Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich


Thor May
Brisbane, 23 July 2013





Context: The material here comprises discussion points and some reference links for a diverse group of people in Brisbane, Australia, who fancy themselves as “gentle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich”, is probably of interest to thoughtful individuals in many latitudes, so I am putting it online as a general stimulus for some creative discussion. Any opinions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dissected without mercy.



1. This little essay is about (my ideas of) the behaviour of the rich. Of course all kinds of people are rich for all kinds of reasons (ditto for the poor). Nevertheless I will argue that rich people demonstrate ethics in ways which are consistent with broad human tendencies. Depending upon the social context of their wealth (e.g. corporate versus inherited) that wealth might influence them to exhibit particular behaviours. Yet those habits will merely be a subset of something much more general. Ethics, at bottom, is sourced in the evolutionary behaviour of the species.


2. Humans are dominantly a herding (tribal) species. That which preserves the nuclear family, and then the group is generally encoded in cultures as ‘good’. That which threatens these groupings is generally encoded as ‘bad’.


3. The individual can contribute to the family and the group (“good”), ignore these units (“amoral”) or attack them (“bad”).


4. It happens reasonably often that dominant group behaviour can threaten the welfare or even the survival of the group as it goes, lemming-like into disaster. This scenario becomes acute when outside forces threaten to destroy a community, tribe or nation. In these situations, the saviour might be that individual who escapes group behaviour and acts in an innovative way. He/she becomes a “hero”, while under stable conditions this person might be seen as an “immoral outcast”. That is, there is often tension in the good/bad paradigm as social, technological and political environments change. Most often in fact these situations are not immediately catastrophic, but still leave space for new initiatives. One kind of initiative is entrepreneurship, which does have a very high failure rate, but also rewards which make some entrepreneurs rich. These entrepreneurs may or may not be “good” in a conventional way, but there is a fair chance that they have bent conventional ethical practices along the way, especially existing government regulations (e.g. tax laws).


5. Individuals are interested in self-preservation, usually (not always) ahead of group preservation. In fact, individuals are interested in self-optimization. The terms of that individual’s self-optimization will depend upon their own personal analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, obligations and restrictions.


6. Self-optimization could also be described as the search for personal advantage. The arena of personal advantage sought is partly a matter of individual choice. For example, a conventionally handsome male may seek to enhance sexual advantage by training in a gym regularly, and even “cheating” with some steroid enhancement. His acquaintance, a hollow-chested, timid fellow may hold no hope for mastering the Mr Universe role, so seek advantage from an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music and gentle charm.


7. Within all cultures there are recognized and approved paths to self-optimization. These paths are expressed through ideology, religion, literature and other media. They are implicit and explicit in child raising practices, and always a part of formal education systems. They are defined as acceptable role behaviours within the system of laws and customs of each culture. They are also embedded within the self-image that the peoples of a culture, ethnicity or nation hold of themselves. If you ask an Australian, or Chinese, Ghanaian, or Argentinean what the people in their culture are like, they will readily “paint you a picture”. These are idealized concepts, often only loosely related to real behaviours, but moral judgements are often framed by such expectations.


8.  For a person who greatly values monetary wealth, to achieve wealth and to maintain it is to be highly productive. In the scale of personal priorities most people recognize a difference between sufficient monetary wealth and high monetary wealth. They will vary in their opinion of sufficiency, but once basic needs are met they will generally assign higher priorities in life to achievements other than than monetary wealth. The priorities might be common or uncommon. For some, optimal family life might be the number one goal, and achieving that would be maximum productivity. For other people it might be naked power, career promotion, research success, respectability, dancing the tango or collecting bottle-tops.


9. Within their set of chosen life priorities of the moment, almost everyone seeks personal advantage. For young women, idealizing some notion of beauty amongst their peers, competition may be intense and any path to perceived advantage may gradually shift from the morally dubious (within that culture’s general values) to mainstream. For example, the image of plastic surgery has shifted in many cultures from “cheating” to normal.


