Money is necessary, but not sufficient

So earlier this week I got into a back-and-forth on the old necessary/sufficient distinction. That was still kicking around in my mind when I overheard some TV commercial or infomercial in which the spokesman said this exact phrase: “How many times have you heard someone say.”

And thus, because of the way my brain works, I had an old Porter Wagoner song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. (Wagoner was the first to have a hit with “Satisfied Mind,” and I thought he wrote it until I looked it up and learned it was written by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes.)

I love that song — the Blind Boys of Alabama version above, or the Dylan version from Saved, or the Johnny Cash version, or the Mahalia Jackson version.

But it occurs to me that this song offers the same confusion that marked my earlier argument. Or, rather, the same confusion that prevented my earlier exchange from even rising to the status of an argument.

Here’s the first stanza of that song:

How many times have you heard someone say
If I had his money I could do things my way
But little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind

The singer and “someone” seem to be talking past each other without either really addressing what the other is saying. “If I had his money I could do things my way,” is, mainly, a complaint due to the lack of money. The singer’s reply warns that money is no guarantee of happiness.

We could paraphrase this exchange as something like this:

SOMEONE: Money is necessary.

SINGER: Money is not sufficient.

They’re both right. The singer seems to think he’s correcting “someone,” with that “but little they know.” Yet his assertion doesn’t contradict what the poor someone is saying. Both statements can be — and both are — true.

This exact conversation occurs and recurs a lot, often among people who imagine they’re disagreeing. It’s actually the very conversation we should expect to hear between a poor person and a rich one. “Money is necessary,” is the truth that every poor person knows. Likewise, “Money is not sufficient,” is the truth that every rich person knows. It’s also very easy for poor people, because they know money is necessary, to imagine that it might also be sufficient. And it’s very easy for rich people, because they know money is not sufficient, to forget that it is, nonetheless, utterly necessary.

Unfortunately, in most of the endless iterations of this conversation between rich and poor, none of this is expressed in these categories of necessary and sufficient, and so neither side may be able to hear or to learn what the other knows. Instead, the conversation goes something like this:

SOMEONE: Boy, life would be a lot easier if I had enough money.

SINGER: Money doesn’t guarantee an easy life.

They think they’re disagreeing when all along they’re actually both saying parts of the same thing: Money is necessary, but not sufficient. Put it that way, and both someone and singer can agree and move forward from there. But if we fail to see that this is what’s really being said, there can’t be any agreement or even any disagreement — just a lot of confused talking past one another.

For an example of what that sounds like, see every discussion of public school funding ever. Education is another place where the simple truth is that money is necessary, but not sufficient for decent outcomes. Yet every time anyone mentions the need for funding, the response is always that funding is no guarantee of success. “You can’t just throw money at the problem!” That’s not the rebuttal those folks imagine it is. It’s not even relevant enough to qualify as a disagreement.

We don’t usually get tripped up by such confusion when we’re talking about things other than money. If someone says, “You can’t make chocolate milk without the chocolate,” no one will angrily reply that you can’t just throw chocolate at the problem, or that chocolate is not sufficient for chocolate milk. We only seem to get that confused and angry when it’s about money.

Or about sex — which was the subject of that back-and-forth I mentioned up there at the beginning of this post. I had been arguing that consent is a necessary component of any sexual ethics, which met with a sneering response along the lines of “Oh, as long as it’s between two consenting adults then you say anything goes!”

The simple truth that consent is necessary, but not sufficient, for sexual ethics is as likely to be grasped by a puritanical religious person as the simple truth that money is necessary, but not sufficient, is to be grasped by a rich person.

The distinction is not complicated, or unusual. But it tends not to be understood by those who have a stake in not understanding it.


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  • I would get some pretty seriously upset looks if I used dog food in chili for the Company Barbecue, drank a bottle of whisky before noon, or ate a nice fried monkey-brain.

    Yeah, we all know monkey brains should only be served chilled as a desert!

  • SisterCoyote

    Hmmm. I see your point, but, to make what has to be the most cringe-worthy analogy I’ve ever typed… we specify “business ethics” when talking about how businesspersons/businesses shouldn’t rip people off, be dishonest about their product or service, etc. That’s also just interpersonal ethics, but we specify that it’s also unethical on a professional level. Or journalism ethics, which  specify things like “Be honest, don’t distort the truth,” “Have sympathy, don’t use the suffering for others for personal gain,” etc. Yes, it’s generally unethical, but it’s also very specifically unethical to the profession.

