One argument I often heard is that morality originated from money matters. In this view, our moral failures come from economic failures. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently called for ‘prison abolition’. The idea behind this proposal is if everyone has enough money or economic means to buy a good home, good education, good healthcare, there would not be any moral failures and crimes. All moral talk is money talk beneath the surface.
I am fascinated by the lives of rich people. I remember the days when Jeff Bezos was just selling books. Now, he is the richest man in the world. F.Scott Fitzgerald once said the rich “are different from you and me”. Richness also brings an aura of superior knowledge. He or she is probably very smart to make that kind of money! One character in the Fiddler on the Roof says, “It won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you’re rich, they think you really know”. Money creates many things. But can it also create morality?
After graduating from medical school, I started to hunt for a residency position across the United States. I took a Greyhound bus from Haines City, FL to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the longest bus ride I ever took, after two and a half days in the bus, I reached Albuquerque, NM in the early hours of a chilly morning. I went to the University of New Mexico residency program interview in Psychiatry Department. My first interview was with a professor of psychiatry. After we talked about each other’s backgrounds, our conversations circled around the origins of religion and morality. We talked about the cows and their role in Indian religions. The professor suggested that at the foundation of everything, including morality, is economics.
He advised me to read Marvin Harris’s book Our Kind. I ordered this book on Amazon and started to read it. Harris combines Karl Marx and Thomas Malthus to build a cultural materialist explanation for everything under the sun. Why did Aztecs practise cannibalism? Because their diet is deficient in protein. Why did Hindus worship cows? Harris says, ‘there is nothing sacred about the cow. It’s all about money. You make more money by keeping the cow alive than having it butchered. You got milk, you got dung, an organic fertilizer and fuel for cooking. So, you concoct a story of sacredness around your cow. Yes, you have a religious explanation on the surface. But deep down, it is all economics’. Marvin did not even go to India, but he took upon himself to make money the foundation of all cow related sacredness in India. Modern atheists criticize Christians that their moral behavior is inspired by desires for gifts and treasures from God.
Big Business & Good
Economics and creation of wealth are good things. We see rich people doing many good things. We see Bill Gates donating billions of dollars to charitable causes around the world. Recently I was in a chocolate factory built by Milton Hershey. As I walked out of the factory, I saw a beautiful school across the street on a green hill. Mr.Hershey was born into a Mennonite family. Through the chocolate business, he became very wealthy. He and his wife could not have children. They built a nice orphan home for local orphans. Hershey once said, “I have no heirs, so I have decided to make the orphan boys of the United States my heirs”. He died only with his home. John Jay (1745-1829) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. When slavery was rampant in America, he was buying slaves so that he could set them free. In the movie Schindler’s List, we see a German businessman, Oskar Schindler, who saves more than a thousand Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by giving them jobs in his factories. He risks his wealth, his investments and even his life. At the end of the movie, he cries that he did not do enough to save more people.
Big Business & Evil
The rich also used their fortunes to spread hatred and evil. Henry Ford used a large portion of his wealth to spread antisemitism. Martin Shkreli was a pharmaceutical businessman. There is a medication called Daraprim used to treat malaria. Shkreli increased the cost of this drug by 5455 percent, from $13 to $750. It costs a few pennies to make but Shkreli wanted a profit of $750 on each pill. He went to prison, but the price of this medication did not come down.The Sackler family owns the Purdue Pharma, which manufactures such opioids like oxycontin. They donate millions of dollars to art institutions and museums. Recently, their donations are being labeled morally abhorrent ‘tainted money’ as thousands of people are dying as a result of opioid epidemic.
Daryl Morey of Houston Rockets wrote one tweet supporting Hong Kong protestors. His tweet said, ‘Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.’ Chinese companies immediately canceled sponsorship deals with NBA teams. One report found out that Rockets lost $20 million from sponsorship deals after Daryl Morey’s tweet. One tweet indirectly criticizing Chinese government and twenty million dollars are gone! Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered inside a Saudi embassy in Turkey. Many sources accused Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud for this horrendous murder. US President Trump was forced to cancel all business dealings with Saudi Arabia. On NBC’s “Meet the Press”, Trump said the Middle East is “a vicious, hostile place …I only say they spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment…I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”
The life of one journalist or $400 billion dollar business. What do you choose? Is n’t the world a vicious, hostile place? Who would play the fool losing $400 billion dollars for the life of a journalist?
Morality is independent of money
We tend to think of morality without any association with money matters. We ask district attorneys not to take any campaign contributions from lawyers who have clients facing criminal charges. The money received might corrupt the prosecutorial judgments of the attorney. Griffin v.Illinois (1956) ruled ‘There can be no equal justice when the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has’. Today more and more hospitals have been suing patients for unpaid bills. These hospitals started as church based non-profit organizations and over time morphed into CEO run corporations. How about this CEO cutting down his salary from 5 million dollars to 100,000 dollars and giving some free health care to low income patients, making his hospital look like a real non-profit organization? We believe that certain things like justice and healthcare should not depend on the amount of money a person has.
