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How much money is enough?

By Mario Meyer

Aristotle, in The Nicomachean Ethics, makes the following assertion: “The life of money-making is one undertaken by compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” One of the intractable questions of moral philosophy is the question of what is the “good life”, independent of individual subjective desires.

In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle sets out to discover the “good life” for human beings: the life of happiness or eudaimonia. “Eudaimonia” is perhaps best translated as flourishing or living and doing well. Most, if not all, people will agree that a flourishing life comprises social trust and respect, family and friendship, leisure, avoiding escapable morbidity and premature death, living in safe and clean environments, having political and civic freedoms, having adequate shelter, being able to read, write, and count, being well-nourished, socially integrated etc.

How much money do we actually need to lead a “good life”? How much is enough? These questions might seem impossible to answer but they are not trivial. Making money cannot be an end in itself (it cannot be the chief aim and highest priority of individuals and societies) for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. The answer to these questions depends on what we think we need enough money for: our needs or our wants. For some of us the material pre-requisites of well-being and the “good life” have already been met. We have enough material resources and assets to adequately meet our needs. It is, however, in relation to our unlimited wants (in comparison with others) that we feel we lack and are competing for scarce or limited resources.

In their book How Much is Enough?: Money and the good life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky assert: “The beginning of sanity in this matter is to think of scarcity in relation to needs, not wants … we are all, in principle, capable of limiting our wants to our needs; the problem is that a competitive, monetised economy puts us under continual pressure to want more and more … considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is not one of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.”

It seems to me that, in modern society, individualism, acquisitiveness and consumerism — not community, generosity and moderation — are celebrated and held up as the ideal. Instead of striving for a better society, the sole quest of many is to better their own position — as individuals — within the existing society.

I find this reprehensible, especially because I live in a country (South Africa) in which the gap between the rich and the poor is so vast and so obscene. This cohabitation of wealth side-by-side with poverty is more divisive and socially corrosive than an overall condition of poverty. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone assert that socio-economic inequality (particularly income inequality) is the most important explanation of why, despite their extraordinary success, some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures. They argue that a society that makes large numbers of people feel like second-rate citizens, who are looked down on and regarded as inferior, not only causes suffering and wastage but also incurs the cost of anti-social reactions to the structures that demean them.

The coexistence of great wealth and great poverty should offend our sense of justice. It should cause us to critically assess the unequal and inequitable nature of society as well as the manner in which we purchase goods and services in ever increasing quantities and how this might exacerbate inequality and the feeling of exclusion that many experience. The unexamined life is, after all, not worth living. The good we are seeking should be both individual (pursuing our individual dreams and aspirations) and — perhaps more importantly — societal (contributing towards a more just, equitable, humane and sustainable society).

@MarioFMeyer is a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar currently completing an MA degree in ethics at the University of the Western Cape.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Joe Joe 28 January 2013

    Too idealistic. There will always be a gap between rich and poor. People’s efforts are not the same.

  2. The Creator The Creator 28 January 2013

    Point is that the gap between the rich and poor appears to be widening dramatically. Under apartheid the GINI coefficient was supposedly about 0.6, although it wasn’t properly measured. When Zuma took over it was 0.66. Now its supposedly about 0.7. We can’t actually go on like this, no matter how much you love greedheads.

    Actually, if individual acquisitiveness were really held up as the ideal, then we would all go and take money away from the greedheads and we’d be better off. It’s the fact that we’ve been taught to worship fat-cats that’s at the root of the problem.

  3. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 28 January 2013

    “Instead of striving for a better society, the sole quest of many is to better their own position — as individuals — within the existing society.”

    But the question is, when has it ever *not* been thus?

    With the exception of fairly small utopian communities, most of which never lasted very long, when hasn’t that been the case? And in every society? Great Zimbabwe wasn’t built in a defensible position because they *didn’t* fear having what was theirs taken away. The people of Easter Island may well have died out specifically because they strove to outdo each other. Hasn’t the most basic village headman, in any culture, always had to balance his privileges and prerogatives against the resentment of his followers?

    In other words, is this a ethical/sociological problem, or one that is far more hard-wired into our basic nature?

    It strikes me that if one is to develop an ethical system which strives to ameliorate income inequality, and all its evils, one *must* start from a fully-realized, rational understanding of the basic irrationality of homo sapiens.

    And part of that means understanding and accepting from the start that we don’t share well; trying to determine what triggers the willingness to share; and exploiting it for the common good.

