Is It Ethical to Be Rich?


In 2017, approximately 5% percent of the world lived on less than 5.50 USD a day. This reality exists while the top one percent of households own 43 percent of all personal wealth. Hence, the question arises: is it ethical to be rich while millions suffer in poverty? 

Photo by Jordan Opel on Unsplash

When analysed at the individual level, the answer to this question is not always apparent. Some may say it depends on the way the money was earned, while others will say it depends on that person’s efforts to give back to society. Thus, the problem is either with individual wealth, or the way that society is structured to disregard the basic human rights of the poor. Either way, if the wealthy can overindulge themselves while others struggle to survive, morality is askew. 

The reality is that approximately 9 million people die of hunger each year, and this number can double because of COVID-19. There are a few basic needs human beings require to ensure their survival and respect for their inherent human dignity however, greed and selfishness seem to be central components of many modern-day societies. Many place the value of money above the value of other human beings and their contribution to accumulating that wealth. Of course, this is not applicable to all wealthy individuals, but the existence of the incredibly wealthy helps to reveal the problem within our societies. More emphasis should be placed on your obligation to assist others. Our societies begin to deteriorate when  individuals cannot see beyond their own good fortune.

Image by Billy Cedeno from Pixabay

Increasing taxation or implementing progressive taxes is seen as stifling entrepreneurship and freedom, so there is often not enough redistribution of income. These interventions are crucial in addressing poverty throughout the world. Furthermore, it should be recognised that economic growth would increase if individuals were able to satisfy their basic needs. If more people have the income needed to sustain themselves, then countries will flourish from their consumption of goods and an influx of human ingenuity. 

Studies have shown that increased income causes happiness to rise with the poor, but after basic needs are satisfied, happiness is not greatly affected if at all. It suffices to say that we would be a happier world if we seriously addressed the problem of income inequality. With the prevalence of international media, you can no longer live in isolation from global issues. Indeed, it goes beyond throwing money at the problem, and starts at the basic need to value human life and what is necessary for it to thrive. When that value exists, no expense is too high.

Thus, the cost to end poverty is $175 billion per year for 20 years.[1] Though this may seem like a hefty sum, it is only 1% of the total income of the richest countries in the world.[2] The cost seems even more reasonable when compared to the total world income of $70 trillion dollars per year. Therefore, it is not unethical to be rich, but it is unethical to do nothing about the poor. 

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Published: April 5, 2021

Written by Teddy-Ann Quamina, a WYA North America intern

[1] Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015).

[2] ibid.


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