After George H.W. Bush died, we heard a lot about how he modeled the idea of “noblesse oblige.” It’s a French term that translates as “nobility obligates.” In other words, anyone born into the upper economic class should feel a sense of obligation toward his or her fellow humans, and particularly to those less fortunate.
There are obvious positives to this concept. At least in theory, it motivates generosity and philanthropy. It hints at the idea that socioeconomic positions are not exclusively or necessarily a matter of hard work. It even acknowledges some measure of luck or privilege. The concept extends beyond wealth into the concentric circles of education. Princeton University’s unofficial motto, for instance, is “In the nation’s service.” Princeton graduates are urged to use their status, earning potential, and intellectual knowledge on behalf of others.
But there are problems with this ethos of “noblesse oblige,” and over time those problems eroded the concept. “Noblesse oblige” can lead to assumptions of superiority, the idea that the upper class has gifts to offer the rest of the world, and those poor, marginalized underprivileged people are grateful recipients of this beneficence. It’s a generosity that perpetuates a hierarchy. It keeps the privileged behind a wall of wealth, education and power. It also keeps the “noblesse” out of touch with the reality of life outside that wall, out of touch with economic hardship, out of touch with hard work that doesn’t lead to economic success, out of touch with human suffering and a broader array of human diversity.
The concept of “noblesse oblige” has fallen out of favor in recent years as social scientists have demonstrated the systems that perpetuate wealth gaps and education gaps and income inequality among different demographic groups. Americans have never been too comfortable with the idea of nobility anyway. We want to believe in equal opportunity. We want to believe in meritocracy. We want to believe that anyone who works hard will be rewarded, and anyone with wealth earned it and deserves to keep it.
And yet America continues to see a stubbornly fixed upper class, as two lengthy and compelling articles in last year’s TIME and Atlantic magazines demonstrated. In other words, we have ended up with the “noblesse” without the “oblige.” In fact, what we might have instead is something along the lines of “noblesse shame” or “noblesse cynicism.”
Multiple recent studies have demonstrated the ways in which affluent people have cut themselves off from other people and the ways they downplay the extent of their wealth. Other studies have demonstrated the ways that even the people with the highest incomes give less, as a percentage of their income, than those in the lowest economic bracket.
I wonder whether the truth to be extracted from this old idea is simply the word “oblige.” That all human beings are, in fact, obliged to one another. All interconnected. All obligated to give not out of a sense of superiority, but out of a sense of community and reciprocity.
TIME ran a story at the end of 2018 in which they identified five heroes of the year. The list included the men who rescued the boys who were stuck in an underground cave in Thailand. The man who disarmed a shooter at a Waffle House. The hospital chaplain who drove through fire to save patients. These weren’t stories about people who had been trained in nobility, but rather people who had some inherent sense of community, some ethos of mutual giving and receiving, something that provoked them to care for others as much as themselves.
I’m grateful that the era of noblesse oblige is over. I hope it makes way for a greater questioning of income disparities and wage gaps and less satisfaction with the economic status quo. But, also, I hope we can resurrect the idea of obligation to one another.