Monday, August 13, 2012

How Wealth Reduces Compassion
As riches grow, empathy for others seems to decline

From Scientific American courtesy of a facebook friend:

Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed. Like Gordon Gekko, upper-class people may be more likely to endorse the idea that “greed is good.” Piff and his colleagues found that wealthier people are more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible. These attitudes ended up predicting participants’ likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior.

Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. If social class influences how much we care about others, then the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior.

More here.

Years ago, I somehow found myself at a small dinner party on Christmas Eve at a fabulous house in Houston's richest neighborhood, River Oaks. While I sat at the table with eight or nine other people, all of them wealthy except for my then girlfriend, I listened to their discussion about the city's first black mayor, Lee Brown. Without being directly racist, it was understood by all the participants that electing a black man to the city's highest office was definitely something of a disaster. Just because Lee Brown is black. That is, the whole conversation was clearly racially charged, in a bad way, and you didn't have to be a linguist to pick up on the fact that these people believed blacks to be lazy, stupid, inferior, and out to milk the hard working wealthy for all they could take.

Meanwhile, four or five black domestic servants hovered around the table, refilling our drinks, serving us food, hearing every word uttered. The dinner party participants either didn't understand that their words were deeply offensive to the African-Americans in the room, or they just didn't give a shit. It was hard to tell. Hell, I was deeply offended, myself, but just kept my mouth shut--I was clearly in hostile territory. A little while later, the gathering's hostess told me that she didn't realize Elvis was joining them this evening. It took me a few seconds to realize that she was teasing me about my sideburns. There appeared to be some sort of profound disconnect between not only her and her "help," but also with me.

Here is a short passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Rich Boy" back in 1926:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
I think the Gatsby writer understood intuitively what the Berkeley psychologists who conducted the study in the article excerpted above have managed to establish as scientific fact, wealth cripples the human soul.

I, for one, have never ever felt comfortable around the very rich. I mean, the upper middle class neighborhood in which I grew up had some rich people, for sure, but I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the really rich. They've always seemed to be in a totally different universe from the one I inhabit. And I'm starting to think that this lack of compassion is what has made me uncomfortable.

At any rate, as the article observes, the ramifications of this are pretty obvious. The rich run everything, but, in a democracy, they're clearly the least qualified to do so. But they do. And we're suffering because of it. In short, fuck the rich. Collectively, they're a bunch of inhuman monsters.