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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.