Morality and the 1% versus the 99%

In the U.S., according to one analysis, if you earn $380,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of income earners. If instead we categorize the top 1% by assets, not income, then you would need assets of “nearly $8.4 million” to be in the top 1%.

Is it a grave sin merely to be wealthy? According to Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, it is. See his posts: Stealing from the Poor and Reconsiderations. And here is my refutation: Are all wealthy persons thieves who are guilty of mortal sin??!!!.

My understanding of Sacred Scripture and of Roman Catholic moral theology is that being wealthy is not a sin. The Gospels call Joseph of Arimathea “a wealthy man” (Mt 27:57), but also “a good and just man” (Lk 23:50). Therefore, wealth does not imply grave sin. Also, in Catholic moral teaching, a sin is always an act, not a state. So the state of being wealthy cannot itself be a sin. One man might become wealthy by sin; another might become wealthy without sin. One wealthy man might use his resources to do much good; another might use his wealth selfishly (like the rich man in the Lazarus story). Your knowingly chosen acts determine whether or not you sin, not your net income or net worth.

In the U.S., you need an income of at least $380,000 a year to be in the top 1%. But in the whole world, you only need an income of about $41,000 to be in the world’s richest 1%, and only about $19,500 a year to be in the wealthiest 5% worldwide. Most Catholic priests in the U.S. are in the wealthiest 5%, and some are among the world’s wealthiest 1% (e.g. those who teach at a university and so have the income of a professor). Wealth is relative.

If you earn only $13,000 or more, you are in the world’s top 10% of income earners. At the $8k level, you are still in the top 15%, and at $5k you are still in the top 20%. The majority of the U.S. population is in the top 10% of income earners in the world, and the vast majority are in the top 20%. We are not the bottom 99%, but rather the top 10 or 20%. Lower and middle income wage earners in wealthy nations are among the wealthiest 10 or 20% of persons in the whole world. And so, even persons in the U.S. with modest incomes or relatively low incomes have a responsibility to help those persons in the world who are much less fortunate than they are.

Now let’s consider the bottom percentages. But for this metric, we have to leave aside money. Worldly wealth is about money, but worldly poverty is not only about money, but about a lack of basic human needs.

Some nations in Africa measure the poverty line, not by income, but by the lack of food, specifically, by the daily intake of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and calories. Persons whose daily food supply has too little calories for long-term heath (or even survival) or too little protein and/or fat are poor indeed. Worldwide the number of persons who are habitually undernourished hovers around 1 billion. (2012 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics).

With 7 billion human persons in the world, those 1 billion hungry are the bottom 14% or so. The vast majority of citizens who live in a wealthy nation, such as the U.S., are not in that bottom 14%.

When we consider access to clean safe drinking water, about 1 billion lack this basic human necessity. There is substantial overlap between those without sufficient food and those without sufficient clean safe drinking water, but the overlap is by no means complete. Some persons have enough food, but their only sources of water are contaminated. I don’t know of any analysis of this overlap, but let’s guestimate it at 75% overlap, so that another 3.5% of the world population (25% of 14%) have enough food, but not enough clean safe drinking water. So if you have food and water, you are not in the bottom 17.5% or so. Again, this is most of the population of every wealthy nations, including the U.S.

We could do a similar analysis of poverty based on other basic human needs, such as adequate medical care, shelter, and safety from crime and war. This would undoubtedly raise the percent of the most poor over 20%, perhaps significantly higher.

The 99% versus the 1%? This idea ignores the great poverty in the world and the great wealth possessed by the vast majority of citizens in the United States and other wealthy nations. We are the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population, and so we should be striving to help those who are very much less fortunate than we are, the poorest 20%, instead of protesting and complaining about the wealthiest among the wealthy.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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3 Responses to Morality and the 1% versus the 99%

  1. arthurdobrin says:

    For some who complain about the super wealthy the issue may be resentment. But isn’t the larger issue the fact the the gap between the very wealthy and the poor is increasing?
    You are correct in pointing out that most Americans are very wealthy compared to the rest of the world. Each who falls into that category does have a duty to do something about closing the gap.
    I’ve written a bit about this at

    • Ron Conte says:

      When people do not have the basic necessities of life, a smaller gap between rich and poor does not help them. And if the very wealthy had the attitude of serving those in greatest need, a larger gap would not be problematic. So I think that the main issue is bringing the poor to a higher standard of living, not closing the gap.

  2. John Platts says:

    It is possible to be wealthy without the commission of morally evil acts. There are three fonts of morality, the intention, the moral object, and the circumstances, and an act is morally good if all of the following are true: (a) The act has only good intentions, (b) The act is not intrinsically evil, and (c) The good consequences of the act outweigh the bad consequences of the act. Acts that are not intrinsically evil and have only good intentions are sinful whenever the bad consequences outweigh the good consequences. On the other hand, acts that are not intrinsically evil and have only good intentions are morally good whenever the good consequences outweigh the bad consequences. It is clearly possible to accrue wealth through acts that are not intrinsically evil and have only good intentions, and it is certainly possible for the good consequences of these acts to outweigh the bad consequences of these acts. The combination of two or more acts that are all good in both the intention and the moral object might still be morally good when the second and subsequent acts lead to an increase in one’s wealth, since the good consequences of the second and subsequent acts might still outweigh the bad consequences. A wealthy person is not necessarily guilty of mortal sin, since the guilt of mortal sin necessarily implies the commission of a sin that is gravely disordered in at least one of the three fonts of morality, and this is not necessarily the case with respect to the acts that led to the wealth of a wealthy person.

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