Let's say I have no descendants or other living family but I am fairly wealthy in my lifetime due to a combination of work, inheritance, refraining from spending where others would.

Is it ethical/unethical to spend the money during my lifetime (into the economy, presumably), or to live frugally so it can be given to charity or to 'the state' on my death?

  • 2
    If it is your work, and your saving then you are entitled to spend it on what you want (within bounds of morality and reason, of course). There is no general ethical prescription to such individual decisions. There is simply no general way for us to know which would or would not work out for the best. Individuals may have specific insights, given their situations, and as long they reasonably believe their action advances ethical ends - it is ethical. And spending earned money on oneself is one, since persons are ends in themselves.
    – Conifold
    Jul 8, 2019 at 21:02
  • It rarely goes to the state, if your estate is big enough to even fool with, then at least some distant relative could be found according to the law on inheritance. You could also leave it to a friend, a younger friend & etc. But sure, are perfectly free to die broke, try to spend it down wisely, etc.
    – Gordon
    Jul 9, 2019 at 4:25
  • Keep in mind, a person who spends their fortune is providing jobs, in the US paying sales tax, and also paying income tax, and capital gains tax, oh, and probably paying property tax.
    – Gordon
    Jul 9, 2019 at 4:42
  • You are not asking a legal question, I hope, because often people are uninformed or misinformed about the law. Hardly anything new happens under the sun, and the law anticipates just about everything and has procedures for it. To find out how this would work in such a case on the legal side, then it is better to meet with a lawyer in your jurisdiction.
    – Gordon
    Jul 9, 2019 at 5:05

1 Answer 1


Some ethicists would argue that the acts you could possibly do with a bunch of money differ strongly in their moral value. For instance might giving the money to charity (assuming that the charity does not misuse the money, realizes effective projects etc.) save or improve the lives of children in dire circumstances. This arguably is of higher value than buying some good not necessarily needed for living.

This by itself does however not imply a concrete duty as to if and how much one should donate. The formulation of such a duty depends on the ethical framework one subscribes to. One well-known argument for donating is made by Peter Singer. Singer mentions that in our all-day we follow a principle of mutual assistance. That is, if some person we encounter needs immediate help which we can provide (without making impossible sacrifices, of course), we have a duty to help. He illustrates this principle with a story about a small child falling into a pond. If you walk past this child and see it almost drowning, you have a moral duty to help (also if you miss an appointment thereby, or your suit gets dirty). Now Singer claims that in a global context, the same principle holds. If we can save a child in a poor country by donating some ten or hundred euros, we should do so. (c.f. https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972----.htm; also see his Practical Ethics).

Of course this principle is somewhat underspecified in that it does not say where the exact border between the duty to help and the right to care for oneself lies.

The strongest opinion on this question is held by act utilitarians. They would say that in every decision moral value has to be maximized. So they would suggest to donate large amounts to charity. Singer later adopts this position in the mentioned texts. Not everyone has agreed. Others, like Valentin Beck, hold that it must be possible for one to follow own life plans, which would restrict the possible scope of this principle. In Beck's view it is not wrong to spend somewhat more money on oneself than necessary for living if this contributes to a life plan one considers important. That is, he sets the border for a duty to help lower. Of course some would also even argue that there is no or a very limited duty to help at all in the global context.

In my own (personal) view I am afraid of setting the border for helping to low - particularly due to the fact that I am convinced that living in dire circumstances means pain that is very difficult to imagine, and I am convinced it is inhumane to ignore most of this pain. The world has become a very small place. One should in my opinion also consider a second argument (also sometimes heard), namely that the life style in a western democracy might contribute to global misery and injustice.

  • " namely that the life style in a western democracy might contribute to global misery and injustice. " No. It is capitalism, in my opinion. And here we have to go to Marx or at least to the Frankfurt School. Regarding Marx, probably not to his actual solution (a revolution), but at least as a critique of capitalism.
    – Gordon
    Jul 15, 2019 at 11:56
  • I saw this morning this from Santayana quoting Emerson, "'At last, he laments the rise of industrialism; quoting Emerson: "things are in the saddle and ride mankind.'" Marx couldn't have said it better himself.
    – Gordon
    Jul 15, 2019 at 12:03
  • @Gordon: My analysis (my perspective on the matter) is that it is always acts done by individuals that are right or wrong. A system is only possible by acts of many people. Sure, in our globalized world we sometimes either don't realize the consequences of certain acts or we sometimes don't have a choice (if there are no fairly produced products, I cannot buy one). Still it is single acts done by single people that are right or wrong; and among them might be super-capitalists. But also acts done by 'normal' people can be wrong in a similar fashion. Jul 15, 2019 at 12:31

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