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Love, vanity and wealth

Secure in gated communities and smoke-tinted limousines, the rich have no desire or motive to transform ‘I’ into ‘We.’ The cultural changes that catapulted us into the greed-is-good world must be reversed

The first day of London Fashion Week at Somerset House in the Strand. Credit: Simon Burchell, Shutterstock. Some rights reserved. 

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding something peculiarly nauseating about the cosmetic firm L’Oréal’s advertising campaign that was built around the slogan “Because You’re Worth It.” The appeal to envy and vanity is always distasteful, of course, but there was also a nasty sense of a lie lurking behind this campaign. The narcissistic models pouting at us obviously regarded themselves as “worth it.” But what about the intended viewers - were they worth it too?

That was the lurking lie - the delusive hope that if they bought the products that L’Oréal was selling to them, then, and only then, would they join the projected personas on their pedestals and become similar objects of envy and admiration.

Pursuing these thoughts led me to Adam Smith, often revered as the apostle of free markets and the pursuit of self-interest, and hence an honorary precursor of our contemporary “greed is good” culture. Unfortunately, Smith is less well known for his extremely dim view of the pursuit of fame and wealth. But he held that if you are in good health, free of debt, and have a clear conscience then “all accessions of fortune may properly be said to be superfluous.” Furthermore, “Though between this condition and the highest pitch of human prosperity the interval is but a trifle; between it and the lowest depth of misery the distance is immense and prodigious.”

The graph plotting pleasure or well-being against wealth is steep at first, but then rapidly flattens out, or even tips downwards, as the lives of the rich and famous tend to illustrate. The marginal utility of increased prosperity rapidly diminishes to zero. It is only the “delusive colours” in which we paint the lives of the wealthy that provoke our dreams and motivate our willingness to sacrifice leisure, ease, or conscience in order to join them.

However, Smith’s view is not quite straightforward, for he was realistic enough to allow that there are pleasures to be had in being the object of envious attention. He thought that you have to be either a philosopher to be above such pleasures, or to be thoroughly demoralized and “sunk in slothful and sottish indifference” not to aspire to them.  The picture is mixed: we delude ourselves about the advantages wealth brings, but that delusion makes us admire and fawn over the wealthy, and that turns into a very real, although disreputable, pleasure that they enjoy.

Other views might see even less good in the mix, thereby helping us to escape from the treadmill. After all, the classical myth tells us that the only voice Narcissus heard was that of the nymph Echo. We suppose that the persona in the L’Oréal advertisement enjoys praise and admiration. But in real life we imagine these things more than we actually receive them. It is only our own voice in our own heads that heaps us with praise, whether or not we have bought the cosmetics or gained the riches. The envy of others brings flattery at best, not anything more heartfelt. Hence in The Devil’s Dictionary Ambrose Bierce nicely defined ambition as “an overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.” The ambition to climb up onto the pedestal is not all that likely to lead even to Smith’s minimal advantage.

Nor are the personas depicted by the models liable to take much pleasure in the envy or admiration of the rest of us. There is contempt in the hauteur, the pout or the sneer. Unable to contemplate being flawed or poor or lowly themselves, the praise of those who do live in these conditions is nothing more than those on the pedestal think is their due. It would be our loss if we failed to give it, but it means nothing to them that they get it.

It is perhaps surprising that Smith gave the wealthy the pleasure that he did. For he also thought that social life is held together by our capacities for fellow-feeling: for the sympathetic entry into the emotions of others, and the pleasure we get from the concordance of our feelings with theirs. When we cannot do this, because we cannot sympathise with what others evidently feel, the resulting dissonance is unpleasant, and we withdraw, sometimes with disgust or exasperation.

The vanity of anyone aware of themself as enviably living on a pedestal will certainly have this effect. So, like Narcissus, people “of rank and distinction” again risk being left on their own, with only their own echo for company. To be even minimally acceptable they have to dissemble. The misses Bertram knew this in Mansfield Park: “Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free of it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behavior … served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults.”

Smith’s generous ideal of mutual concordance or fellow-feeling is one of two hearts beating in time, accepting and being accepted. It could even be called a kind of love. But in practice, sympathizing with the legitimate feelings of the disadvantaged is unpleasant, even if we discover that they feel about their plight just as we would in their situation. That would be a poor consolation for the disquiet of having our noses rubbed in it in the first place. So, faced with the needy and the hungry, it is more comfortable to avert our eyes and scurry past.

Disparity interferes with the exercise of sympathy. Rousseau thought this: “Why have kings no pity on their people? Because they never expect to be ordinary men. Why are the rich so hard on the poor? Because they have no fear of becoming poor.” Iain Duncan Smith can shamelessly boast of being able to live on £59 a week because he knows he will never have to do it, or pay much attention to anybody who does, except perhaps as a very brief publicity stunt. Secure in gated communities and smoke-tinted limousines the rich have no desire or motive to transform ‘I’ into ‘we’.

Adam Smith is also famous for the ‘invisible hand,’ whereby the pursuit of private gain and private interest nevertheless raises social welfare as an unintended but wholly desirable side-effect. He does not seem to have realized that alongside the invisible hand there will by his own lights be an invisible boot, whereby the resulting stratification breaks apart any sense of us being in things together, interdependent, beating in time, or welded into a genuine society.

What can be done? It is no good hoping that we will become angels, servants of the world who are able to spread compassion and benevolence evenly over the whole of humanity. There is, as David Hume put it, only a particle of the dove kneaded into our frame along with the wolf and the serpent. He held that our institutions and the accompanying sense of obligation and justice stand in for promiscuous good will. So we could do better.

Indeed we used to do better. The creation of the welfare state showed us doing better. People like Aneurin Bevan, who created the NHS, should be remembered with affection and admiration when Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt, hell-bent on destroying it, are forgotten or reviled. They will be, unless we become so immersed in the cult of the self that we lose the ability even to imagine anything more inclusive.

To protect that ability we need to practice remembering that we used to have notions like those of public spirit, vocations, social concern, trust, or justice.

We used to have banks that cared about their customers (how quaint!). We used to have the concept of a social contract, or a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. We used to have professors, teachers and doctors who went the extra mile not because they were paid more (“incentivized”) to do so, but because the fact that it needed doing was incentive enough. We even used to have politicians and civil servants who thought of themselves as answering impartially to the people, not only to the subset that could serve their interests, or to the companies who would bribe them with the promise of rich rewards when they came out through their well-oiled revolving doors.

The cultural transformations that destroyed all that and catapulted us into the current winner-take-all, greed-is-good world can be reversed. And they need to be, because otherwise we will end up not being worth it at all. 

About the author

Simon Blackburn was Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge. He now works for the New College of the Humanities, and for part of the year in the United States. His book on which this article is based, Mirror, Mirror: the Uses and Abuses of Self-love, will be published by Princeton University Press in Spring, 2014.

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