Billionaires and their lesser cousins are generally lauded in American society. But there are some who condemn them simply for being billionaires. This leads to the moral issue of whether a person can be both morally good and a billionaire. The issue is whether, in general, you could be a billionaire and still plausibly be a good person. I am, of course, laying aside crazy philosophical examples such as a person being a billionaire because they are the only person left on earth. A proper resolution of this issue requires, as always, determining which moral theory (if any) is correct. But we can, as always, rely to some degree on our moral intuitions and some basic logic.
One key concern is the way the billionaire makes their wealth. Virtue theorists, such as Confucius, generally agree that acquiring wealth is not inherently evil. Their concern is with how the wealth is obtained and the impact on the person’s virtues. As Confucius says, “Wealth and rank are what every man desires; but if they can only be retained to the detriment of the Way he professes, he must relinquish them. Poverty and obscurity are what every man detests; but if they can only be avoided to the detriment of the Way he professes, he must accept them.”
While we could debate endlessly about ethical and unethical ways of becoming wealthy, we can probably agree that there are at least some ways of acquiring wealth that would be inconsistent with being good. As an appeal to intuition, I ask you to imagine something you regard as being the evilest thing a person could do. Now imagine someone who finds a way to monetize that and thus manages to become a billionaire. You would probably agree that they would not be a good person. We can also probably agree that there are ethical ways to become a billionaire that no sensible person would see as evil. For example, imagine a writer of such incredible appeal that they can sell enough books at perfectly fair prices that they are able to become a billionaire. No one gets exploited or hurt; people just love to buy those reasonably priced books. I admit that this is unlikely, but certainly not impossible. As such, merely becoming a billionaire need not make a person evil.
The second key concern is what the billionaire does with their wealth. Obviously, a billionaire could use their wealth to do evil—but this is not unique to billionaires. Someone with even a little wealth could use it for evil ends. For example, someone could pay someone $50 to commit murder. The special concern about billionaires is, obviously, the extent of the evil they could do with all that wealth. Once again, simply imagine a billionaire using their wealth to bring about things that you regard as evil—this should suffice to show that they could be evil. This can, of course, get complicated when one starts to consider various factors such as character, motives, and consequences.
A billionaire could also use their wealth to do good things. Simply think of what you regard as good, and then imagine a billionaire using their wealth to bring that about. One can certainly raise concerns about the billionaire’s motives and such when wondering whether they are good even when they do things you believe to be good. But you can simply imagine a billionaire doing things you think are good for reasons you think are good and so on. This should be easy enough to do. Unless, of course, you think that billionaires are inherently bad (with one general exception). Which I do. I will need to argue for this and will do so by analogy and appealing to your intuitions.
If a person is a billionaire, then this entails that they own at least $1 billion in wealth. This is distinct from merely being in control of such wealth—the President of the United States has effective control over billions in military equipment yet need not be a billionaire. This wealth can take various forms: cash, stocks, yachts, helicopters, mansions, spaceships, and so on. This means that the typically billionaire has vast resources they could use for a variety of purposes.
We know that many people, including people in the United States, suffer greatly from a lack of resources. People go hungry, people are forced struggle with contaminated water supplies (like in Flint, Michigan), people go without adequate medical care, people go without shelter and so on. There are many who have so little that they suffer significantly because of it. You can certainly guess where I am going with this.
A billionaire has such vast wealth that all their needs and wants are met many times over. They can even have a support yacht for their main yacht. They can own many mansions. This means that they could share their resources with many others without putting a noticeable dent in the quality of their existence. Jeff Bezos could, for example, easily fund the replacement of failing pipes in many towns. Bill Gates could, for example, properly fund many public schools.
At this point, one might point out that billionaires do engage in philanthropy—they do give some money to causes and charity. Bill Gates, for example, is famous for his foundation. But there is the stock criticism that billionaires “give” away millions to make billions. For example, while Bill Gates did fund the development of a vaccine, he did not do so for the good of humanity but to profit Bill Gates. The conspiracy theorists who hate Gates are right to hate him, but they hate him for the wrong reason: he is not microchipping vaccines, he is monetizing vaccines.
I do admit the obvious: yes, it is morally better for a billionaire to do at least some good rather than doing all evil. But this hardly suffices to show that billionaires are good because they can give away a little bit of their wealth. The moral problem is that they are still billionaires in the face of so much suffering and need. And now comes the analogy.
Imagine people on a derelict ship drifting in the ocean. One person has supplies that would last them a thousand years. Other people have enough supplies that will probably allow them to survive comfortably until they are rescued. Many people, however, do not have enough supplies to meet their basic needs—they are suffering, and some will die long before any possibility of rescue. Even if the person with the vast supplies somehow earned their supply cache, could they be a good person if they simply let the others suffer and die when they could easily help them? Intuitively, they would not: they could help people in need and still be completely fine themselves.
They need not give up all their supplies and they could even retain more then they would ever need—they could retain enough that would allow them to live extremely well until the end. Transforming them into a suffering supply less person would be wrong (so I am not advocating taking away all wealth). But if they sit atop a pile of supplies, they will never need while other people die, then they cannot be a good person. To see this, imagine you and your family on that ship without adequate supplies while someone looks down upon your suffering from their throne of supplies.
The obvious stock reply to my analogy would be that the people who lack the needed supplies have no right to the supplies held by the super hoarder—they need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get their own supplies, perhaps by laboring for the hoarder—maybe if they made him supplies for 10 or 100 days, he would graciously allow them 1 day of supplies. If this would not suffice for their well-being, one might say that they need to pull those bootstraps extra hard and find a way to be a supply creator before they, you know, die from lack of supplies. You might be thinking how you and your family would bootstrap your way to success and you would never be so lazy as to not have enough supplies on the derelict. You are a go getter, and you would make it happen. Perhaps by killing the super hoarder? This sort of hoarder would, of course, be the obvious villain if this scenario were a movie—but they are often the hero in real life.
I mentioned above that there is one general exception. If a billionaire is, in fact, using their resources to create more good than they would create by sharing these resources, then they would be a good person. To use a simple and silly example, a person who owned a five billion-dollar factory (hence they would still be a billionaire) but used it to provide good jobs while supplying critical infrastructure components at cost could be a good person. To close, I must emphasize that I do not advocate stripping people of all their wealth; I have no moral objection against people living well and even in some luxury. There is, of course, a complicated moral issue here about how much a person can keep to themselves in the face of the suffering and need of others. I also do not advocate just giving people things in cases where people could easily do well by their own efforts; what I am against is cruel hoarding when so many are in need and could easily be helped. Someone who has the resources to help and still be quite comfortable themselves cannot be a good person.