The Problem with “Noblesse Oblige”

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 to aid them in some way.

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.

If you’re curious to learn more about my experience and perspective on our common humanity, social division, privilege, and the hope of building connected communities, please check out my book, White Picket Fences.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Martha

    I am so grateful for your voice on this matter. I’m an eager , listening student!

  2. Ursula Sweeney

    “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.”

    Does it? To my mind, that’s a stretch. Your position in life, whether it’s your academic skills, the affluence of your parents, where you are born, are all a matter of chance. How you progress does have somewhat to do with you, but if, for example, you are born into disease and famine in a war-torn country, you may not even survive very long. In this basic human idea, we acknowledge that priviledge and the more the priviledge, the greater the sense of onus or gratitude. It is something an individual has no control over. And while the phrase was used by those who would see themselves as patrons and benefactors, they simply turned the meaning to suit their agenda. And humans are very good at that. I would suggest you have set the clock too late in your own personal definition here, and that
    has changed the resulting meaning. And why should we focus on socioeconomics? The acts of kindness – the kind where we give and don’t evaluate what is deserved and we don’t dictate how that that kindness is used – are as much an acknowledgement of our ability to assist somone as donating resources.

    I believe this is an equalizer. If we look at others and see ourselves in them, we recognize we might have as easily been them. We respect each other. We don’t create “others”. If we refuse to recognize our priviledges, no matter how minor or subtle, we are not living an authentic life. And this was the germ of the notion and the meaning we may take from being noble or a sense of obligation.

    1. Amy Julia Becker

      I’m trying to make sure I understand your comment–I agree that education, wealth, race, and all sorts of other factors are a matter of chance. And that if we can understand the undeserved nature of our social positions, whatever they are, it will prompt us to give freely. What I’m trying to say here is that if people in a position to give don’t also see that they are in need in some way, they will give out of pride and perpetuate social divisions rather than forming relationships and attitudes of mutuality.

    2. Susan Huber

      I agree with Ursula, my mum used to say this often and although we came from a fine family, we lived poorly but rich in traditions and ideas to go forth and make our way in art and life. Compassion, respect and kindness go farther in my family than how much money you have…

  3. Jack Burke

    Nicely written. Perhaps the meaning could be extended to mean the strong are obliged to help the weak. The haves extend to the have nots, in a given circumstance or in general terms from a favorable position in life or social class. This endeavor is nothing short of noble; however, we can lose the heroism or puffiness, and just accept it as our duty, our obligation. In the spirit of Noblesse Oblige.

    1. Amy Julia Becker

      Yes, I do think we have obligations to each other. I just think that when we see it in terms of strong/weak, we can lose the common humanity that all of us have things to offer one another. The “weak” have gifts to give the “strong,” but only if we develop relationships and networks of mutual care.

  4. S. Spear

    Would you “tweak” your conclusion above in the context of Luke 12:48? (“But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. Luke‬ ‭12:48‬ ‭NKJV‬‬)

    1. Amy Julia Becker

      I wouldn’t change the conclusion, though I do think we need to make an honest assessment of all we have been given and the ways those gifts require us (obligate us!) to give back to other people. The problem I see with noblesse oblige is that lack of humility and reciprocity that can so easily inform the practice. Thank you for asking!

  5. Scott Evans

    “Americans have never been too comfortable with the idea of nobility anyway.”

    Your article nicely lines up with Willa Cather’s contrast of the Polish violinist’s European nobility of status with the natural nobility of characters like Otto in My Antonia. Where the violinist inducts Jim into his level with “noblesse oblige” as its pass code, he does so with a stiff artificiality that in its context is ridiculous. This gesture downward contrasts with the constant outward movements of unpretentious generosity made by Otto, whose real nobility Willa Cather confirms by honoring him with the description, “how many things [he] had kept faith with!” It is the theme of the artificiality of nobility of status versus a genuine nobility of character that the American Founders meant to encourage.

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