Questions about how we should distribute wealth can come in many forms. They can be grouped into political and more narrowly ethical questions. Political questions ask how wealth should be distributed through social organization.
By contrast, ethical questions ask what the individual ought to do with their wealth (e.g. if you should give to charity). Despite the important differences between these types of questions, there is overlap between them.
We will look in more detail in the next section at how it’s often difficult to separate out the political and the ethical with topics such as these. In fact, as we will see, thinking that such questions can be addressed purely at an individual level can mislead us.
A common sense way to look at things is to say that you have a right to what is yours. This seems so obvious that it barely seems worth saying. But it becomes less obvious once we consider where our wealth comes from.
And these practices aren’t consigned to history. Poor nations are still exploited today for cheap labor and resources. Once we become aware of global political reality, our right to wealth seems less obvious.
The political background to the accumulation of wealth has importance for our individual ethical questions about wealth.
What’s more, it doesn’t seem that you have a right to a rich country’s wealth just because you were born there. It’s luck where you happen to be born, so you can’t claim to deserve its wealth.
But even if, after all this, it’s granted that you do have a right to this wealth, it still doesn’t settle the question of what you ought to do with it.
Considerations such as these will be addressed in the next section by looking at what consequentialist, deontological, and character ethics have to say about this issue.
All three main groups of ethical theories would say that we should distribute our wealth, but for different reasons. There is a worry, however, that some of them could lead to extreme interpretations of the ethics of wealth distribution. Below are the different ethical positions’ evaluations (in orange) and an indication of how this can be interpreted (in green).
As you can see, consequentialism and deontology risk promoting charity at the cost of our own well-being. But since character ethics has an emphasis on personal flourishing, there isn't the same danger of neglecting the agent.
Although consequentialism and deontology don’t have the same emphasis on personal flourishing, it’s not too difficult for them to address this problem.
In both cases, a limit could be put on the extreme interpretation of the moral argument for charity. This is even more plausible once it’s seen that distributing our wealth can be done easily without sacrificing our own well-being.