Wealth, Poverty, and Economic Inequality
This dissertation argues that both wealth and poverty function as moral luck to impede the pursuit of virtue and that economic inequality worsens the problem. I begin with a chapter describing the state of economic inequality today, asking whether economic inequality is a problem distinct from poverty. I conclude that it is, for three reasons: inequality causes many social ills traditionally associated with poverty; it self-perpetuates; and—the argument I advance throughout the dissertation—inequality functions as moral luck to harm virtue. In the next chapter, I argue for a Christian virtue account of moral luck. Moral luck is a term used by feminist philosophers to describe the impact of life circumstances on persons’ ability to pursue virtue. I examine Scripture, Aquinas, and the work of womanist theologians to propose a Christian virtue account of moral luck that acknowledges both the pervasiveness of sin and Christian hope for God’s promised redemption. In the third chapter, I draw on Aquinas and contemporary virtue theorists to provide rich descriptions of the eight virtues I will consider throughout the dissertation. I describe a new virtue taxonomy: cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, and humility; “daughter” virtues of solidarity, fidelity and self-care; and helper virtues of temperance and fortitude. To understand how inequality functions as moral luck, we must first understand how wealth and poverty affect our pursuit of virtue. I continue with a chapter describing the impact of wealth, which I define as “having more than we need,” on the virtues in my taxonomy. Blending resources from psychology, sociology and theology, I conclude that wealth impacts the pursuit of virtue in two major ways: by endowing the wealthy person with hyperagency, or greater power, freedom and choice than that enjoyed by others; and by becoming an end in itself. This does not mean that wealth has a unilaterally negative impact on the pursuit of virtue; for example, I argue that wealth can help in pursuing the virtue of self-care. In the next chapter, I assess how poverty, which I define as being unable to meet one’s needs or meeting them only through constant and precarious struggle, functions as moral luck. Consulting social science, memoirists and journalists who write about poverty, and liberation theologians, I show that key issues in poverty’s impact on virtue include scarcity, which impacts cognitive processing and can limit access to certain virtuous practices, and diminished self-regard. This does not mean that poverty has a unilaterally negative impact on the pursuit of virtue; for example, a variety of evidence suggests that poverty encourages the virtue of solidarity. My final chapter shows how inequality exacerbates the impact of wealth and poverty on virtue in terms of hyperagency, wealth as an end in itself, scarcity and self-regard. I offer suggestions for future Christian ethical work on moral luck and responses to the impact of economic inequality on virtue. These include practical economic solutions to reduce inequality and theological solutions including encounter, conversion, satisfaction with contentment, and dependence on God. I suggest that the Christian community can respond to the impact of economic inequality on virtue through political action; a renewed approach to tithing and aid; and creating sites for encounter between the rich and the poor.