Why Noblesse Oblige Isn’t Enough
“On any given day, new people are born into varied circumstances all around the world. They may arrive into a poor family in Yemen or a wealthy one in Manhattan – through no intention of their own.”
Bay Area writer Michael Lewis’s recent Princeton commencement address has attracted a lot of attention. He told the privileged college graduates that luck plays a huge role in success and accomplishment in life.
Lewis is absolutely right that it takes resources and connections to be successful, and that people who have them should feel lucky and grateful. He implied in subsequent comments that he believes the lucky should also act ethically and charitably towards those who aren’t that lucky.
It is really important, however, to go beyond Lewis’ obligation-of-luck idea and emphasize that resources and luck need to be spread around. It’s not ok for a few to be lucky and the rest to struggle.
On any given day, new people are born into varied circumstances all around the world. They may arrive into a poor family in Yemen or a wealthy one in Manhattan – through no intention of their own. Peacefulness or war, well-being or misery, resources or strife may await them. Imagine into which circumstance you would prefer to be born?
The UN says that 10% of the people in the world own 85% of the assets. This centralized capital asset ownership and the centralized decision-making and influence that go with it are bad for human society as a whole. Just look at the recent financial meltdown and the devastating impact having too few resources is having on a great many people.
All around the world human beings basically have the same fundamental needs — tangible ones like shelter and food, but also less tangible interests like a sense of belonging, respectful treatment by others, and being in the presence of beauty and nature. Because conflict occurs when basic needs go unsatisfied, it should be the objective of individuals and institutions to work to satisfy basic needs.
Even if the lucky can’t bring themselves to be concerned about public well-being for altruistic reasons, they can do it for their own self-interest. Since the world is now deeply interconnected, meeting the basic needs of humans in the global community should be the concern of all — including the luckiest. Decentralization of capital asset ownership should be a goal of all people, rich or poor. We are increasingly, in every stretch of the imagination, all in this together.
Society should expect all people to concern themselves not only with their own well-being but with that of the community as well. Remember, resources may be personal or family resources, but they may also be community resources — like clean air and water, and freedom from having bombs dropped on your head.
So while Michael Lewis eloquently and rightly says that people who are lucky enough to have resources and connections should feel grateful and have a sense of noblesse oblige, the problem needs a bigger solution. The luck and resources need to be spread around.
Elizabeth Barrett is a San Francisco-based public international lawyer and mediator with expertise in conflict prevention and resolution. She founded a nonprofit organization to raise levels of well-being in the world by addressing the root causes of conflict. You can find her online at theglobalspring.org.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.