tl;dr: I feel ashamed of being born into wealth. Upon analysis, I don't think that's justified. I should be taking advantage of my wealth, not wallowing in how ashamed I am to have it. 

Uncle Scrooge with Money Bag. Oil painting by Carl Barks of perhaps his  most famous character, circa 1971. | Olja
Uncle Scrooge, oil painting by Carl Barks

I'm a high school student in France. I was born into a wealthy family by most of my classmates' (and of course the world)'s standards. In France, there's a strong social incentive to openly criticize wealth of any kind and view people richer than oneself with a particular kind of disdain and resentment. I imagine a majority of people reading this are from Silicon Valley, which has a radically different view on wealth. (I grew up in Mountain View, then moved to France at age 12. The cultural differences are striking!)

I'm rich, and it would be foolish to deny that I feel ashamed of this on some level. Friends will mention how rich I am or talk about how expensive eg university is and I will attempt to downplay my wealth, even if it means lying a little (I am not proud of this). I notice myself latching onto any opportunity to complain about the price of something. "Ah yes the inflation, bad isn't it (ski trip will cost a little more this year I guess)."

This feeling of guilty wealth got worse when I learned how cheap mosquito nets were.

Since dabbling in effective altruism, I started noticing the price of things a lot more than I used to.[1] I became sensitive to how my family would spend things and would subtly put us on a better track, like by skipping desserts or drinks at expensive restaurants. My parents continually assure me that they have enough money put aside to pay for any university I get into. They would be irate if I intentionally chose a relatively cheap university for the sake of cheapness. I'm going to find this warning hard to heed given how much money we're talking about.

So my guilt translates into a heightened price sensitivity. But is this guilt justified at all?

The subagent inside me in charge of social incentives tells me I should be ashamed of being rich. The subagent inside me in charge of being sane tells me I should be careful what I wish for. If being rich is bad, then that implies being less rich is better, no? No? Stephen Fry once noted that in all things, we think we're in the Goldilocks zone. Anyone smarter than us is an overly intellectual bookworm; anyone stupider is a fool. Anyone richer than us is a snobby bourgeois; anyone poorer is a member of the (ew) lower class. 

But that's stupid. If I could slide my IQ up a few points, of course I would. If I could have been born richer, I would have. I  should try not to have that disdain for those richer than oneself which society endorses. Sometimes, my gut pities this kid in my class who has an expensive watch and drives a scooter to school from his mansion one block away because it makes him feel cool. He's a spoiled brat in most senses of the word, which is reason to pity him. But my gut pities his wealth. Yet, if I could pick to have his wealth I would unquestionably do so, even when that is not the socially approved response. 

More money is more good: that’s a simple equation I can get behind. Were my parents a little richer, it might be 100 euros a month going to AMF instead of 50. [2] One should be wary of learning the long lessons from spoiled brats. 

Another reason not to feel ashamed at being rich is that it's not my money. I didn't choose to be born rich. My parents are the ones deciding what to do with it. This doesn't absolve me of all responsibility: whatever uncomfortable and terribly cliched[3] conversation  I could have with them tonight in order to get them to spend more on mosquito nets is a small price compared to that paid by children infected with malaria. I have a disproportionate amount of influence over my parents, even as my social status in the family is "rebellious teenager whose political phase involves suspiciously data-driven people on internet forums". That's a disproportionate influence over two individuals wealthy enough to save at least one statistical life per year. 

This opportunity was a birthright: I should not be ashamed to have it. Instead, I should be exploiting it as well as I can.


  1. ^

    I'm aware it's a common failure mode to grow obsessed with this. Converting every price tag in a store into human lives can get ugly quickly. 

  2. ^

    After much arguing, I managed to convince them to donate to They said 50 euros was a lot. We sometimes spend that much on godforsaken fancy cocktails when we're on vacation!

  3. ^

    In other news: morally righteous teenager taken aback by comparatively conservative parents!

  4. ^

    I'm not attempting to get my parents to donate to MIRI or METR because I have a limited stock of weirdness points and I don't want them to think mosquito nets are weird.





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Thanks so much Neil for these interesting reflections, I gave a strong up-karma vote. I agree with your central the thesis (I should not be ashamed of wealth, but exploit it as well as I can). One of my favourite "pre-EA" pieces of work, this John Wesley sermon from about 1750 expresses a similar sentiment.

There's a few aspects here I'd like to explore a bit. First there is a distinction between wealth and spending. Spending less can allow you to Give more, and can also open up conversations around giving and effective altruism. On this note I think its fantastic that you are noticing the price of things and trying to guide your family towards spending less on dessert and perhaps even giving towards mosquito nets - that's amazing keep it up!

The equation is not necessarily simple as you stated "More money is more good: that’s a simple equation I can get behind. Were my parents a little richer, it might be 100 euros a month going to AMF instead of 50."  The "giving equation" depends both on how much money you have, and how much you spend + save. To grossly oversimplify, the equation could look something like

Income - (Spending + Saving) = potential to give

So your work reducing your family's spending could potentially help increase their AMF giving, as much as them having more money could as well. Some people spend and save little, and so can give much more than many who earn high salaries and spend/save a lot. For example last year @MvK gave around 50,000 dollars of his 70,000ish income to charity, which is super cool.

Also I think there are complexities around wealth that mean it might not simply be "good". Here are a few thoughts.

  • Under your framework wealth is only "good" if its actually given away - otherwise its not very useful apart from perhaps increasing our own happiness a tiny big. On this note, there is a decent argument that its better not accumulate wealth at all, but better to give it now, as you go. This 10 year old post by @Julia_Wise summarises this arguments for and against this pretty well. If this is true, then "wealth accumulated" isn't the best option, but instead giving as we go while never becoming personally wealthy.
  • Much wealth is built on both historical and ongoing poor treatment of workers - in the past through slavery and now through poor working conditions in manufacturing and services. This means wealth its not necessarily squeaky clean and guilt free. Like you say this isn't necessarily you or your parents faul, but I think its important to reflect that at least a portion of our personal and nation's wealth often stems from mistreatment of our fellow humans.
  • It is harder for the poor than the rich to gain more wealth. Free-ish market capitalism might be the best option we have at the moment, but even its most ardent supporters will admit there is at least some unfairness built into the system, making it easier to make money and build wealth if you already have it (capital begets capital), compared with if you start with less. 
  • Increasing Inequality from the rich getting richer may cause harm through making the whole society less happy (although there are differing opinions on this, ask Steven Pinker). I won't get into the details here!

Anyway great post and I hope you write more!

I agree with all this! Thank you for the comment (the John Wesley sermon looks particularly interesting). I plan to make money for the explicit goal of giving it away, and will keep all your caveats in mind. 

I wrote this thinking in a case like yours. I hope it can be useful to you:

Here I put the abstract: the post was a little bit too long:

On the contrary, the effective proposal for the high corporate owner’s aristocracy is: i) the preservation of their own existence with a sustainable birth rate, a sense of social purpose and focus on wealth preservation, ii) support for a republican corporate governance inclusive of all stakeholders, and in the case of platforms, designed to foster a competitive ecology, iii) genuine altruism in the use of political influence, iv) the use of business surplus more for conspicuous (and effective!) altruism than for conspicuous consumption or display. Let it be clear, however, that utilitarianism recommends moderation, never asceticism.

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