The British Government knew well that it was going to lose significant profits after abolishing slave trade. Whatever might be the cost, abolishing slavery was the right thing to do. Sati was practiced on the contention that you don’t have to spend money on providing for the widows. Female sex selective abortions are being practised now based on the belief that it is costly to raise a girl in today’s Indian or Chinese society. We abhor such practices because the value of a person should be independent of economic reasons.
The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote these words in a column on past presidents.
“I left the White House $16 million in debt,” Clinton said, in an interview that NBC’s “Today” aired on Monday, batting back questions about whether he had demonstrated sufficient contrition for converting a 22-year-old’s romantic idolization of him into sexual favors and setting off a sequence of events that savaged her. I don’t know what legal bills have to do with a moral ledger.
The President is bitter because he ended with a $16 million debt. But we feel more sympathy for the 22 year-old whose life has been traumatized by that ‘sequence of events’. We agree with Frank Bruni that legal bills have nothing to do with a moral ledger. Moral ledger should be independent of legal bills. If that is not true, our justice system will be a sham.
Things money can’t buy
Over the years, I became increasingly skeptical of this view which says morality born out of economic reasons. How much money can you put on a human being? Hollywood actress Salma Hayek described how she was abused by Harvey Weinstein, a film producer. She wrote, ‘In his eyes, I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body’.
Can a rich man turn other humans into ‘things’? What can you buy with money? Can a billionaire buy anything he or she desires? How does he look at other human beings? In a movie I watched in my teen years without the knowledge of my parents, the story starts with a couple David and his wife Diana. They travel to Las Vegas, gamble their money and lose all their savings. They encounter a billionaire named John Gage. The billionaire gives an offer to the couple. He will give them one million dollars if he can spend one night with Diana. Is marriage for sale or is there something precious in a marital union which cannot be exchanged for money?
We know we can buy a lot of things with money but can we buy anything in the world? In a recent college admission scandal, many millionaires and Hollywood celebrities paid millions of dollars in bribes to get their children into prestigious universities and colleges. These parents wanted the best for their children and paid millions of dollars for admission. They were prosecuted and given prison sentences. The Judge called them ‘thieves’ Certain things are not for sale! In college campuses we observe the differences between students from high income families and those from low income families. You will see the difference between their living conditions, the food they eat, the cars they drive, the healthcare they receive, all kinds of differences. The rich can buy millions of things for their kids except certain things like college admission. There are certain things you cannot buy. There are also certain things you cannot sell.
Margaret Jane Radin is a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. She developed a concept she named Market-Inalienability. She says there are certain kind of things which should not be traded in markets. We have people today who advocate selling human babies and human body parts. If I can buy baby dogs, baby cats, why shouldn’t I be able to buy baby humans? What is the value of human body? Some labs buy human cadavers and human organs. Reportedly, the human body is worth an average of $220,000. Professor Radin says, don’t sell your body parts. If you want to donate your kidney to save someone with kidney failure, you can donate it. But don’t sell it. Human babies are also market inalienable. If you want to give away your baby, you can give for adoption. But you should not exchange your baby for cash, goods, or services.
Our professional duty is not for sale. I have a patient who came to see me for an infection. He paid his copayment and told me his problem. ‘Doctor, I have this infection, and I need this particular antibiotic’. Patients now tell you their diagnosis and treatment plan before you start the conversation. Welcome to modern medicine! I told him, ‘I don’t think you have that infection, and I do not recommend the antibiotic you suggested’. He was not happy. He walked out of my room and came back, and said, ‘I’ll give you 500 dollars in cash. Just write me the prescription’. I said, ‘I really don’t think you need that medication. My decision does not change’. He responded, ‘How about 1000 dollars in cash. Can you give me the prescription’. For a few seconds I thought within myself, ‘I never made a thousand dollars for writing a prescription for an antibiotic. I will do it’. But I told him, ‘Sorry, my decision does not change based on how much money you pay me’. Our professional integrity is not for sale.
Steve Easterbrook was a CEO of the fast food company, McDonald’s. He was in a consensual relationship with an employee working under him. When this relationship was revealed, he got fired from his job. Certain lines cannot be erased even with consent.
So, there are certain things you should not buy even if some one wants to sell them to you. There are certain things you should not sell even if some one wants to buy them from you. There are certain lines you should not cross even if you were given consent.
