Sense and Nonsense: How the Rich Can Be Virtuous

In Book Four of his Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of “liberality,” or “generosity”—what we do with our wealth, or better, our material goods. Aristotle held that from the point of view of virtue, it doesn’t make much difference if we have much or little wealth. Rich or poor, we have essentially the same problem: namely, how to rule ourselves with regard to our actual wealth. The poor man can be greedy and the rich man generous. Aristotle would be astonished at the modern view that the poor are virtuous simply because they are poor or that the rich are bad simply because they are rich. He also understood that human beings need a certain amount of wealth just to exist.

Aristotle’s teachings can be best applied to our reactions to the salaries of professional athletes, especially basketball, football, and baseball players, but not forgetting golf, hockey, and tennis players. To us, their salaries may seem “unearned” and often are cause for resentment. Professional athletes can sometimes receive tens of millions of dollars over a five-year period.

Granted the nature of advertising today, these salaries are not as outlandish as they first seem. After all, if sports enthusiasts did not freely watch the games, no such salaries would be paid. Also, professional athletes are not the only ones being paid top dollar. Before we worry too much about the salaries of athletes, we need to look at the salaries of lobbyists, corporate executives, professors, bondholders, government officials, Hollywood entertainers, and others.

The proliferation of wealth is generally a good thing. The U.S. economic system rewards according to the interests of consumers. If there is an ethical problem with someone having too much money, it lies more in the reasons why people make possible the high incomes of athletes by “buying” their products.

 

What interests me, however, are large incomes. We know that people whose salaries put them in the highest income brackets provide a significant percentage of tax revenues. Half the legal industry seems engaged in preventing the government from getting it all. Even in Republican times, few think the government would not take more if it could.

But the question is: What happens to large sums of after-tax money in the hands of private citizens? This wealth is the grounds for the virtue Aristotle called munificence. From the point of view of virtue, the rich can manifest munificence, a virtue that shows that their souls are not controlled or corrupted by their wealth. They know what it is for and how to use and conserve what they have. It makes great gifts to others possible.

Aristotle said that those with large amounts of wealth show their virtue in underwriting three aspects of reality that would otherwise not be so well attended to: the good, the true, and the beautiful. If those with large amounts of wealth simply hoard or waste it, some fault follows. They should, of course, provide for their own needs. But beyond that, their great wealth obligates them to use it for a public or private good that the government or the rest of the citizenry cannot provide.

Much of the public display in museums, galleries, and gardens in Washington, D.C., for example, was provided by American businessmen who left their art collections to the public. What else could they do with those riches? And buildings on university campuses are often the result of wealth that sought to memorialize or legitimize itself in aiding the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The munificence of those with great wealth provides needed aid to churches and the poor and funds health research. And often munificence seeks to provide lasting arrangements, so that wealth will be available to future generations.

Of course, we must live in a society with a system of wealth production in order for this generosity to occur. We must also think that it is best for the government not to confiscate all wealth and to make itself the sole access to the good, true, and beautiful. This is the key to a public policy that is virtue-oriented and understands the limits of the state.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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