I have been blessed In my life by those around me, materially speaking. I am not a wealthy person, but it seems appropriate during this holiday season to be thankful for the generosity of others, and I have been so blessed. I have essentially been given a house, a car, and a computer. A student even gave me a printer. I have been given generous amounts of fishing equipment, furniture, and resources for my financial future, such as stocks. I am on a California pension plan for teachers called the State Teachers Retirement System, on which I have gotten to the point where I would have a larger pension now if I retired (although I have not as yet), than my monthly meager paycheck (which is probably the least of my blessings). Strangely, although we qualify for Medicare at age 65, California teachers do not qualify for Social Security, though. Even there, Cal STRS is probably more solvent than Social Security.
There are other people who have been even more blessed materially than I have – people for whom the economic Monopoly game of life has been essentially rigged in their favor. Sadly, these people represent a small minority of the population, while the rest of us are pretty much the victims of a rigged system.
However, the old notion of “noblesse oblige” is supposed to mitigate the misfortunes of the masses and make everything okay for the population as a whole. This notion of “noblesse oblige,” is the idea of, as Google puts it: “the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.”
So, how is “noblesse oblige” working out for us? Well, not too well.
In fact, a recent series of studies investigated this very idea of whether “noblesse oblige” is a real thing or not, using simulations such as the aforementioned Monopoly game – but one in which it was rigged in favor of one contestant (Does Wealth Rob the Brain of Compassion? – The Atlantic).
Researcher Paul Piff rigged Monopoly games so that one person started the game with twice as much money, received twice as much money for passing “Go,” and passed “Go” twice as often on the average, by rolling two dice instead of one. Predictably, those in whose favor the game was rigged, easily won the game, but what Piff was interested in, was how rigging the game affected their attitudes and behavior. As it turned out, they acted more confident, spoke louder, and even literally took up more space and ate more pretzels than their unfortunate counterparts. After the game was finished, furthermore, the lucky winners of the rigged games were more likely than the losers, to talk about how good their “strategy” was, and how they deserved to win, although this was clearly a delusion. Of course, participants were randomly assigned to either be favored or discriminated against in the Monopoly game, so these differences could not be attributed to any pre-existing differences between the participants.
This research actually adds to an already existing line of real-world research (unlike Piff’s laboratory experiment) which shows that wealthier people are more prone to demonstrate narcissistic behavior and feelings of entitlement. Similarly, wealthier people have been found to be more self-centered and less ethical. In line with these other findings, they donate a smaller percentage of their income to charitable causes than do poorer people — who ought to be recipients of charity, at least according to the notion of noblesse oblige. At the heart of these differences, I suspect, is the issue of compassion. On both physiological measures, and self-assessments, wealthier people appear to experience less compassion than others when they observe people who are suffering.
Applying these findings to politics, as we know, United States government policies, for at least several decades, have increasingly favored the preferences of the affluent, and not the poor or middle class among us. Researchers on this topic feel that the privilege associated with being a policy maker such as a congress person, tends to have similar effects on people to those seen in the Monopoly experiment and other studies. Thus, most of them become relatively devoid of compassion and out of touch with their constituents, and they tend to think economically like wealthy people rather than like “ordinary folks,” in large part, because, they actually are wealthy folks.
One further note about wealthy people is that they tend to endorse “essentialism,” which essentially means that they tend to be prejudiced – thinking that group characteristics (which favor the rich) are immutable. Although the article never mentions Republicans specifically, it is clear that they are the primary drivers of these policies which increase disparities in wealth and privilege among us, and which enable prejudices to do further harm to the already disadvantaged.
In all, this paints a very unflattering picture of the wealthy, in stark contrast to the enthusiastic reviews that wealthy people tend to give themselves. Not surprisingly, researchers such as Piff – in what may be the better validation of their work than even their findings could provide – are objects of a large amount of threats and hate mail from presumably wealthy conservatives.
Going back to my original question now: Whatever happened to noblesse oblige? The answer is that it does not exist, and probably has never existed, although individual persons of privilege have on occasion acted charitably and nobly. However, for every JFK or FDR, there are probably hundreds of scoundrels who are only too happy to take your money if you let them. This may explain a lot about the history of humanity, in fact.
Perhaps the idea of “noblesse oblige” is just another invention of wealthy conservatives that they use to justify their exalted position In society.
The ultimate answer, from a political standpoint, is to elect people of humility and compassion to be our leaders, rather than power-mad, ambitious persons looking to climb the social ladder to the top so that they can look down on everyone else. We need public servants who instead, offer a hand up to others.
At the same time, as the article points out, we need leaders who make rational choices which serve the greater good, which sometimes means that some people will be hurt in order to advance the collective good of society. Such are the moral dilemmas that we face, but this is far better than having policy decisions which are guided by greed and personal ambition.
Here’s your extra homework!