Is it wrong to live a flashy,
ostentatious lifestyle? Should a person be judged for carrying a Louis Vuitton
bag and driving a Rolls Royce? Many people would say yes, it is wrong to flaunt
your wealth in the face of others. They would say that people should live a
simple and humble life and that those who flaunt their designer toys are “bad
people.” They might hold Bill Gates as a good example of someone who lives an
understated life, despite his vast wealth.
Yet, many other people would
say no—it is perfectly acceptable to flaunt your wealth. If people have wealth
and status, then they are entitled to celebrate and display them. People who
flaunt their designer toys are not “bad people.” For them, Donald Trump might
be a good example of someone who has no qualms about displaying his
So, why do people differ so
widely in their views of ostentatious lifestyles? Why do many people think it
is morally wrong to be flashy, while others encourage it? In our research, we
found that these differences of opinion can be explained by differences in
peoples’ core moral beliefs.
Some people believe that
equality and fairness are the most important moral virtues. For them, it is
important to make society as equal as possible and to break down class
structures. These people see ostentatious behaviors as a manifestation of
power, social inequality, and waste. Thus, for them, luxury displays are
contrary to their moral values, and they denounce them as wrong.
Other people have different
core moral beliefs. These people see hierarchical class structures as a moral
virtue. For them, society should not be equal but rather needs to be ordered
based on social ranks. These people see ostentatious behaviors as a reinforcer
of social rank. So, when people flaunt their wealth, they are signaling their
status, which is necessary to preserve social order. Thus, for these people, luxury
displays are acceptable because such displays are congruent with their moral
These findings help to explain
why some cultures and social groups embrace luxury displays while others shun
them. For example, Western cultures and rich liberals tend to value equality in
society, but Asian cultures and rich conservatives tend to value social order.
Indeed, our results show that sales of luxury products tend to be lower in
Western countries such as Sweden and Denmark but higher in Asian countries, such
as Singapore and Hong Kong. Even within the United States, we found that
liberals believe that it is morally wrong for leaders to be ostentatious,
whereas conservatives are comfortable with their leaders being flashy.
So, our research shows that
people differ in the degree to which they think ostentatious displays of wealth
and luxury are morally wrong, and the acceptability of luxury displays reflects
differences in people’s core moral beliefs that vary across societies and
cultures. So, whether you think it is wrong to show off your wealth depends on
your personal moral beliefs.