10. Amongst all possible life priorities, the elevation of great personal wealth to the apparent prime spot seems extremely common in casual conversation, but in behavioural practice remains a minority activity. How much of a minority activity does vary between cultures. For example, you could say broadly that large numbers of Chinese in the PRC (at this moment in history) probably put a greater value on the pursuit of monetary wealth than most Anglo-Australians.


11. Those people within a culture who are in fact rich (as seen by the members of that community), are likely to understand their position in different terms from those who are not rich. Some of the rich will have inherited wealth, while some will have achieved it. The achievement of wealth can come from pure luck (e.g. a lottery), nepotism, marriage, career elevation within a corporation, entrepreneurship, genuine invention, and doubtless other ways too. The kinds of people who tread these various paths are likely to be very different, and that will include their ethical perceptions. There will be differences in the ways they rationalize these situations. However, most of them are likely to see themselves advantaged as compared to those who have much less wealth. Most of them will be motivated to preserve their advantage.


12. The drive to preserve advantage may be where the rich show most commonality. Having the advantage of great wealth is somewhat different from the advantage of having great beauty, great popularity, sporting talent, musical genius, creativity, and so on. This is because money is a universal medium of exchange and much lusted after. Those with wealth can buy (or appear to buy) many of the advantages enjoyed more inflexibly by those narrowly focused on other areas of life. The rich can usually buy social power, hire talent, buy expensive material goods, buy the best education for their children, and even buy a reputation. It is this universal quality of money’s advantage which may incentivize the rich to preserve their position more ruthlessly than a local sporting favourite or a sought after motor mechanic. That is, the temptation for ethical deviation may be greater for the rich than for most others.


13. The process of attaining wealth, and the stratagems to preserve it are rarely achieved in social isolation. In the vast majority of cases, wealth achieved by one individual depends upon the assistance, compliance or submission of countless others. These others, in various ways, will have lacked entrepreneurial initiative themselves, or consider themselves apprentices for a later strike at fame, or have made a conscious calculation that they prefer to work within the relatively safer framework of an existing institution and receive lesser monetary rewards. The decision to remain a foot soldier often carries other costs, such as a willingness to overlook ethical transgressions by the wealth-seeker, or even active assistance for him/her to pursue those activities. Those who have worked within organizations will be aware that there are always pressures to conform to “the company culture”, and at any level of responsibility it is typically hard to avoid becoming ethically compromised in some way. Institutional confidentiality, informal or legally binding, is a perfect cover for the ambitious, and a persuasive barrier to the more timid who become aware of transgressions. Whistle blowers may be heroes in the wider social context, but are vilified within organizations and usually have an unhappy future.


14. The psychological, social and legal protections afforded to those who pursue wealth in less than ethical ways may facilitate the wealth-seeking success of certain personality types more than others. For example, it is well established that psychopathic traits amongst CEOs are at least four times higher than in the general population (which of course is far from saying that every CEO is a psychopath). History, literature and traditional mythology are replete with examples of what we might call psychopathic winners achieving fame and wealth. The classical Greek hero, Ulysses (Odysseus) living around 1200 B.C. would probably fit the profile. In Chinese culture, one of the best respected and loved characters is Sun Wukong (孙悟空) or “The Monkey King” (see Arthur Waley’s Monkey translation of Wu Ch’eng-en’s The Journey to the West, 西游记). With untrammeled exuberance, this undoubtedly psychopathic character does immense damage until the Buddha himself chains Sun Wukong under a mountain for 500 years. Eventually Sun Wukong is fitted with a magic gold headband which tightens painfully whenever he starts to drift out of control. Thus constrained he is of indispensable assistance in helping the monk, Xuanzang, bring the Buddhist scriptures back from India to China. In the 21st Century we seem to be badly in need of magic gold headbands to keep our Sun Wukong’s under control. These volatile but valuable individuals nowadays are often anonymized behind the cover of corporations, and more or less untouchable. For example in 2011 the Google Corporation took two billion dollars out of Australia in profit while paying a laughable seventy-four thousand dollars in tax (Wilkins 2013).


