Author Steve Almond writes: “Although born into affluence, Trump developed a worldview indifferent, or perhaps hostile, to noblesse oblige—the notion, exemplified by the Kennedys—that nobility extends beyond lineage and requires constant compassion for the less-fortunate. From early on, Trump favored a social dominance orientation, which describes the sort of person hung up on creating a hierarchy so he can be at the top of it. ‘Narcissistic Darwinism’ might also apply.” Here are a few thoughts on this idea that one with plentiful material comforts is best when they concern themselves with and help the less fortunate:
Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it, said Harold Kushner.
JARED Kushner, on the other hand, said no such thing. Probably never even thought such a thing. He is a money-grubber who appears to have a deficient soul. He isn’t as bad as his father-in-law, who is basically Ebenezer Scrooge without the change of heart.
Noblesse oblige is French, referring to: “Nobility which extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person who holds such a status to fulfill social responsibilities.” As well, the prescription that: “One must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position and privileges with which one has been born, bestowed and/or has earned.” (LINK).
Noblesse oblige is probably fairly easily criticized by those on the Right. I get it. It sounds aristocratic; affected; elitist. It strikes such a person as “political correctness” and something akin to “liberal guilt” on the part of “smug, effete liberals.”
Forgetting for a minute about how a detractor might view the concept, to me, it is akin to the Biblical reference, To whom much is given, much is expected (officially, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”; Luke 12:48)
That is a potent and pithy phrase, if you ask me. That has animated much charitability, self-restraint, care, and duty-based ethics in my mind over the years. I am not sure guilt is the best word to describe it; obligation or honor or modesty or empathy is closer. It certainly can motivate one to give money, beyond taxes, to charity; it can be helpful is one does not have children (like myself) but has to contribute to schools via property taxes, nevertheless. And so on.
Basically, if you’re lucky, and fortunate, then don’t be greedy.
Put even more plainly: You’re lucky or you’re great or whatever; don’t be a prick about it.
A proverb I like goes: “Good fortune is best shared.”
If you think of the commentary on wealth and prestige by the musical group Thievery Corporation via their song “The Richest Man in Babylon” (a riff on the George Clason book that was not sardonic or critical, but laudatory of elitism and wealth), you will also see that one can be very isolated and lonely if one thinks that excellence, wealth, status, or fame implies no noblesse oblige, or need to help others; to share with the less fortunate. They write: “Your beggars sleep outside your doorway/ Your prophets leave to wander on/ You fall asleep at night with worry/ The saddest man in Babylon.” That’s brilliant satire and speaks loudly to why one cannot feel I have “made it” and everyone else can go piss off like many wealthy folks do.
These types of individuals have no class; no honor; no noblesse oblige. I believe.
Think of the David Geffen stance on wealth and exclusivity (LINK), how lambasted he was by all manner of folks for indicating (I’m paraphrasing) that he was isolating from the pandemic on his yacht; good luck to the rest of you. Save perhaps for the Ayn Rand devotees who tend to believe that no one need apologize for their “greatness” or success or wealth.
There is enough material wealth to go around; I firmly believe that. Think of the fact that we have in this country three persons who have as much wealth socked away (or at least, their holdings of stock amount to as much) as 160,000,000 other Americans combined. Try dividing your Thanksgiving turkey 99.9 percent to yourself, and leaving .1 percent to the other ten people at the table. See how far that gets ya. Indeed, it is only because our communities are so incredibly large now that one can have a gated property in an exclusive community and a car with a tint and never really come into face-to-face interactions with the less fortunate or downtrodden. Actually, Los Angeles and San Francisco are becoming a lot more like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities than they once were, or should be.
Dividing one’s Thanksgiving turkey in such a manner as I described would illustrate gross pathology; a true narcissist. That is not a characteristic anyone should wish to embody. Love is bigger than that; care and magnanimity and morality are true and valid considerations that one ought to remember if they have privilege. Even earned privilege.
How would you feel if you went to a nice dinner out, went to watch a movie, and the whole time a few dozen onlookers in shabby dress and with sad expressions watched you, silently, but persistently? How about having to have lunch every day with a hundred children who needed supplemental meals at school, lest they suffer from malnutrition? Ya, if you have a $590,000,000 yacht, you don’t experience that dystopia. That reality.
