The Rich Are Different—Are They Morally Corrupt?

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.



6 thoughts on “The Rich Are Different—Are They Morally Corrupt?

  1. I think is a biological explanation for such behaviour as well. In this sense, we’ll reduce the groups to the “weak” group (the poor) and the “strong” group (the rich). The weak group learns to work together since none of them have the resources or ability to gain power alone. Thus, their tight knit group does not want to take a risk because in doing so whoever tried to usurp the power and control of the group would become the minority and the enemy against the several other members of the former group. Thus, betrayal was not to be tolerated or valued so those members who did commit such an act were likely killed off or expelled from the group, thereby reducing their ability to have offspring and survive. Eventually such a desire or instinct was reduced and breeded out.

    That also explains why the rich are willing to take more risks. They know how much wealth they have and they know how much of it they can use against weaker groups or members before they need to stop. They have a comfort cushion, so to speak, that the poor groups do not. Similarly, they know that they can commit less than moral acts because they can pay off those who would condemn or punish them. Corruption is a huge driving force. And then those who look the other way from the crime do not care because they don’t know the poor group personally. They have had experiences with them but they occupy their own level of society, above the poor between beneath the rich. Or potentially with the rich.

  2. Your biological explanation for how poor communities function is off base. The reasons are social, not biological. The genes of poor people are no different than that of the wealthy. Your explanation takes one half of the discredited Social Darwinism by extending it to the poor while not doing the same for the wealthy. Biology doesn’t explain cultural success, only physical.

  3. You make a valid point but human morality is a mixture of culture and genetics. Genetics set up the very base and culture builds upon that. Thus it’s a combination of sociology and biology.

    • I agree with that. Biology forms the basis of our social lives (we are weak creatures, after all, and need others for survival) and on that base many (but not every) structure can be built. Only certain foods are nutritious, for example (we can’t survive on rocks) but there are three basic ways in which we eat food (hands, cutlery, chop sticks).

  4. Pingback: wealth changes the rules « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  5. Your post leaves me with some questions about which comes first: Do selfish, unethical people become rich, or do people become selfish and unethical because they are rich? It takes someone with all-consuming drive to become a top-paid CEO, someone who doesn’t give a thought to the people who get laid-off or fired, who isn’t put off by manipulating consumers to make decisions not in their best interest, who is willing to buck the regulators and anyone else concerned with employee safety or environmental protection if it will put the corporation at a competitive disadvantage, someone who will actively pursue any tax evasion strategy which has a chance to succeed.

    On the other hand, most CEOs are born into privilege and wealth so one could argue that they became selfish and insensitive from their social origins. What about other people who are born very rich. Are they ever drawn to a more ethical lifestyle? What forces are at work when that happens?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s