The Virtuous Rich

If anyone out there should happen to have a small fortune to dispose of, I would urge them to consider entrusting it to the Lu family. As philosophers, my husband and I can debate almost anything, but on this we have always agreed: we would make excellent rich people. As of yet, the theory is untested, but who better qualified to spend a pile of dough than two Catholic moral philosophers? The lesson in stewardship would itself be ample return on the investment.

Until someone takes me up on this generous offer, I’ll have to content myself with distributing advice on the best way to be rich. It is a contentious topic nowadays, in light of heated political debates over wealth gaps, redistribution and the politics of envy. Democrats make electoral hay from demonizing the rich, while happily accepting their donations and most of their votes. Republicans, showing their libertarian colors, seem wary of criticizing even the most obviously corrupt ultra-wealthy (such as, for example, crony capitalists). On a political level, Americans are buffeted on either side by the doctrine of envy and the doctrine of unapologetic greed.

Is there a better way? One obvious but underexplored tactic for political conservatives would be to avoid statist redistributive policies while using the soft pressure of social disapprobation to shame the wealthy into better spending habits. Anyone interested in virtue should easily understand that coercive state redistribution is a poor substitute for a civic-minded citizenry who are prepared to make sacrifices for the public good.

Unfortunately, spending money well is no simple matter. Christianity has always taught the importance of helping the poor, but today our discussion of poverty is heavily saturated in non-Christian philosophies such as Marxism and Rawlsianism, and this can make it difficult to discern the true Christian path. As a refreshing counterpoint, it might be helpful to look to a pre-Christian source that was held in great esteem by the Church fathers (and especially the Scholastics). This we find in Aristotle, who offers an “ethics of greatness” through his discussion of the virtues of magnificence and magnanimity.

In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle treats each of these virtues in turn beginning with magnificence, the virtue especially concerned with the spending of large fortunes. At the core of this virtue is the requirement to spend well, which for Aristotle means investing in beautiful, tasteful things, and especially in things that will benefit the general public, such as religious shrines or public entertainment. The magnificent person does not cut corners, understanding that quality is not cheap. At the same time, the magnificent person has a sense of propriety, which enables him to avoid pompous extravagance. Aristotle obviously abhors conspicuous consumption, as seen in the example of the person who throws a dinner party and furnishes it as lavishly as if it were a wedding banquet. Such excess, Aristotle suggests, is tacky and vulgar; the magnificent person would appreciate that an ordinary social occasion called for more moderate festivities.

From here, Aristotle moves into a discussion of magnanimity, which, more than the previous passage, may give modern readers pause. Aristotle’s magnanimous man might be succinctly described as someone who is conscious of his own greatness. Thus, he accepts as his due the honors that appropriately come his way. Some features of magnanimity are obviously appealing; for example, the magnanimous man is free of vanity, and cannot be goaded by petty slights. At the same time, Aristotle acknowledges that the magnanimous person may be perceived as disdainful or ungracious insofar as he avoids asking for help, and rarely expresses gratitude. He takes care to affect a kind of gravitas by walking slowly and, ideally, speaking in a deep voice.

Woe to the tenor or the soprano! It is hard not to laugh a bit over the more superficial details of Aristotle’s account. More seriously, any Christian should object to the idea that gratitude is unbecoming even to the great. Aristotle’s account is critically lacking insofar as he fails to grasp that humans are fallen and in need of repentance. It may also be troubling to notice that Aristotle’s magnificent person seems more attentive to great public works than to the needs of the poor. Without dismissing these criticisms, however, we may find valuable insight in Aristotle’s account of greatness, and the actions that proceed from it.

Both of Aristotle’s “virtues of greatness” reflect a common theme, namely, that we should hold in esteem a person who is able and willing to act well on a large scale. In a society that idealizes equality, we have difficulty interpreting the lavish gesture as anything more than pompous excess, particularly when it comes from a private individual. This may be a mistake. As political conservatives regularly point out, industry and entrepreneurship are good for society, and honestly acquired wealth should not be a source of shame. Nevertheless, the fact remains that material wealth opens opportunities that are available only to a few. The truly civic-minded person should see this as a responsibility as well as a privilege, and should understand that he is obliged to use his resources well, not squandering the opportunity to create goodness and beauty.

We might find a useful corrective, both for the more off-putting elements of Aristotle’s account of magnanimity, and also for some of the objectionably libertarian elements in Republican political rhetoric, if we bear in mind that no person, however hard-working, can attain great wealth without some measure of providential help. The cleverest of entrepreneurs is still beholden to unpredictable changes in markets, in weather patterns, or even in his own personal health. A general sense of gratitude for happy life developments is always appropriate. But, as Aristotle’s account reminds us, a prosperous life should not be a source of shame. Rather, the prosperous should strive to live up to the obligations laid upon them by being virtuously rich. If they do, they will properly be admired by all who truly care about human excellence.