The following paragraph by philosopher Eric Hoffer is complex, but let this sink in for a minute. It is one who is foolishly and pathologically self-centered who believes they deserve to be happy while so many in the the world suffer. It’s tone-deaf; it’s individualistic in the extreme. Anyway, here is Hoffer’s thought that gets at the idea of connectedness:
“The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves.”
“Being compassionate toward others is based on empathy, or what the Buddha called ‘putting yourself in the place of others.’ Knowing that you want to be happy and free from suffering, you can infer that other beings want this as well, and you treat them accordingly.”
“There are obvious positives to this concept,” writer Amy Julia Becker observes. She believes, “At least in theory, it motivates generosity and philanthropy. It hints at the idea that socioeconomic positions are not exclusively or necessarily a matter of hard work. It even acknowledges some measure of luck or privilege.” I think that is astute to point out, because indeed noblesse oblige does kind of imply that one ought to “give back”, be charitable, and not be selfish because one is not in a position of power and prestige. Or because they are, like some character Nietzsche would dream up, truly superior. And thus, the moral desert of said individual shouldn’t result in social goods and privileges far beyond that of one’s inferiors. This might entail more modesty and humility than many well-bred individuals could muster, I must admit.
Here is a blog I wrote about moral desert if you want to hear more about who deserves what from a moral perspective.
Becker: “Noblesse oblige extends beyond wealth into the concentric circles of education. Princeton University’s unofficial motto, for instance, is In the nation’s service. Princeton graduates are urged to use their status, earning potential, and intellectual knowledge on behalf of others.”
Bryan Stevenson was a stellar lawyer out of Harvard a couple decades back. He could have written his own ticket, but instead of getting a job requiring penny loafers and a Brooks Brothers suit, he started the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based law firm dedicated to reexamining questionable prosecutions which landed a poor person on death row. As the group’s mission is described: “fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.” His story was the subject of a book entitled Just Mercy, and a great movie of the same title (LINK). You can’t come away from the movie without feeling that white privilege and the privilege of wealth confer subtle advantages that might not amount to what Charlie (of And the Chocolate Factory) gained with his “golden ticket”, but which is not insignificant, either. Ideally, those advantages lead to one feeling fortunate and compassionate, and engender a sense of social justice, but often they do not.
My point is, perhaps Stevenson was born lower-middle-class, and is now not wealthy per se, but his dedication to moral principles is surely a type of magnanimity, or greatness of spirit. I know that in the movie he was motivated to risk life and limb to leave Delaware and head down to the smarmy and sickening Montgomery, AL to fight for others who are about as unfortunate as one gets (a poor black man on death row in the South claiming he is innocent of the crime he was sent up for).
Van Jones is a similar story, and, coincidentally, also black (I mean to say, it’s not just successful African-Americans who exemplify noblesse oblige, these two are just the first two examples that came to mind, and are contemporary). The following is website copy, but I think it fits with what I know of Jones. I certainly liked his CNN show, The Innocence Project, where he gets victims and offenders together to talk about the crime—often for the first time ever; many times during the denouements of the stories did I tear up.
Again, Van is probably not “rich” but he could be doing a lot more self-serving, individualistic, wealth-oriented things with his time than working to reform the criminal justice system and lobbying for progressive change in the South.
You’d use the term “a good person” to describe someone who exemplifies noblesse oblige, basically. You would be impressed they are doing something more productive than playing golf or having lunch with the girls. You’d think they were acting like a good Christian or Jew ought to, aiming to right wrongs, help others, and actually caring about someone besides themselves.
Wikipedia adds this nuance:
“In ethical discussion, noblesse oblige is sometimes used to summarize a moral economy wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or who cannot perform such duty. Also, it has been used recently to refer to public responsibilities of the rich, famous and powerful, notably to provide good examples of behavior or to exceed minimal standards of decency. It has also been used to describe a person taking the blame for something in order to solve an issue or save someone else.”