15. There is now a considerable body of psychological research claiming to show that those who perceive themselves to be richer than others act in ways that are more selfish, less honest and more driven by convictions of self-entitlement. In the context of such experiments otherwise average people also begin to exhibit these undesirable “traits of wealth” even when their advantage is rather trivial, as in a game of Monopoly. Some of the references at the end of this essay deal with these studies. My own feeling about research of this kind is rather cautious. Psychological experiments are almost always highly constrained (in order to control variables) and overwhelmingly artificial. The real acquisition and preservation of wealth is a complex, usually long term process, shifted by countless variables, even luck. A danger I see with such “experimental proofs” is that the factoid junkies in HR departments, recruiters, career advisors, MBA hacks, and so on will quickly turn variables and outcomes on their head: e.g. “science has proved that the rich are selfish, less honest and convinced of their own entitlement … therefore to become rich you need to become dishonest …. etc”


16. My personal feelings about the moral calibre of the rich is that as individuals I take them as I find them. As a group of 5 star hotel patrons, when placed against my own wealth, social status and influence (I have next to none), these people are hugely advantaged in most societies. For example, it is demonstrable that in the majority of locales, there has always been one law for the rich & powerful, another law for the peasants. Rich individuals advantaged in this way are entirely likely to have their personalities coloured by privilege, and unless given to great empathy, may remain rather ignorant or indifferent to the restrictions ordinary people live under.


17. Throughout recorded history there have been many instances of the rich and privileged giving “generously” to those less fortunate. The code of noblesse oblige describes such an ideal. Religions of all kinds inscribe charity as a duty. Modern charitable foundations, philanthropy and even university alumni associations reflect this pattern strongly. The public face of these activities by rich individuals can be wrapped in religious morality, worthiness, compassion, and so on. In America (for example) they may even be driven by taxation concessions. The rich people concerned will perhaps see philanthropic activity as a personal validation of self-worth. I find none of this search for merit points to be inconsistent with ethically dubious behaviour by the rich (where it occurs). The salient point of philanthropy etc is that it publicly reaffirms advantage. That is, serious philanthropy is qualitatively different from giving a dollar to a Salvation Army collector. To be a philanthropist is to say very loudly and clearly to society that “I have made it. I can afford to do this. I am rich. I am not ordinary. I have assured advantage and am choosing to use it graciously.”





Extra reading (journalistic reporting, not academic reference)


Aquino, Judith & Abby Rogers (February 10, 2013)20 Signs That You Are A Psychopath”. Business Insider Australia @ 

Bercovici, Jeff (June 14, 2011) “Why (some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs”. Forbes magazine @


Carter, Zach & Ryan Grim (10/14/2014) "Bill Gates Thinks Thomas Piketty's Attack On Inequality Is Right". Huffington Post online @


Cubeta, Phil (February 28, 2012) “On the ethics of the rich”


de Brito, Sam (July 22, 2013) “Lying to children: Are you raising a sucker?”. Brisbane Times @ [ TM: the comments section to this article are illuminating ]


Gittins, Ross (February 12, 2016) "Are the rich smarter or just craftier than the rest of us?"  Brisbane Times online @


Hutchens, Gareth (January 21, 2014) "Richest 85 boast same wealth as half the world". Brisbane Times, online @


James, Rich (March 20, 2013) “Not everyone defines ethics the same way”


Sulek, Julia Prodis (July 15, 2013) “Some helped, others didn’t, after US jet crash”. Brisbane Times @


Ronson, Jon (2011) The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. Riverhead Hardcover; 6th Printing edition.


Singer, Peter (2013) “It’s our duty to give”. BBC online @


TJN (2013) "Estimating the Price of Offshore - Headline report" [TM comment: Ideology may often be a pantomime for the masses. The real deal: the amount of US$ in circulation is rouglhy US$1.2 trillion. The offshore wealth (mostly secretly) held by individuals and companies is estimated at US$21-32 trillion. For every $1 of aid sent to Africa, 80 cents recirculates back offshore. From the $1 billion or so that Google sucked out of Australia last year, $74,000 tax was paid .. and so on. Most world leaders are in on this scam]. Tax Justice Network, online @

Waley, Arthur (1942) Monkey, translation of Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West (西游记). Online versions, see

Wilkins, Georgia (July 24, 2013) “Tax System at Risk: Treasury”. Sydney Morning Herald @


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


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"Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich" © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013



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