Some time last year, a wealthy man in southern India, rammed his expensive vehicle into a security guard, then thrashed him mercilessly for taking time to open the gate. Sadly, the guard died despite several surgeries. I wonder if that cruel man will get the punishment he deserves.

In India,  a study by conducted by National Law University students with the help of the Law Commission found that 75% of  death row convicts are poor and come from dalit or tribal backgrounds.  Crimes are commited equally by the rich and the poor, but it is often the poor who get harsher punishments than the rich. How is the taxi driver who rapes a woman any worse than a rich landlord who rapes the worker in his fields? But the taxi driver is caught and punished and the farm worker most often doesn’t dare report the crime. The poor can’t afford legal aid and must depend on over-worked public defendants. Even worse, in some countries, they don’t have the money to pay corrupt officials and lawmakers.

It seems too that the rich seem to adopt the moral high ground with criminals who are poor, saying ‘We must teach them a lesson’. Do they use the same yardstick when it comes to their own children? Apparently not, from all the bribes that they are willing to pay to let them get away with a light punishment.

In Bandra, one of the posher suburbs of Mumbai, I have seen how rich kids go around with a sense of entitlement – driving expensive cars at speeds which on impact will surely kill. What’s more is that they’re often driving drunk! They have no fear of the law, sure that their parents will bail them out if they kill someone. They have the example of the actor, Salman Khan, also from Bandra, who has yet to serve his complete sentence for a drunk driving accident in which one person was killed and a couple badly injured.

Those of us who are priviledged think nothing of spending a huge sum of money on one meal in a restaurant, but will think twice before increasing the salary of our maid. The maid’s  monthly salary is often less than what we spend in an hour and yet we seem to grudge them their due. Why do we have different standards for the poor? I’ve often heard people remarking that slum-dwellers ‘waste’ their money on televisions and refrigerators but won’t spend on their children’s education? While this is not strictly true, who are we to say what they should spend on? Do we realize that television is often their only source of information, since many can’t read and that a refrigerator is a necessity especially in the conditions they live in.

Is this what money does?

Does money make us mean? Does money make us insensitive to the feelings and needs of others? Does it give us a sense of entitlement? Does having  a lot of money make us feel we’re above the law?

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I read an interesting article in the New York Magazine talking of the money and empathy gap. The article talks about studies by the psychologist Paul Piff and others on how wealth can affect our interpersonal relationships. The study included observing the behaviour of people driving expensive cars and those driving less expensive ones, rigged games of monopoly, etc. What came out of the study didn’t speak very well in favour of having wealth.

In this somewhat controversial study Paul Piff writes: “specifically, I have been finding that increased wealth and status in society lead to increased self-focus and, in turn, decreased compassion, altruism, and ethical behavior….

It makes you more attuned to your own interests, your own desires, your own welfare….

It isolates you in certain ways from other people psychologically and materially. You prioritise your own needs and your own goals and become less attuned to those around you.”   (More about the study and its finding in this TED talk)

Perhaps this is why Semantic religions warned against the evils of amassing wealth and encouraged the faithful to share their wealth with the poor. Jews and Christians are encouraged to tithe and Muslims to give zakat. Sikhism encourages followers to give the poor food and work and this can be seen in the many langars around the world that feed millions. In Hinduism, the worship of the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, while enouraging people to amass wealth to take care of themselves and their families also encourages charity and good works. The downside of this religious encouragement is that  charity sometimes becomes a way of insuring a place in heaven. We begin to think we can buy a seat there too!

Let me state that I have nothing against wealth.  But we must combine our wealth with sensitivity and responsibility. For this we need constant self-awareness.

Do you think that money makes us mean, insensitive and entitled?

 

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