Tales From The Rich

In his new book, sociologist Schervish uses first-hand
accounts of the wealthy to reveal their values

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

The wealthy are often portrayed in literature, popular culture and public opinion as self-centered and shallow, but a new book co-authored by Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology) presents a different point of view, from the wealthy themselves.

Instead of recounting success stories, Gospels of Wealth: How the Rich Portray Their Lives offers rare insights into the personal and spiritual beliefs of the wealthy. The book analyzes how they describe their attainment and use of wealth, and how they view the moral obligations connected with their affluence. The ways in which the rich tell their stories are as revealing as the stories themselves, said Schervish, director of the Social Welfare Research Institute.

"The greatest temptation in regard to evaluating the wealthy is to adulate or attack them," said Schervish, who wrote the book with Ethan Lewis, '86, PhD '91, and sociology doctoral candidate Platon Coutsoukis. "But before we can critique anyone, we must first understand their morality."

Based on detailed interviews with 130 millionaires, Gospels of Wealth uses 12 in-depth, first-person accounts to illustrate the complex set of values among the wealthy. Those interviewed all conveyed a sense of duty and social concernstemming from their economic position, Schervish said, even as they sought to justify and legitimize their wealth. They discussed their failures and unexpected turns of good fortune as much as their hard-won successes.

Prof. Paul Schervish (Sociology) "The greatest temptation in regard to evaluating the wealthy is to adulate or attack them. But before we can critique anyone, we must first understand their morality." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

The attainment of wealth does not necessarily foster spirituality, said Schervish, though some inner change inevitably takes place. The wealthy feel they must follow a narrow ethical path, he explained, because their wealth confers on them great power, duties and obligations.

Keenly aware of their special position, Schervish said, most of the wealthy take care in how they exercise their power over their children, employees, associates and recipients of their philanthropy. Most try not "to overwhelm with mandates or instructions," he said.

Some millionaires described their rise to wealth through entrepreneurial activities and hard work, and discussed how money has changed their priorities and shaped their attitudes toward philanthropy. Some felt recipients of their generosity should meet certain standards, while others - perhaps to overcome feelings of guilt or self-consciousness about their wealth - did not set any conditions for how their gifts were to be used.

One 52-year-old millionaire grew up in a poor family and initially felt the need to "give back" to young people when he attained his fortune. He supported 42 students through college, with the expectation that they in turn would give their time to help others. When none of the students fulfilled this request to his satisfaction, he turned his philanthropic donations from individuals toward schools, community organizations and churches.

"I felt I've paid my debt back ... and I felt that maybe the kinder you are sometimes to people, the worse they have it and the worse you have it," he said, explaining his decision.

A woman born into wealth, on the other hand, said she gives generously to several causes and uses her money as a tool to make a difference in the world, according to Schervish. She has never made any demands on the recipients of her gifts.

Gospels of Wealth reflects Schervish's long-standing interest in the place of wealth and philanthropy in society. He has reported on Western attitudes toward wealth and how the wealthy pass philanthropic values to their children, and his continuing study on charitable giving has refuted the myth that the wealthy give proportionately less than the poor.

Having long considered the wealthy largely immoral, non-progressive and unaffected by the plight of the poor, Schervish said he was surprised to find among them a general desire to provide jobs and benefits for those who need them. He was also impressed with how eager participants in his study were to talk about their lives.

"They were emotionally and psychologically accessible and led us down paths we did not anticipate," he said. "Every human being has a story to tell that is spiritual and the depths of the hearts of the rich are connected to the world around them, just like everyone else."

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