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The Unique Ethical Struggle for the Middle Class

Ethics is a realm of reflection that is usually not class-specific, though we often see ethical discussions focused on particular arenas of decision-making. Business ethics, legal ethics and medical ethics are a few examples.

However, there are ethical challenges found in different areas of socioeconomic life.

The ethical questions of the wealthy are different from the ethical thinking of the poor, even though the broad principles of moral integrity apply evenly across class lines.

Respect for life, the dignity of all persons, justice and equality of opportunity are relevant concerns at all levels.

Recent attention to wealth imbalance and income gaps, and to budget priorities, tax structures and “entitlement” spending as a volatile economy evolves toward an uncertain future has led to some reflection about the particular ethical challenge for those who occupy the “middle class.”

A general (and not economically sophisticated) description of this part of our human family might be: a group with resources adequate to provide a safe, comfortable and relatively secure lifestyle with access to education, medical care and recreational opportunities.

This segment of the population is relatively insulated from the challenges faced by those who are unemployed or underemployed and the limitations that make providing the necessities of life problematic.

But the middle class is also not at the level of affluence that enjoys unlimited resources.

Only the wealthiest in society have “more money than they can spend” and live at a level of luxury that is above what most of the middle class enjoys.

Living above the level of material worry, but below the visible level of possible material prosperity, the middle class has a unique ethical challenge, especially within the framework of Christian ethics.

Of course, the ethical principles of respect for life and property apply: one does not abuse the poor or the rich, or steal from either one.

Affirming the dignity of those above and below one’s own economic station is certainly a Christian perspective.

More basic than these broad principles, it seems, is the question of the perspective that represents the orientation of one’s ethical thinking and consequent behavior. The middle class seems to have a particular challenge here.

The choice seems to be whether to “look up” (metaphorically) with admiration, which easily leads to envy, or to “look down” with compassion, which leads to service.

Of course, one can do both, and I suspect many do; but there may be a way to discern which tendency is primary.

If the middle class listens carefully to those who appeal for its support, it will soon be clear whether the appeal is focused in one of two ways: toward the admiration and desire that look toward the gains that are possible, or toward the compassion and service that the needs of others inspire.

Economic priorities and political choices may be indicators of which way the middle class is looking.

If we are susceptible to the warning that “they” are coming to cripple our advancement and to take away what we have and give to those who don’t deserve it, that may be a clue to our perspective.

Not everyone is in this “middle class,” but many of us are; and the voices that ask for our loyalty and support appeal to one or the other of our ways of looking.

We are invited by some to “look up” and admire those higher on the economic scale and aspire to become “of them” by embracing the steps and the protections that support that level of security.

Other voices encourage us to “look down” toward those lower on the economic scale and embrace the need for structures and policies that offer help with the basic supports for healthy and wholesome life.

The man in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) did not abuse the poor man at his gate; he simply did not see him because he was looking the other way.

The parable urges us to consider which way we are looking.

Do we “look up” at those behind the gated walls of success and the influence it can buy, putting our energies toward how to become “of them”?

Or do we “look down” toward those whose basic needs are a struggle to meet and focus our attention and energies toward helping them?

Many, of course, look both ways and seek a balance between ambition and compassion.

Maybe the question is which way of looking is primary and defines who we are. Which one yields more readily when the other calls?

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.