The Great and the Good

Why Do the Rich Have a Different Moral Calculus?


Albert Loeb


Albert Loeb, father of Richard

The traditional system of justice rests on the foundation that the minds of individuals generally all have the same ability of choosing courses of action and hence they can all be equally blamed when those courses of action are wrong.

But with a modern, Physicalist worldview, we recognise that our behaviour is dictated by circumstances beyond our choosing. To return to a previous example, lawyer Clarence Darrow appealed to the compassion of the judge to spare the death penalty on Richard Loeb:

“What had this boy to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparents. All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself and yet he is to be compelled to pay.”

Now, if this applies to blame then it applies equally to its opposite, praise.

If transgressors cannot be blamed (in the traditional, direct sense) for their deeds, then the successful cannot be praised for their achievements either.

Consider Richard Loeb’s father, Albert Loeb (1868-1924), as an example of a high achiever. After enjoying a good education, he set up a law practice in Chicago that quickly gained Sears, Roebuck & Company as a client for whom he went on to work for directly, eventually becoming vice president. He had reached the heights of social standings and was able to surround himself with wealth: a mansion in an affluent part of Chicago, a Model Farm in Michigan with a schoolhouse for the workers’ children. And governesses for his own children.

Hyde Park Herald

The home of Alfred Loeb and family, 5017 South Ellis Avenue, Kenwood, Chicago. (Barack Obama’s house is on the adjacent street, South Greenwood Avenue.)

As with other high-achievers, he was presumably proud of his achievements in life and felt that he had achieved his rewards as a result of his personal abilities without very much being credited to his fortunate circumstances in which we was born and grew up

With a Physicalist worldview, It is not just that…

Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple

But it is also that:

‘If you can hit a triple, that automatically puts you on third base to start with!’



How the Rich Behave

Loeb’s Model Farm, Charlevoix MI

There has recently been much general media coverage on research about how the moral behaviour and reasoning of those at the top of the social tree differs from that of the rest of us. For example, from research by Paul Piff:

  • They are more likely to lie and cheat when gambling or negotiating,
  • They are more likely to endorse unethical behaviour in the workplace.
  • They exhibit reduced empathy, favouring ‘rational’ utilitarian choices (rather than more intuitive, emotional responses) such as being more likely to take resources from one person to benefit several others.

That last is from `trolleyology’ experiments . Another ‘method’ is to equate high-status cars with high-status drivers and observe behaviour. For example, drivers of high-status cars are more likely to cut other drivers up and not stop for pedestrians at crossings.

Piff et al: 'Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior'

‘Mean machine’: Another BMW driver fails to stop for a pedestrian.

Elsewhere, I have defined morality as being about balancing the wants of oneself with those of others. Piff frames the behaviour of the rich in terms of such a balance:

‘the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.’

(He calls this ‘the asshole effect’!)

Kathleen Vohs is another high-profile researcher in this area. Experiments of hers concluded that just thinking about money decreases empathy, shifting the balance from others to oneself. But she believes this effect is a result of a lack of interest rather than malicious. For ‘money-primed’ individuals:

“It’s not a bad analogy to think of them as a little autistic.”

In the relationship between affluence and selfishness, which is the cause and which is the effect? The cause can be one of:

  • The environment: Being rich makes you less empathetic, or
  • The agent: Being less empathetic makes you rich.

Others have questioned the quality of research like this – for its subjectivity and inadequate sample size. (Far worse is the case of Diederick Stapel, who faked the data for similar research papers.)

But even if the data is frail or faked, we are inclined to go along with their conclusions because either:

  1. they ring true with our own anecdotal experience (e.g. that BMW drivers tend to be inconsiderate of other road users) – the ‘science’ only confirms ‘what we already knew’, or
  2. we want them to be true.


Charitable Giving

Looking at donations to charity is another way of assessing how much people think of others. Crucially, for this there is a vast amount of data available to analyse, from tax returns. One study analysed donation data from 30% of U.S. tax returns, a huge set. This is not without its problems but it does overcome sample size problems. Ranking the largest 50 U.S. metropolitan areas based on the percentage of people’s income given to charity, Salt Lake City was at the top, accompanied by the Bible Belt cities of the South East. The affluent Silicon Valley cities, San Francisco and San Jose, were nearly at the very bottom. Silicon Valley has long had a reputation for low level of charitable donations. (It has also been associated with a high prevalence of the diagnosis of autism/Asperger’s syndrome.)

The story is similar in the UK, Scotland and the Midlands donate more generously (proportionately) than those from more affluent London and the South East.

Charitable giving as a function of income

Major factors that influence charitable generosity are

  • being married, and
  • regular attendance of religion services.

Religion is the factor that transforms the graph of percentage-giving-versus-income from one that declines with increasing income to a ‘U’ curve (see above). But it is only a relatively small proportion of the very wealthy that are doing the giving.

