Does Luxury Turn You Into A Jerk?

Probably a jerk........

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business School Journal entitled The Devil Wears Prada? Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making”. It discusses an ongoing study into the effects of luxury on decision making, a subject of some interest in these days of economic turmoil and bloated executive compensation. Its worth reading if you enjoy such things. The quick, bare bones version is that exposure to luxury (the perks that come with wealth and power) makes people measurably less likely to take the well-being of others into account and likely to be more self-interested. For instance, the decision to continue an environmentally damaging policy or lay off a horde of workers for extra profit margin is more likely to be chosen when the discussion takes place in luxurious surroundings. Its worth noting that the study did not find that luxury made people actively malicious. It simply notes they just don’t give as much of a damn about the unwashed masses (or the semi-washed for that matter). Luxury does not appear to promote evil. It just turns you into a jerk.

Anyone who has worked in the corporate world has probably observed all this without needing a Harvard study. Still, I think its valuable to have it quantified and the proverbial cards put out on the table. It raises some interesting questions about leadership in our society. More to the point for my purposes in this blog, what effect does luxury have on becoming άγαθός (agathos)?

Full Disclosure: I like many luxuries just fine. Finances permitting, I’ve been known to frequent places like Boston’s Oak Bar and drink overpriced scotch without feeling even the remotest sense of concern for the rest of humanity….or the planet….and your little dog too. However, that indulgence needs to be tempered with the qualities and virtues of the Agathos. My personal experience has been that luxury needs to be balanced and “detoxed” with Askesis.

What do the ideas of Arete and Agathos tell us about the effect luxury may have on us? Would some Greek or Roman say that luxury will turn you into a jerk (and a soft one at that)?

Probably not so much of a jerk.

When we look back to the virtues of the Homeric epics as a foundational proto-ethics there is no question that we are looking at an aristocratic ethos. To be clear and fair it has to be acknowledged that the Agathoi were not the everyday men on the street. They were the nobility and enjoyed privileges. In that early Bronze Age economy being noble didn’t bring all that many luxuries but the Homeric heroes were at the top of whatever heap there was. Certainly they made a great fuss over possessing the finest armor and chariots and such. Did having the pick of wine, women and implements of destruction make them into jerks? It seems to have varied. I think its safe to say that Agamemnon was a jerk. His self-interest and arrogance are clear. Achilles is described much more favorably as a leader and shows greater concern for those around him. Still, when he gets into a snit over prestige and the loss of his girl-toy he is willing to put the entire Greek expedition into jeopardy. That is a jerk move to be sure. Odysseus was a little more down to earth but it has to be noted his men would never have been lost at sea with him and ultimately killed had he not annoyed the god Poseidon. His crime? Hubris, extreme arrogance. It didn’t help that he stabbed Poseidon’s son in his only eye.

Position, power, luxury, perks. Maybe Lord Acton’s dictum is true and power really does tend to corrupt? As always, I end up turning to the Stoics. If Homer gives us a proto-ethics then the Stoics give us the refined product. Did they condemn luxury and warn against its degenerative powers? Not exactly. Some of the Stoic writers whose works survive were wealthy men with all the attendant perks. Some were not. What they all espoused was the idea that attachment to wealth, luxury and power is an absolute killer to virtue. If you can acquire and have such things in your life without compromising your reason, your integrity, your freedom then by all means do so. If the good life is defined by the cultivation of Arete (Excellence) then the material outcome is really neither here nor there.

I think that is probably the real answer to the quandary. What keeps luxury from turning you into a jerk? You just can’t care about it that much. It is nice but if you wish to be Agathos it just isn’t that important. Odysseus, despite some aristocratic jerk behavior, learns this lesson on his long, long journey home when he is reduced to a shipwrecked pauper. Ironically, Zeno of Citium the founder of Stoicism came to Athens because he was a shipwrecked merchant and stayed to study philosophy. The recognition of how little control we truly have over our material lives is a crucial understanding. Maybe that experience and recognition would temper the tendencies illustrated by that Harvard Biz School study.

4 Responses to “Does Luxury Turn You Into A Jerk?”

  1. Nice writing. Attachment, yea, that is the killer. To be detached through good times and bad… I’m still working on that….

    • Yeah, like so many of the ideas the Stoics espouse its easier said than done. Epictetus talks about it as a practice that you return to over and over. If you goof it up one day you just try it again tomorrow. Its an acquired habit not an inspirational flash. At least, if there IS an inspirational flash its at the tail end of a lot of practice. That part always gets left out of stories.

  2. Sorry this took me so long to get to.

    I think this misses the point slightly. The question shouldn’t be does it turn you into a jerk, but does it allow you to be one.

    Let’s say you live in a hunter gather society where your servival depends on mutual cooperation and goodwill. If you are naturaly inclind to be a jerk you eather learn to not show it or are pushed out of the group where your chances of survival are less.

    If you’re a rich noblemens son and you’re a jerk, not much is going to happen to curb that behavior.

    If your morals are sound and you continue to work on keeping them, doesn’t matter if you have money/power or not.

    Most of what you talk about is taking the expedant means to wealth and in the long run usualy ends up making you poorer.

    Google; John Huntsman, Sr. He has a good book on this subject.

    What do you think,

  3. You can be a stoic and have stuff it all about what you value that matters not just having stuff.

    Life is as hard as you make it. Its how you deal with the hard parts that eather make yo a survivor or victim of it.


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