John Rawls made a huge splash with his “justice as fairness” theory, which belies summary but which might be characterized as: something is just if it is fair (where fair refers to a rigorous and objective and dispassionate process). Thus, if you want to see if society is really fair, ask yourself: Would I consent to being randomly assigned to live as someone else in society? Basically, you would stand a one-in-one-hundred chance of ending up well-off, and a one-in-ten-thousand chance you would find yourself extremely wealthy. Something tells me a David Geffen or a Donald Trump would surely never take that gamble; to them, conservatism means keeping what’s mine. I admit Rawls’ theory is short on merit, and really only accounts for moral luck. If you asked either Warren Buffett or Bono if they deserve their positions, they would note that they do “outwork you”…
Concerning oneself with the plight of others is not easy. It is easy to be selfish and feel entitled and superior. Humans have a nasty predilection for hoarding, dominating, and fearing “the masses.” Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century notoriously theorized that without an authoritarian government in control, humanity was a huge mess, and that life was “solitary, lonely, nasty, brutish, and short.” A nobleman himself, 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell cautions:
“Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.”
Russell also says this: “Then there is one other maxim of Christ which I think has a great deal in it, but I do not find that it is very popular among some of our Christian friends. He says, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.” That is a very excellent maxim, but, as I say, it is not much practised.”
It is of course righteous, visionary, and transcendental to be loving, charitable, compassionate, and so on because one has a sense that “There but for the grace of God go I.” That is the kind of thing that proper parenting, excellent religious education, and hard-core “character-building experiences” can inculcate in a young person. As the Dalai Lama says:
“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
So, either way—due to a deep empathy and goodness—look out for others besides Number One. But at least, even if you have to guilt yourself into it, even if you are seeking happiness that eludes you in this material country in this material world, conduct yourself with honor, grace, and with some noblesse oblige. In other words, love is a great reason to care for the plight of others, but a sense of moral duty will do the trick, too.
“Your greatness is measured by your kindness; your education and intellect by your modesty; your ignorance is betrayed by your suspicions and prejudices, and your real caliber is measured by the consideration and tolerance you have for others.” (
In a parallel, theistic analysis, Al Serrato writes the following:
“In the Christian tradition, it is referred to by the label agape love: the love of the other for the sake of love. It is a love freely given, a love that seeks no reward. In its highest forms, it manifests in acts of great self-sacrifice, such as when a person lays down his life for the safety of–for the sake of–the other. And where do we learn about the value of such love? Where does such love find its grounding? Certainly not in the world of Darwinian evolution, a world characterized by random selection and the ‘survival of the fittest.’ No, it is from Jesus’ own lips that we hear these stirring, yet challenging and troubling, words….”
I tend to think in a secular way, but it seems to me that the humanist who feels love and compassion is quite simpatico with the faithful person who feels called to love the other according to the example set by Jesus. Rich persons and eye of the needle kind of stuff. Below is Jim Wallis, from his book The Soul of Politics:
“In the Hebrew Scriptures, one finds the more holistic concept of shalom as the best definition of justice. It is a deeper and wider notion than the securing of individual rights. The vision of shalom requires us to reestablish ‘right relationships.’ It is a call to justice in the whole community and for the entire habitat. Shalom is an inclusive notion of justice extending even to the rest of God’s creatures and whole of creation. Restoring right relationships takes us further than respecting individual rights. It pushes us to begin to see ourselves as part of a community, even as members of an extended but deeply interconnected global family, and ultimately as strands in the web of life that we all share and depend upon. The biblical vision of shalom could be a basis for a new politics of community and the social healing we so need.”
And, in Who Speaks for God, the liberal Christian writer demonstrates:
“Compassion has less to do with ‘doing charity’ than ‘making connections.’ The word compassion means literally ‘to suffer with.’ It means to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, try to understand their experience, or see the world through their eyes. That always changes our perspective. True compassion has less to do with sympathy than it does with empathy.”
In Hebrew, tikkun olam refers to the obligation Jews have to heal the world. It does not translate as I am deserving of all I have or, The richer, the better. I can tell you personally, I gave more money away to charity in the last 15 months than I did for the first 44 years of my life combined, due to some financial windfall that could be considered mere fortunateness. To give even 5% of it to others, especially in a pandemic, affords me a much-needed sense of moral desert. I am always dismayed when I witness Jews acting as though they are not bound with any sense of moral obligation (David Geffen and his $590,000,000 yacht come to mind!).
Jennifer Noparstak writes:
“The most modern and broadly understood notion of tikkun olam is that of “repairing the world” through human actions. Humanity’s responsibility to change, improve, and fix its earthly surroundings is powerful. It implies that each person has a hand in working towards the betterment of his or her own existence as well as the lives of future generations. Tikkun olam forces people to take ownership of their world. It is them, not God, who will bring the world back to its original state of holiness.”