The Aristotelian ideal offers a truly refreshing contrast to so much contemporary rhetoric concerning wealth. According to this ethic, the conscientious person should not deliberate about how much of his fortune he is obliged to give away before spending the rest as he likes. This paradigm is simultaneously too demanding, and not demanding enough. The virtuous rich will properly devote all of their resources to projects that give them joy, and that make their lives more meaningful. At the same time, virtue lays claim to every penny of even the largest fortune. Waste and extravagance are always morally reprehensible, and considered from the perspective of virtue, no one can ever afford them.

A discouraging number of people in our society seem utterly lacking in discernment concerning the good uses of wealth. They see no distinction between the ethereal beauty of Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and the tawdry excess of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The Vatican Museums, where rich and poor alike have basked in some of humanity’s finest achievements, are painted with the same brush as Steven Schwarzman’s three-million-dollar birthday party.

It is true that all of these projects directed resources towards something other than the alleviation of poverty. This, however, cannot be our only criterion for assessing the stewardship of wealth. Giving to the poor may actually do harm if it is done thoughtlessly, in such a way as to encourage dependence and vice. Meanwhile, a lavishly adorned cathedral or an exquisite recording of Mozart might inspire and uplift the minds of rich and poor alike. A true commitment to excellence should inspire admiration, not envy, from all people of good will.

If, indeed, America is becoming more materially stratified, it is critically important that we foster some sense of the value of stewardship. The prudent and generous private use of wealth is by far the best solution to growing inequality, and is certainly to be preferred to heavily redistributionist government programs. Conservatives have long been in the business of preaching personal responsibility to the poor and destitute. Perhaps it is time to start preaching personal responsibility to the rich.

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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  • Alan Lille

    You would be reminded of Aquinas’s understanding of the role of the public authority as this, in addition to private distribution, relates to distributive justice. Your statement, “The prudent and generous private use of wealth is by far the best solution to growing inequality” is nice but a little utopian. The common good requires distributive justice which is part of role of the public authority in addition to individual and other forms of community participation. The private only approach is at its core, a libertarian ideal which is foreign to the Catholic understanding of civil society.

    • Alecto

      The problem with your argument is that common good is determined by the individual, not some behemoth bureaucratic state. There is more wisdom in the children’s story of the Little Red Hen or in the parable of the Good Samaritan who used his own money to help another human being, than in 5,000 volumes on socialist justice. Somewhere along the line, Catholics became the worst of all priggish control freaks. It doesn’t become them.

      No honest person can possibly argue that the Kelo decision, for example, was just, because it deprived plain, simple people of their modest homes in order to benefit that public authority. Yet your philosophy, if implemented, would have that effect exponentially. It would impoverish everyone in favor of a few elect and thoroughly corrupt masters. Envy and sloth destroy the soul as much as avarice or gluttony. All are to be avoided, equally. We overcome attachment to material things in service to others, not in confiscating material things from others.

    • Rachel Lu

      Distributive justice is in some broad sense the responsibility of the authority figure, but need that mean that he must be the direct causal agent? If the ruler urges generosity, his subjects comply, and everyone is well cared for, does that make a society distributively unjust because the resources weren’t redistributed coercively?

      Note, I didn’t claim that coercive redistribution was always and definitely impermissible. I said that it was not to be preferred. This seems hard to deny for the virtue-interested person. When people voluntarily use their resources well, that shows generosity and good will on the part of the rich, and the poor, for their part, are more likely to feel gratitude and, when appropriate, shame. Everyone is better off. That doesn’t mean, however, that state-mandated redistribution can’t be condoned under any circumstances.

      • Alecto

        Coercive redistribution = Institutional theft. On its face it rejects any notion of private property, which is one of the elements of liberty. To reject that is to reject free will. Let’s be clear about what this is: advocating the use of police power to take from those whom others perceive as having no rights in their property, and giving it to those with no legal rights to it. The goal of Catholicism is not to force others into a “virtuous” life here. Jesus never promised that this life would be just, or easy or prosperous. He promised the opposite. I do not understand what the heck is going on the mind of any Catholic who perverts Christ’s message to engage in state-sanctioned brutality. That is what this is.