  4. Alex Lenferna Alex Lenferna 28 January 2013

    Great article Mario. There’s no small irony either that the place that cherishes ubuntu as one of it’s great exports is succumbing so heavily to an individualistic money-grubbing culture and allowing for such great inequality.

  5. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 28 January 2013

    I am getting old! First thought when starting to read this was of a very old British sitcom called ‘The Good Life’. Second thought was Danny DeVito shouting ‘show me the money’.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may not be perfect but it is accurate. You ‘need’ nothing more than gastric sustenance and shelter. That is our basic animal instinct.

    Now if everyone was both content and fully occupied with the basic needs, what would our world be like? If excelling at school was not a viable route to attaining more, would any of us do it? If we were all fully occupied with our basic needs, would we have had time to develop modern medicine or cell phone technology?

    Avarice is never pretty – that, I expect, is why the puritans named it one of the deadly sins. Lack of ambition should be in there too as it is just as ugly.

    As mean as it sounds, I’d rather live in a country with a large distance between the haves and the have-nots than live in a country where EVERYONE is equal in having nothing. At least in SA there is someone to keep the tax money flowing in. That, in itself, makes the possibility of some of those kids clawing their way out of poverty a reality.

    Our country doesn’t need grand gestures of middle class people giving it all away to be as poor as the poorest, our country needs jobs, inspiration and motivation to make the poorest of poor become middle class

  6. Callie Callie 28 January 2013

    Until such time as the population is educated and inculcated into generating income as opposed to being paid a wage or drawing a benefit we will be in this predicament. If you want the trappings of a capitalist society and it seems pretty much everyone agrees that we do, then we have to play by the capitalist rules. The ugly side is a few get obscenely rich but a middle class emerges. What is needed is the mechanism that gets the individual out of poverty and into that middle class. Education is the start but having a government that appears to lack the political will to do anything to facilitate this process is our biggest problem.

  7. Facts People Facts People 29 January 2013

    Deplorable poverty for a Sandton chick is a run stocking. Status anxiety is all relative.

  8. Lennon Lennon 29 January 2013

    I’ll be ecstatic when I have enough cash to build A functioning replica of the USS Defiant.

    Until then, I’d be happy to have enough money to get through a month without having to worry about whether it’ll be enough which includes putting enough aside for old age.

    Sadly, the system is rigged what with the fractional reserve system; the abandonment of the gold standard and the BS that is inflation.

    Perhaps this question should be addressed to the central banks. After all, we’re just their debt slaves.

  9. Bert Bert 29 January 2013

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, Mario. Unfortunately most people are so conditioned by capitalist values of accumulation that they cannot even make the distinction between wants and needs. They should read Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man in this regard – to understand how the capitalist system ‘constructs’ people’s wants in such a way that they regard them (erroneously) as needs.

  10. Yaj Yaj 30 January 2013

    excellent article.

    Our monetary/banking system i.e a debt-based money system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest is the root and primary cause of widening inequality, poverty , fear of scarcity and greed that plagues our society.

    Under this system whereby 97% of our money supply (credit) is created from thin air by our private banks and loaned into existence, a scarcity of circulating money is created as interest is always payable on the pricipal thus created.

    The system works when the economy is growing and lending/borrowing is occurring on a continuous basis. However, it starts to unravel when the money supply starts to tighten either when interest rates rise or the economy slows down.It ends up badly for those of us -the indebted working poor who are net borrowers and payers of interest. Proverbially the rich become richer and the poor poorer.

    This system is iniquitous and can and needs to be changed.Those who profit from it will resisit change at all costs.
    The changes required range from public/state-owned banks to 100% reserve banking and debt-free social credit created by democratic institutions and universal basic income.
    See recent IMF Working Paper entitled “The Chicago Plan Revisited” by economists Michael Kumhof and Jaromir Benes. OR check out the following websites:

  11. Barbra Barbra 30 January 2013

    Hear hear! I fully support your view; the gap between the haves and the have-nots truly is obscene.

  12. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 30 January 2013

    I suspect the problem is one of insecurity, that most feel they need more in order to feel secure. Or put another way many people mistake their needs with the fear of having nothing.
    Momma Cyndi refers to Maslow’s lowest level in his hierarchy of needs You ‘need’ nothing more than gastric sustenance and shelter.
    But once we have met our basic needs, we find higher needs to be met, such as sexual relationships and love…. all the way to self actualisation. Maslow doesn’t attach money to any of the levels, but modern living has to some extent hinted at it through our social interactions (gold diggers don’t look for love with peniless artists no matter how attractive).
    Nevertheless, once one’s needs are met it is a fairly logical to start addressing wants. That’s when we discover our need for more money!

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