You can’t take it with you when you go, as it were, so I would rather be a mensch than a miser. If there is a god up there, especially if it’s similar to the God of the Christians, I bet he/she/it feels the same way.
Jim Wallis, again:
“The Hebrew prophets say that we find our own good in seeking the common good. The prophet Isaiah says that when we feed the hungry, take in the homeless, and ‘break the yoke’ of oppression, then we find our own healing. He also says the act of compassion requires that you ‘not hide yourself from your own flesh.’ In other words, compassion means to recognize the kindred spirit we all share together. And the Bible insists that the best test of a nation’s righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.”
I sometimes find myself seeing differences with religious believers, but perhaps a person of faith who is not a conservative/evangelical type of person is alright by me, and they and I can find a common cause in this arena. Clearly, that person and I would both spurn Donald Trump as a deserving and appropriate leader of the American people due to his profligate spending, his lust for power, and his objectification of individuals. He is as far from a good person as a person gets. In my informed opinion.
In the end, there is ample evidence that it is either righteous (or simply sagacious) to share, to empathize, to serve—and that noblesse oblige might encourage an individual to choose the more righteous and duty-based of the two.
But here is a criticism, from Wikipedia: “Noblesse oblige, while seeming to impose on the nobility a duty to behave nobly, conveniently provides the aristocracy with an apparent justification for their privilege.”
As well, Amy Julia Becker critiques this idea in her piece entitled “The Problem with Noblesse Oblige“. Here is a snippet: “It’s a generosity that perpetuates a hierarchy; it keeps the privileged behind a wall of wealth, education, and power.”
Still, the question is, OK, you’re rich; how are you behaving? In a way that is consistent in any way with Christianity, or merely as a self-interested objectivist? If there is one thing that conservatives (not Trumpists, like real, authentic conservatives) and I can agree on it is that differing privileges should be due to differing merit. Again, this is moral desert. That is, it’s not wrong to be in a high position of some sort, but that certainly should be due not to luck, chance, or unethical behavior, but superiority of some justifiable sort. Like the way that folks don’t make it to the Olympics due to a rotating schedule, but how proficient they are. In the Special Olympics, it has much to do with inclusion and celebration; in the Greek Olympics of old, only the strong prevailed. In other words, one’s lofty position should not merely be based on privilege and aristocracy and happenstance. That is one of the main reasons the Founding Fathers broke from England; we were more meritocratic and egalitarian than England. Now, incidentally, virtually every other major nation in Europe has more social mobility than America does, which makes one think, What has become of us?
Thus, Becker’s point is well-taken, and is ably supported by this quote:
“Americans have never been too comfortable with the idea of nobility, anyway. We want to believe in equal opportunity. We want to believe in meritocracy. We want to believe that anyone who works hard will be rewarded, and anyone with wealth earned it and deserves to keep it. And yet America continues to see a stubbornly fixed upper class, as two lengthy and compelling articles in last year’s TIME and Atlantic magazines demonstrated. In other words, we have ended up with the noblesse without the oblige.”
My friend Robert brings up this point on behalf of libertarianism and objectivism: “What about the guy that went to the Yukon, refurbished an old dredge to mine gold, and is now worth half a billion dollars? He risked his life and life savings. Is there a path to wealth that does not negatively impact others, or should the gold miner give up half his wealth to those who need it more?” Clearly, there is a difference between moral obligation, egalitarianism, social welfare as a society, and taxation. America collects taxes not to allow the nobility to feel less obligated, having discharged their moral duty, but to pay the country’s bills. There is obviously a lot to tease apart, here.
Here is one take on this nuance:
“Jeff Bezos is a philanthropist as well as a billionaire. But the men and women who made him the richest man in the world say they work in potentially dangerous conditions. Amazon warehouse workers have told Intelligencer and other outlets that they’re expected to work without basic safety precautions, including masks. Meanwhile, paid sick leave is only available to workers who test positive for COVID-19 or who have been quarantined due to possible exposure. Though Bezos is an easy target, his labor practices aren’t all that unusual” (Sarah Jones, linked here)
My overall belief is: If you find yourself with significant fortune, luck, privilege, and power, it would be consistent with the values of The Wise to accord yourself with a degree of decency, modesty, charitability, grace, class, and honor. If you are worthy of your status, however it came to be, it would ideally be because your magnanimity and your generosity and your compassion mollify the jealousy of the gods (I’m thinking the Greek gods here, metaphorically) and not cause them to obsess about you. People can call you aristocratic, but you can reply that you have transcended the myth of your greatness, and like Dickens’ character Scrooge, you recognize that to whom much is given, much is expected. Ω
Bonus Link: Why Was Mark Twain Such a Loser?