Michael Walzer is a political theorist and a professor emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Interestingly, in his moral theories, he uses examples from history, not economics. Walzer says, on the one hand, there are certain things you can buy with your money. Your home, your swimming pool, your clothes, your car, your furniture. They are determined by how much money you have. They are the things you can buy. On the other hand, there are also things you cannot buy or sell. You can not sell your vote, you cannot sell your sexuality, you can not sell other people.
But we know this is not true across all cultures. In some cultures, it is legal to sell your body. Prostitution has been legalized in many nations across the world. Across human history, in many civilizations down to our time, selling people has been legal. The problem of relativism arises in such a conception of society.
Walzer wrote a book entitled Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. According to Walzer, there are two levels of moral argument: The thin and thick. There is a thin level that covers all cultures. It is independent of individual cultures and traditions. Universal values reside in this thin level. It does not permit any cultural relativism.
Then there is thick level. Cultural practices, traditions and customs determine this level of morality. Cultural norms get their meaning in this layer. We mostly live in the thick layer. The universals like equality, human rights, democracy, compassion for the weak reside in the thin level. But these universals need to adapt to the circumstances of the life lived in the thick layer.
Each culture decides what kind of morality resides in its thick layer. But who decides what kind of morality resides in the thin layer? Who decides what is universal? There is inevitable clash between thin layer and thick layer. Remember what we heard from neocons before the Iraq War: Democracy could be planted anywhere in the world, and in every culture with ease. Elliott Zaagman is a foreign policy expert. He says China is making the same kind of mistake today: It can plant its model of governance anywhere in the world. It believes all problems are money problems, economics trumps all. People in Hong Kong protesting for freedom. They believe political freedom reside in the thin layer which needs to be brought down and make a reality in their lives. But China says, Hong Kong’s problems are economic, not political. Zaagman writes, “ In addition to economic interests, humans throughout the world also have values, many of which are incompatible with those of Beijing. Cynically ignoring that those values exist, or dismissing them as illegitimate, is a surefire recipe for disaster”.
Margaret Jane Radin, a law professor
Michael Walzer, a political theorist
Frank Bruni, a journalist
Elliott Zaagman, a foreign policy expert…..they all argued that there are certain things money cannot buy. If that is true, who makes the list? Walzer said each culture should decide on those things. But that leaves open the door to relativism. The same relativism that bedevils utilitarianism. Professor Daniel Robinson once said,
“We might find it more profitable to avoid notions of internal sentiment and consider the expression of sentiments in judgments of utility. Hume emphasized considerations of utility in marking out moral boundaries. His disciple, John Stuart Mill, developed utilitarianism into a full-fledged ethical system. But the very concept of utility leaves the door nearly wide open to all of the traditional moral theories. We must identify for whom, for what, and under what conditions a course of action is ‘useful’. It does not help to suggest that each person answer these questions individually, because no one has the right to impose standards of utility on another.”
If each culture can answer moral questions individually, no culture has the right to impose standards of utility on another. In your culture, you might like certain moral standards and values, but you have no right to make them universals. When criticized about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, one Chinese official said, ‘In the West you value human rights. Here, we value security’.
I came to realize that there are universal values which money cannot buy. That claim can be true only if God exists. Only He has the authority to decide on things we cannot buy with money and to make them universal moral standards.
When I started to read the Bible, I found God laying down a moral foundation which is independent of money matters. A God who dislikes the rich who have been unjust towards their workers. ‘The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty’ (James 5:4) For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10)
Jesus recognized the pull of money. ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). Jesus gave the money bag to Judas Iscariot, who had no interest in spiritual things. He emphasized, ‘You cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). He told the rich man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”(Matthew 19:21). Being charitable is more important than being rich. Jesus entered the Temple and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers (Matthew 21:12-13). He was not impressed with the material wealth of Laodicean Church. He rebuked it, ‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’ (Revelation 3:17). He asked poignantly ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?’ (Mark 8:36). Saving one’s soul is more important than earning a lot of money. Human soul is something money cannot buy.
The apostles of Christ also recognized the value of things money cannot buy. In the city of Samaria, a man named Simon went to the apostles and wanted to buy the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Peter shouted at him, saying ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!’ (Acts 8:20).
The gifts of God are the things money cannot buy. The preciousness of human life, the sanctity of time, the sanctity of the human body, the sacredness of a relationship, the integrity of a profession are not for sale. They are the gifts of God to humanity. Atheism has no logical basis to be the foundation of such things, which money cannot buy. If everything is just matter, everything should be for sale.
When I read American history, I realized it is these values which purged its society of many social maladies. The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) was a Christian revival during the earth 19th century in the United States. It led to many social reforms against alcoholism, slavery, suppression of women.
To close, there are universal values which money cannot produce or sustain. For them to exist, God must exist. There is no other alternative. That is why atheism fails to provide a logical foundation for universal values, which money cannot buy.