The use of charitable donations as an indicator of generosity is not straightforward – the relationship is obscured by including donations to political / ideological causes as well as traditional charitable ‘good causes’. But even after compensating for this, those who regularly attend religious services still donate more to secular ‘good causes’ than those who don’t. But this can simply be attributed to the habit of being regularly reminded of others needs at those services. The relative meanness of those who do not attend regular religious services can be attributed to not being made consciously aware of others’ needs so frequently – ‘out of sight; out of mind’.

Other factors affecting charitable giving include:

  • Living in rural rather than urban areas. (Note: those in cities are generally better educated.)
  • Increasing age (ignoring the effect of bequests).
  • Living in mixed rather than ‘gated’ communities.

It would also appear that conservatives are more generous than liberals but there is no statistically significant difference between them per se; the high level of donations of conservatives can be accounted for by their higher religious attendance.


Affluent Societies

Taking what has been said above, an overall picture emerges. Compared with more ‘traditional’ societies, in modern Western societies:

  • People are more likely to be single. Relationships have less commitment.
  • There is less attendance of religious services: less social connectedness to those living in the vicinity. Less regular exposure to those less fortunate.
  • The majority of the population now live in an urban environment: day-to-day interactions with others are more likely to be anonymous rather than with those you know personally.
  • People are better educated: moral deliberation is done with a wider perspective than the local/immediate/emotional.
  • People are more individualistic: Occupations are more specialised and there is more leisure time to define oneself by.
  • People are more affluent: they have more material goods to ‘play’ with and use, with consequent reduced contact with others. Particularly relevant here is car ownership, isolating people when tranversing between home and work.
  • People are more isolated from one another: they are likely to living in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ neighbourhoods where people are more like themselves. Their interaction tends to be more with those of their own age. This is all particularly acute for ‘gated communities’.
  • There is less dependency and there is higher monetization: we are less dependent on other specific people, and their goodwill. If we want something, we can just buy it with the minimum of personal interaction and generally from one of a number of anonymous providers.

All these factors lead to reduced empathy towards people around us. This is an effect of the environment.

However, it must be emphasized that this is a local effect. Modern Western society supports a huge population, becoming a more homogeneous ‘global village’ whereas ‘traditional’ societies tend to be small and much less tolerant to outsiders.

On balance, a reduction in local empathy might not be a problem if society was quite uniformly affluent. But there are huge societal differences. The reduced empathy of the powerful leads to narcissism and insensitivity and works to the detriment of the weak.

As already said, morality is about balancing the wants of the individual against those of others within society.

  • A ‘traditional’ environment is likely to be physically harsh. This balancing must be skewed towards the wider needs of the group. The community needs religion to bind itself together. There must be strongly codified acceptable behaviours.
  • A modern, Western environment is physically benign and can support greater independence and the moral balancing can shift towards the individual.

This shift is most pronounced for the most affluent.


Entitlement and Narcissism

In extreme cases, the balance is completely shifted towards the self. Such people have:

  • An affluence which means that all ‘basic’ worldly needs are easily met: food, shelter, safety, belonging and self-respect.
  • A lack of empathy.
  • A ‘cold’ application of reason that directs action.


  • A preparedness to sacrifice others (dispassionately) for a greater good, or
  • Completely no personal regard for others.


The former case of sacrificing others is one of ‘extreme Utilitarianism’ – a preparedness or a sense of entitlement to act. Moreover it is an entitlement to act alone (based just on one’s own perceptions of reality). There is a gradual transition from personal morality to political morality here. A government department is entitled to take actions that impersonally sacrifice some people for others (buy drugs for one medical condition at the expense of others for another). A political leader, supported by the institution of government is entitled to take actions that impersonally sacrifice some people for others (wage war). But when a group of insufficient size thinks it is entitled to impersonally sacrifice some people for others, it is terrorism.

(The problem with the classic ethical thought experiments such as

is that these scenarios apply ordinarily to groups, not individuals.)

An example is the case of Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the 2011 terrorism in Oslo and on Utøya. Before his killing spree, he released a 1500-page account of his worldview concerning the preservation of European culture against Islamisation. Although delusional (and homophobic and misogynistic and …), there is an intellectualized dimension to his cause, and a willingness to enforce significant sacrifices in order to further that cause (incarceration for himself but death for many others). Breivik would probably diagnose his motivations as part of his personal self-actualization. Psychiatrists on the other hand attributed his acts to narcissistic personality disorder (exacerbated by Asperger’s).

The latter case of having no regard for others is one of megalomania, for which there are plenty of examples throughout history. Its juvenile form is one of insufficient competence, such as with the case of Richard Loeb.


(This is the twentieths part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series.)

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1 Response to The Great and the Good

  1. Pingback: Brexit and the Brain | Headbirths

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