As capitalism became global, so did the idea of noblesse oblige—but it takes on the sense of “the white man’s burden,” the imperialist notion that Westeners had a divine mission to “enlighten” the “benighted savages” of their territories. This perspective led to practices, such as the aboriginal “residential schools” in Australia that we now see as terrible mistakes.
Now there is a lively debate over the nature of, and indeed the need for, philanthropy. Not surprisingly, some of Ayn Rand’s followers pooh-pooh Carnegie’s theories of largesse, or even that the wealthy have any obligations to the rest of society at all. Ralph Nader, on the other hand, takes the concept to its extreme in his novel “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” in which a group of wealthy people, led by Warren Buffett, unite to free American democracy from corruption.
But here’s one thought: perhaps the true obligation of the upper classes to the rest of humanity is not benign neglect, or a patronizing dribble of crumbs, or even some gung-ho activism, but rather to stop and question the very nature of their “noblesse,” and the system that has conferred such extraordinary privilege upon them.
What do you think? What does “noblesse oblige” mean to you? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org; put “noblesse oblige” in the subject line, and I’ll feature some of the best insights in a future column.