I will end by sharing a dozen quotes that I think shape and clarify the ideal of noblesse oblige:
One must care about a world one will not see.
Riches are unable to quench insatiable greed; power does not make a man master of himself if he is imprisoned by the indissoluble chains of wicked lusts; and when high office is bestowed on unworthy men, so far from making them worthy, it only betrays them and reveals their unworthiness.
A light for one is a light for a hundred.
What is life worth if we don’t strive to build something that is bigger than we are and lasts longer than we do? For too long, we’ve not worried about future generations or met our obligations to each other. Instead, we have lived for ourselves, and for today. Such a world is simply not sustainable.
The truth is, we are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless.
I find it utterly impossible to observe another animal without seeing it as a kindred being, a bearer and representative of life just as I am, and in this respect wholly equal to myself. Though I differ in many ways from other living entities, I cannot feel that there is any ontological superiority in my being human.
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.
Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent that the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.
There ain’t nothing but one thing wrong with every one of us, and that’s selfishness.
…a politics rooted in moral principles could again spark people’s imagination and involvement. We need a personal ethic of moral responsibility, a social vision based on bringing people together, a commitment to justice with the capacity for reconciliation, an economic approach governed by the ethics of community and sustainability, a restored sense of our covenant with the abandoned poor and the damaged earth, a reminder of shared values that calls forth the very best in us, and a renewal of citizen politics to fashion a new political future. But to shape a new future we must first find the moral foundations and resources for a new social vision. ~ Jim Wallis
It is every man’s obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it.
We can build a different kind of country, where we all recognize our mutual humanity and our obligation to one another as Americans, no matter what group we come from or what our background is. We can build a society where we acknowledge our common bonds and where respect means we don’t expect people to live in the street or eat out of dumpsters, a society where we can expect that people will be considered for who and not what they are. We can bring people hope.
We are so powerful, we cast such a shadow around the world. Now if there’s anything I’ve learned being a foreign correspondent, it’s that people in power don’t often think about it, but people who don’t have it think about it all the time.
The primary causes of poverty are a function of chance: place of birth, social location, innate capabilities, and economic cycles. Therefore, there exists a moral obligation to meet the basic needs of others.
The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
Americans tend to think of poor people as being responsible for their own economic woes. But Hurricane Katrina was a case where the poor were clearly not at fault. It was a reminder that we have a moral obligation to provide every American with a decent life.
I’m grateful that the era of noblesse oblige is over. I hope it makes way for a greater questioning of income disparities and wage gaps and less satisfaction with the economic status quo. But, also, I hope we can resurrect the idea of obligation to one another. ~ Amy Julia Becker
We were taught under the old ethic that man’s business on this earth was to look out for himself. That was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man. Thousands of years ago the question was asked; ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society. Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality but by the higher duty I owe myself. What would you think me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death? ~ Eugene V. Debs
A lot of what was determined about us was the moment we were born…where we were born, who we were born to, I mean your zip code really is important in determining your future and … I’ve been lucky. You’ve been lucky. Most of our friends have been lucky…and a lot of people aren’t lucky. ~ Warren Buffett
Justice is rooted in individual human rights for both the Right and the Left. But such an individualistic idea of justice is now failing us in the midst of a global crisis that cries out for a new and deeper sense of connection and community. ~ Jim Wallis
The phrase “tikkun olam” was first used to refer to social action work in the 1950s. In subsequent decades, many other organizations and thinkers have used the term to refer to social action programs; tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness); and progressive Jewish approaches to social issues. It eventually became re-associated with kabbalah, and thus for some with deeper theological meaning. [It is] human responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the world. ~ a website called MyJewishLearning.com
Self-interested acts must be shown to be compatible with more broadlyy based ethical principles if they are to be ethically defensible, for the notion of ethics carries with it the idea of something bigger than the individual.