elitists or any nouveau riche person who put a premium on material possessions or believed that “greed is good.” They were much more interested in religiously watching every Red Sox game on TV or gardening than hobnobbing with socialites.

My grandparents were dyed-in-the-wool Massachusetts Yankees, who lived their entire adult lives in a very simple house built around 1770 by someone who fought in the American Revolution. They felt grateful and blessed for their good fortune and wanted to share any abundance they had to make the world a better place and level the playing field somehow. 

My grandfather was especially stoic. He lived almost an ascetic life; drove a jalopy, ate the same McCann's oatmeal or a poached egg with half a grapefruit every morning for breakfast, and loved making things in his woodshed. When it came to material possessions, his mantra was “Want Not. Need Not.”

As a role model and mentor, grampa passed his way of life on to me. As a parent now, I aspire to pass on the same core values of my grandparents—which were firmly rooted in a sense of noblesse oblige—to my daughter. 

Empirical Evidence Supports the Benefits of Noblesse Oblige

In addition to the anecdotal stories above, I wanted to add some empirical evidence that supports my personal belief that "greed is not good." I believe it's important to always provide some scientific research that reaffirms my written point of view. 

So, I've included a few different studies that illustrate the benefits of living with a sense of noblesse oblige by being more generous towards others, regardless of your social status. 

Below is a quick recap of some empirical evidence from three separate studies that drive home the importance of putting noblesse oblige on the front burner and in the spotlight. 

The first example is a 2014 study that reported: People tend to distrust others who are mean-spirited with their money. The researchers found that study participants who "played mean" during two different interactive games (‘the Dictator Game’ and ‘the Trust Game’) were more likely to be untrustworthy across the board. These findings by researchers from the University of Oxford and the European University Institute, Italy were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The second example is a 2016 study that discovered: High-ranking people within the social establishment aren’t always Machiavellian or selfish if they feel a sense of gratitude. According to this study, the main factor that drives someone’s propensity to give back to society appears to be rooted in whether (or not) he or she feels entitled to his or her prominent social position, or feels grateful. The findings from Michigan State University were published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

More specifically, the research team, led by Nicholas Hays, found that people with high social status who feel they deserve the unequivocal respect and adoration of others as part of their birthright were not inclined to be generous or philanthropic. Conversely, prominent people who felt gratitude and believed their social status was a blessing were more likely to be generous towards others in an attempt to alleviate their sense of inequity or guilt. Again, these findings speak to the importance of putting the concept of noblesse oblige in the spotlight.

Lastly, another study supporting the importance of noblesse oblige is a 2013 report from the Harvard Business School that concluded: Social giving makes people happier. The findings of this study were published in the International Journal of Happiness and Development.

At the time of publication in 2013, the researchers said this was the first study to examine specifically how social connection helps turn generous 'prosocial' behavior into positive feelings for the donor. (Prosocial behavior consists of magnanimous behaviors intended to benefit another, that can consist of actions which help individuals or society as a whole. These include lending a hand to someone in need, philanthropic donations, sharing, co-operating, volunteering, etc.)

The fundamental conclusion of this HBS study is that the greatest boost in happiness comes when someone gives to a charity that fortifies any type of social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation. The research has strong implications for strengthening interpersonal relationships as well as grassroots generosity within your community. It also raises awareness about the psychological benefits of donating or getting involved with any cause or non-profit that is close to your heart. 

Hopefully, this blog post will motivate you in some small way to be a part of the "One for All. All for One." solution instead of the "every man for himself" modus operandi that goes against everything the principles of noblesse oblige represent. 


Diego Gambetta, Wojtek Przepiorka. Natural and Strategic Generosity as Signals of Trustworthiness. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (5): e97533 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0097533

Nicholas A. Hays, Steven L. Blader. To Give or Not to Give? Interactive Effects of Status and Legitimacy on Generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000067

Does social connection turn good deeds into good feelings? On the value of putting the 'social' in prosocial spending by Lara B. Aknin; Elizabeth W. Dunn; Gillian M. Sandstrom; Michael I. Norton. International Journal of Happiness and Development (IJHD), Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013

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