Wealth, Poverty and Social Class

Cultural assumptions often support the uneven distribution of wealth in any nation, even in a democracy. Monarchies assumed authority to rule as divine right, with noblemen seeing themselves as superior human beings, given the task of ordering those less fortunate. If democracies originated to establish equality of station and opportunity, eliminating divine right and aristocratic authority, it did so with the aspiration to leveling the playing field, so that the promise of the declaration could be realized by all.

Epictetus: addresses the issue of want in the student he is speaking to. He compares him to a slave who must provide for himself once he escapes. The want of necessities leads to only one place: the metaphors—like a fever or a stone that falls on one. One must look elsewhere rather than at want: one must look beyond want and its fear. As a Stoic, he was reminding the student to look to virtue if he is to overcome his fear of want. For Epictetus progress as a human being meant that one pursued an understanding of his true nature and kept his moral character in tact. Since humans are rational creatures, they could reason through this kind of emotional difficulty and find happiness or well-being. The Stoics did not practice virtue for the sake of good against bad, but how one made use of what was present. So Epictetus is reminding the student that he has within his power authority over himself, not external circumstances, which the fear of want exemplifies. Wealth and status are indifferent and can cause emotions that one may be unable to control. Epictetus remarks, “This is the proper goal, to practice how to remove from one’s life sorrows and laments, and cries of “Alas” and “Poor me,” and misfortune and disappointment.” What is in our ability is that we can adapt ourselves, to all that comes about, which is not in our capacity to know. “We have power over our own minds. The opinions we hold of things, the intentions we form, what we value and what we are averse to are all wholly up to us.” One must remain calm and control one’s emotions when faced with adversity, which is what it means to be Stoic.

Christian charity, mercy

The early Christian church orthodoxy (16th-17th century) defined charity as a divine fire, a religious emotion that replaced love of self with that of God and neighbors. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25, he states that salvation depended on one’s willingness to extend mercy to the poor. The lesson the church was trying to codify was that a good Christian would imitate Christ by offering charity and mercy to those afflicted by poverty or other unfortunate circumstances.

Both charity and mercy were practiced as specific virtues: charity was the kindness and tolerance one could give to others simply by recognizing one’s equal status with others. Given, it speaks to their goodness. Mercy was that extended to the weak, support given to a lesser person. It speaks to their wretchedness, by imitating the consciousness of Christ in showing compassion and forgiveness.

As these church doctrines found their way into civil society, charity became associated with poor relief, education and attempts at moral improvement of the poor. It was believed that the poor were disadvantaged and needed public assistance as well as education to remedy their condition. One reason for supporting public assistance was the belief that public disorder, and riots could erupt if the poor became desperate due to shortages of food, along with the fear that the poor would spread disease, infecting the population. Many cities passed laws requiring the able bodied poor to work in order to receive assistance. Religious leaders and many citizens disapproved of the idleness of the poor, which they believed was sinful and antisocial. Many believed charity was a palliative designed not to eliminate poverty but reflected the existing order, a natural part of the providential order of rich and poor as supporting each other.

Throughout this period economic aid was dependent on who was worthy and who was not, often defined on moral grounds with the poor stereotyped as unfit, if not morally inferior.

Wealth, poverty and social class

Thomas Malthus begins his text with a claim of some truth: unchecked population growth will overrun food sources, thereby threatening quality of life for many, causing more misery to the lower classes than any other. Using known facts of the age, he argues deductively from those facts.
In a society where equality and virtue are the norm, where means of subsistence are abundant, and all could provide for their family, population left unchecked would overrun subsistence. His math is accurate in a static culture, for he could not foresee how industrialism and technology would transform the economics of food production. Being a Christian also blinds Malthus to understanding why the poor suffer as he exposes his benevolent bias toward the kind of help a society should provide to those less fortunate.

• Explain why Malthus begins with an explanation of virtue in the lives of both the poor and the rich.

• What is Malthus assuming given the conditions of equality and virtue (manners) in a society and population growth left unchecked?

• Why does Malthus use the United States as an example of the equality of means of subsistence and pure manners?

• What kind of evidence does Malthus use, population left unchecked doubles geometrically every 25 years, but the ratio of food production only increases arithmetically every 25 years, to support his position?

• What is Malthus concerned with, by suggesting that if reason could overrule natural instinct, it would lead to vice? Why are virtues and manners so important to him?

• He asserts that “virtuous attachment” is so strong, that it leads to an increase in population. Why? He then conjectures that in the lower classes, this constant prevents any amelioration of their condition.

• Malthus is making a class distinction: the lower classes are subject to this virtuous attachment and cannot restrain themselves. How does this distinction betray his class blindness?

• He then asserts that the rich prolong the miseries of the poor (he’s referring to the fluctuations if the business cycle concerning cheap labor when markets are good) but believes that no society exists that could prevent these kinds of fluctuations. Is he being fair to the laboring class given the conditions they must face without any real remedy?

• Why have Malthus’ predictions never come true? What did he not know or even imagine as checks to population growth and means of subsistence?


Inequality and the poor

• Gandhi argues from Christian teachings, that economic progress of a country must be measured against moral progress as well. Why does he believe this?
• Gandhi defines moral progress as addressing the “permanent element” in us. What does he mean?
• He believed that economic progress could lead to moral degradation. Explain how.
• Can economic progress lead to moral progress? Why or why not?
• Gandhi believed that a rich man’s sense of self-respect was less that those who were poor. Is this inference reasonable?
• Is it logical to convince an audience of economists by asserting the authority of the scriptures that moral progress must be a country’s goal for its people?
• Gandhi states that Jesus economized time and space by transcending them. What does he mean and is this a valid inference?
• Gandhi counters the claim that people must have money, food, before they can be reasonably moral. What evidence does he bring to counter this claim?
• Gandhi asserts in his conclusion that real economics are found in God and his righteousness. Is he being naïve?
• Evaluate the soundness of Gandhi’s position by taking into consideration the evidence he brings and the inferences he draws from them.

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