        Barak Obama decided that it would better for all if he ignored federal bankruptcy laws and stripped property owners of their rights in their bonds. That group included pensioners, people on fixed incomes, but it doesn’t matter who they were, it matters that someone with enough power to take something from someone else, took it for the “common good”. That action denigrated the very idea of private property and its just distribution. But, Catholics cheer that now, and I reject them and this.

        It always boils down to the same problems: (1) Who decides what is fair? And, (2) If rights to property aren’t respected, or equally enforced what other rights won’t be respected or enforced by the State?

        • Alan Lille

          The right to private property is not absolute-not to mention the universal destination of goods-and a negative definition of freedom is incomplete. Freedom is always tied to the good not just the individual right. The individual good is always related to the common good. Classical liberals seem to confuse freedom with license. They are not the same.

          • Alecto

            No right is absolute, but it is crucial to remember that all individual rights are actionable against the State. Orwell wrote, “Freedom is the right to tell other people what they do not wish to hear.” It is not the right to take what you want from other people because you lack something. My individual rights are no greater or less than another individual’s rights. That I respect their rights in their person or property is the foundation of freedom. Nor does the State have rights, only specific power delegated to it by the people, in whom all power resides.

            Within this discussion lurks another regarding rule of law and process. When that process is undermined in order to benefit a few powerful people, then freedom decreases. It is important that any legal process be impartial, but that is not what is occurring. We have a State which disregards the rule of law in favor of its personal political pronouncements. That is by definition, is tyranny.

            • Alan Lille

              St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The idea that man need only seek his own private good contradicts both charity and reason.” The right is always predicated on the good. Absent this, you have individuals acting out of moral anarchy. Right is not absolute. This is a false idea that cannot be rationally defended. The good measures the right which is limited. It is the moral duty of the public authority to promote and defend the common good in cooperation with intermediary organizations and individuals. Now the state too must operate in accordance with the good of both the individual and civil society. The State’s power is thus limited by justice and the common good. While the State is called to promote the rule of law, these laws must themselves conform to the good and the dignity of persons. Again, it is the good which supercedes the right.

              • Valentin

                “The idea that man need only seek his own private good contradicts both charity and reason.” the key words are “need only” that doesn’t mean that private projects and the appreciation of the beauty of worldly goods can’t be worthy offerings to god.

  • Alecto

    Well done, Rachel. There are distinctions between the wealthy of today and those of yesteryear. For all the criticism leveled at Henry Ford, I admired him for creating the Edison Institute, Greenfield Village and his efforts to preserve and teach American history and values to others. Or, Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy which affirmed his belief in personal duty and care for his fellow human beings. Contrast these two men with the misanthropy of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, both atheists, both of whom reject the dignity of the human being by supporting abortion, contraception and both of whom use their resources to destroy, not preserve or build.

  • tamsin

    “honestly acquired wealth should not be a source of shame.”

    in 3…2…1, you are going to have a commenter here assert that there is no such thing as honestly acquired wealth, because all profit is theft from the workers, and the commenter will quote Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value in support of his assertion, without attribution.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Try listening to Reinhard, not Karl, for a good Catholic variety of Marx. Karl would solve the Theory of Surplus Value by eliminating the surplus, rather than maximizing the value.

  • Patrick Eoin Brogan

    Actually, Michael Jackson’s estate was called “Neverland Ranch” after J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

  • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

    I’m surprised that no one is quoting the Gospel story of the rich man who wanted to go to Heaven. He was sad when Jesus told him to give away his wealth. Then, Jesus commented that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than get to Heaven. I think if the rich want to be good and follow Jesus, they have to think hard about that quote from Jesus.

    • Alecto

      “If money be not thy servant, it will be thy master. The covetous man
      cannot so properly be said to possess wealth, as that may be said to
      possess him.” Francis Bacon

      “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” 1 Timothy 6:10

      Is the sin of the rich young man that he possessed wealth, or that he was attached to it?

      • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

        Alecto, I think attachment is definitely the sin. I know in today’s society, many of the wealthy are similarly attached to their wealth. I know there are exceptions, and I thank God for that.

      • jason taylor

        He was told to SELL all that he had and GIVE to the poor. In which case someone else would have possessed it. Jesus would have been commanding him to cause others to sin if having possessions was sinful.

    • msmischief

      In modern USA, that’s everyone. Everyone in the United States lives above the world poverty line, even though the World Bank has recently raised to to $1.25 a day.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this Dr Lu.

    I am curious to learn what your thoughts are on Father Dubay’s famous(infamous?) book ‘Happy Are You Poor’. Have you read this? Would you please comment if you have?

    His book, which has influenced many people, uses scripture and the saints to call everyone to gospel poverty.

    If I was rich, I would offer to pay you for your thoughts…:)