Individual Responsibilities For Wealth

These various theological considerations on wealth have evident ethical application in the way in which individuals use their personal resources. If the teaching of Jesus warns of the dangers which wealth can bring individuals, the complete picture of a Christian attitude to wealth here identified can also give a more positive orientation to the responsibilities of ownership, and to the creative use of one's personal income and resources. Thus, one form which this can take is in recognizing the social purpose of taxation, both direct and indirect, when this is resorted to by society in the service of redistributing wealth for the benefit of its more needy and less fortunate members. So much so that honesty and accuracy in paying one's taxes, and a disinclination to be involved in any form of tax avoidance, not to mention tax evasion, can be seen as one yardstick by which individuals may assess their sense of moral responsibility in using and administering their wealth. Similarly, willingness to embrace the Christian tradition of giving alms according to one's means in order to relieve the distress of the poor can be seen as a further expression of responsibility in one's stewardship of one's possessions. Early Christian tradition tended to view wealth beyond one's needs as belonging by moral right to the poor of God. That criterion can continue to be of value today as enabling one to recognize that almsgiving must be a matter of giving relative to one's particular means and other responsibilities, and yet it can also be a reminder of the importance of incorporating into one's life the evangelical values of simplicity and frugality in the use of material possessions which have found consecrated and wholehearted expression in the monastic and mendicant movements and lifestyles in the Christian Church.

Individual responsibility for wealth can also find expression in the positive ways in which it is used in consumer choices in the market. One such expression, as noted above, can lie in decisions not to make certain purchases of goods or services as superfluities or luxuries which are unwarranted in the light of the needs of one's fellow human beings. Actual purchases, however, can also express responsibility in the choices made of goods and services. Most obvious, and most fashionable today, are purchases made in the light of environmental and ecological criteria. Other purchasing decisions may take a more dramatic form and constitute in their refusal varying degrees of economic pressure and even boycott in pursuit of various social or political aims. Yet others may signify social approval of the good or service on offer, and the using of one's economic purchasing power as a market vote in support of it.

Such consumer ethics, as a creative and responsible use of one's wealth, is probably at its most enduring and influential when the purchase takes the form of shares in various companies, in what is becoming increasingly recognized as the ethical investment movement. The most obvious manifestation of this expression of responsibility for one's wealth is when one declines to invest it in companies of whose products or whose behaviour one ethically disapproves, whether the products take the form of tobacco, armaments or luxury goods, or the company's behaviour includes mistreating its workers or its suppliers or unethical marketing or advertising behaviour. In such cases the refusal to invest betokens both an unwillingness to support and be party to the activities which one considers wrong, and also a moral repugnance to increasing one's wealth as a result of investing or colluding in such activities.

More public impact of one's economic power is to be seen, not when one declines to invest, but when one actively divests from a company of which one may have come to disapprove, and does so with the maximum of publicity with the intention of using one's economic power to attempt to deter the company from behaving as it does. A more activist way of exercising one's economic power to an ethically responsible end consists in acquiring or keeping shares in such a company in order to be in a position to influence its policy or behaviour from time to time, by making one's views known to its management either as an individual or in concert with other shareholders. Finally, probably the most constructive responsible use can be made of one's wealth as a shareholder when it is deliberately directed to supporting companies of whose behaviour one positively approves as providing goods or services which are of genuine value to society. Such creative use of wealth can even extend to undertaking a policy of ethical venture capital, perhaps aimed at financing measures to alleviate global poverty, and with inevitable risks, not now to one's soul, but to one's resources, but with possible potential results in human betterment which will more than justify incurring such risks.

One modern method of exercising individual responsibility for one's wealth, then, consists in using one's economic power in the market as an investor and part-owner in order to influence companies and corporations in their conduct, and to do so not just with the aim of discouraging and deterring bad business policies and practices but, more importantly, with the intention of encouraging and supporting good enterprises and practices. To such considerations it is sometimes objected that the number of small private investors in the market is tiny, and their influence negligible, by comparison with the large institutional investors, the pension funds, insurance companies, banks and investment trusts. While there is obvious truth in this observation, nevertheless to the extent that private share-ownership is on the increase in society, partly stimulated by the privatization of utilities, more individuals are coming to have a possible influence on the conduct of companies. Moreover, the large institutional investors are often themselves subject to being influenced in their business decisions affecting other companies by those individual pensioners, policy holders, etc., whose interests—and presumably wishes—they represent.

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