The Oxford Union is one of the world’s oldest debate forums. Starting in 1823 on the campus of the historic British university, the Oxford Union has played host to a tremendous lineup of debates and guest speakers. Participants in the debates are generally students and/or alumni of Oxford University but can also include experts in a particular field who never attended the school. Debate topics can range from philosophy to politics to history, and even sometimes comedy. The format is generally three or four speakers to a side, with some time given for audience participation. In general, each side is well-represented and often makes well-thought-out arguments, regardless of whether or not the debater actually agrees with the side he or she is taking. At the end of the debate, those in attendance can vote for the side they think won. All this is done in the most British way possible: in tuxedos and evening gowns.
Last week, on their YouTube channel, the Oxford Union posted their debate on the proposal that “It Is Immoral to Be a Billionaire.” In this particular debate, the proposition (those arguing to adopt the proposition) played the greatest hits of socialists everywhere: greedy corporations, oppression of workers, and destroying the planet for monetary gain. However, it’s not these arguments on which I want to focus. It’s the terrible arguments made by the opposition (those arguing against the proposition).
Only one of the debaters on the opposition felt it at all relevant to define morality, and why this doesn’t apply to billionaires. The other three basically admitted that on the surface they would believe that billionaires are by definition immoral, and that just the way the proposal was worded makes it possible to argue against. One debater, Liam Willis, based his argument on the fact that since he was able to name a single billionaire, namely J.K. Rowling, that he deems to be moral, the proposal falls apart. In fact, Rowling was the first person to fall off the Forbes list of billionaires due to charitable donations. If billionaires were definitionally immoral, was she eligible for morality once she was worth less than $1 billion (or £1 billion; nobody ever defined the criteria of billionaire). However, it would follow that if he were to look down the list of other billionaires, if he didn’t agree with what they did with their money he would have no problem deeming them immoral. In fact, he states outright that because Jeff Bezos doesn’t behave how he likes, he would classify him as immoral.
The closing debater was Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher who spoke of the opinion that being a billionaire isn’t immoral, rather dying a billionaire is immoral. In other words, you must be willing to pass your wealth on to worthy causes rather than to your children. He added that he would rather a society that had a taxation system that didn’t allow for billionaires to exist. He also chided the ultra-wealthy for not thinking hard enough about how to give away their wealth. Like the aforementioned Liam Willis, he praised billionaires that he agrees with. However, Singer went further. He mentions that soon-to-be-failed presidential candidate Tom Steyer is the largest donor to the Democratic Party, and that this makes him moral. However, if he were to contrast this with the Koch brothers, who donate to Republican and Libertarian politicians, he would not be able to make this point because he doesn’t agree with the causes they support. In fact, the Koch brothers were mentioned by both sides in this debate, always in a negative light.
You see, the Oxford Union wasn’t interested in having a debate on the morality of billionaires. They are actually interested in having a debate on what should be done with other people’s money. In fact, every participant had their ideas as to how the über rich should spend their wealth. Higher taxes, more charities, these approved charities, this political party, that particular cause. They also spoke about what they shouldn’t be spending on – not that boat, or house, or your children. Oxford only wanted representation from one side to push a particular agenda. This is evidenced by the fact that multiple members of the opposition chose to argue on the basis of semantics as opposed to the actual issue at hand. The debate was not about the morality of billionaires, rather how billionaires can redeem themselves from being billionaires.
So the question remains: Is being a billionaire moral? Simply no. It’s not moral. It’s not immoral. The simple glance at a bank account does not determine the morality of an individual. If a person is worth $10 billion, and every single penny of that fortune was obtained legally and in good faith, that person could be considered moral from a financial perspective (this obviously does not take other areas of life into account). If all an individual has to his/her name is $100 that was picked out of someone else’s pocket, I don’t care how desperate the individual is, or how wealthy the victim was, that’s immoral. Of course the wealthy can use underhanded, immoral, and even illegal methods of getting to be that wealthy, and those people are obviously immoral, but you aren’t allowed to judge someone’s ethics based on the size of their bank account. Judge the actions that got him or her there. This doesn’t even consider the thought that billionaires must assume all the risk to get where they are. None of the low-level employees must do that.
And for the love of everything, you don’t get to decide how other people spend their money. I understand that it’s easy to hate rich people, especially if you yourself are struggling financially. But please ask yourself if your hatred stems from your knowledge of underhandedness to get to that point or if it is based on envy. Oxford clearly believes that arguing for the opposition in this case shows some sort of character deficiency. In fact, Willis spent a good two minutes trying to apologize for it. But arguing that dollars or pounds can determine the morality of an individual shows a severe lack of understanding about finance and ethics on the part of the Oxford Union.
Izzo Zwiren works in healthcare administration, constantly concerning himself with the state of healthcare politics. The topic of healthcare has led Izzo to become passionate about a variety of political issues affecting our country today. Aside from politics, Izzo is a fan of trivia, stand-up comedy, and the New York Giants. Izzo lives on Long Island with his wife and two adorable, hilarious daughters.