Billionaire Ethics

Why do people think that billionaires have to do unethical activities to achieve their success? I can make some guesses.



Thinking that someone had to do something “bad” — to achieve some outlandish success that I couldn’t achieve — is a way I can assert my status over that person.  We come from a tribal, hierarchical evolutionary background. Three million years ago, chimpanzees always knew their status in the tribe, from alpha to omega.  The alpha had easier access to food and mating opportunities. The omega wasn’t always unhappy, though. While they had less access to these pleasures, they didn’t have to work as hard to defend their omega status.  Still, buried deep in our genes is that need to have more status, to be closer to the alpha.  Just consider the neurochemical serotonin, which is linked to happiness. (Many antidepressants operate by blocking the chemicals that interfere with serotonin.)  Serotonin is triggered in our bodies — making us happier — if we feel we are moving closer to being the alpha in our tribe.  So if someone has status over us, we feel a lack of serotonin. And often a spike in cortisol, which increases stress in our bodies and makes us feel the pain of that stress.  When that cortisol spikes, we have two choices. Try to blame it on something: “They must be unethical.” Or try to work through it: “I’m going to be a billionaire (or an X, Y, or Z), and that will make me happy.”  So often it makes us feel better to think somebody did something wrong in order to achieve success that we haven’t achieved.



Many world leaders are enormously wealthy. How did they get that way if their outspoken intentions are to “help the people”?  Simple: They are corrupt and often steal from their citizens.  Similarly, some business leaders have gotten to where they are through corrupt means. For instance, during Prohibition, many of the famous bootleggers (people selling alcohol in the U.S. illegally and charging enormous mark-ups) became legitimate businessmen, bankers, politicians, and philanthropists — once alcohol became legal.