    Sexual ethics requires consent, yes, but beyond that, I think there is a sort of code for honesty – as others have said, not oath-binding – and not using sex as a tool of manipulation, etc.

  • Carstonio

    Bodily autonomy seems to me to be part of consent, or the driver of the consent principle. I’m not sure of the purpose of comparing consent for sex to consent for a contractual arrangement, since the latter is an exchange for mutual benefit.  A better comparison would be consent to a non-sexual use of one’s body, such as for medical experiments.

    Where sex is concerned, I haven’t heard a definition of implicit consent that didn’t sound like a rationalization for seduction. As a default one should assume lack of consent unless it’s granted in some explicit way. The issue of apparent consent isn’t really a problem with the consent principle itself, but mostly with the shaming of female sexuality.

  • Carstonio

     Good point. What you describe is probably the lack of full or informed consent.

  • Will

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the last bit. So often, the rich person is telling the poor person that “money doesn’t make you happy” in order to justify continuing to steal that poor person’s money.

  • other lori

    Playing devil’s advocate, should seduction be illegal? Because, consent is a legal principle, not an ethical one. If we say that implicit consent isn’t consent, what we’re really saying is that sex without implicit consent is rape. Do we really want to say that seduction is rape? I mean, that is fun to debate theoretically in a feminist theory class, for sure, but I’m not sure that we want to live in a society where you can be arrested for rape and labelled a sex offender for life because you had sex with somebody who went right along with things but never explicitly granted consent.

    That’s the problem I see with making consent our only barometer for whether sex is okay or not; it turns sex into something that we can have no ethical boundaries for, only legal ones. And yet, there is sex that is not okay but that shouldn’t be illegal. Like, when Parker manipulated Buffy into having sex with him, he was an asshole and wrong. But, if consent is our only barometer, we’re left either saying that actions like that are totally okay, or that they aren’t really consensual and therefore rape (and should be punished as rape by the legal system).

    I’m not okay with that. I think we need more language for talking about sex. What about love? If we make love a part of our sexual ethic, not just consent, we suddenly do have language for talking about sex that is wrong but not illegal, because lots of stuff we do everyday is unloving but not illegal. If love is part of our sexual ethic, then manipulating somebody into having sex with you is wrong not because the consent you obtain doesn’t really count and therefore it’s rape, but because manipulating somebody isn’t a loving thing to do. If love is a part of our sexual ethic, then pressuring your partner into engaging in a sex act they find degrading and unpleasant isn’t loving.

    Pressure in and of itself doesn’t negate consent; I have plenty of friends who’ve been pressured into having medical tests they didn’t really want to have while pregnant, and the pressure their doctor put on them didn’t negate their consent. Consent doesn’t have to be enthusiastic to meet the legal criteria; I agreed to pay back my student loans and to have my flu shot grudgingly, but my consent to those things still stands. So rather than playing a lot of semantic games about what consent means and turning a legal term into an ethical standard it was never meant to be, I’d prefer that we broaden our language for talking about sex. Consent is enough to make it legal, but it’s not enough to make it right. 

  • other lori

    That should have said that we’re saying sex *with* implicit consent is rape, in the first paragraph, if we believe that implicit consent doesn’t count as consent.

  • Carstonio

    No, consent is both an ethical concept and a legal one, and the two realms’ standards aren’t necessarily the same.

  • Isabel C.

    For me, as long as it’s between two consenting adults, any other aspect of a sexual act is none of my damn business unless I’m one of the adults in question.

    I may think that A’s relationship with B is a bad idea; A may wonder why the hell I eat processed sugar. I may think that A shouldn’t be cheating on B for a number of reasons; A may think that I shouldn’t be ordering off Amazon for reasons just as numerous and serious.

    In all cases, being snotty and disapproving doesn’t help either me or A, it’s obnoxious, and it makes for really awkward parties.  

  • other lori

    I guess I think it’s confusing and somewhat dangerous to use a term in different ways legally and ethically. Lack of consent is rape. If we define consent differently legally and ethically, then suddenly we have “rape rape” (sex that lacked legal consent) and “kinda sorta but not really rape” (sex that had legal consent but lacked whatever we consider the criteria for ethical consent). I’m not comfortable with that, at all. Rape is a word that needs to mean something solid, and for that to happen, consent has to mean something solid.

    If you don’t want love to be a criteria, there are other ones: respect, justice, kindness, trust, any number of virtues that we can say provide some ethical criteria for sex above and beyond the legal standard of consent. 

    I just think that moralizing using legal terms is 1) still moralizing and 2) a particularly dangerous form of moralizing, because we can very easily decide that what we consider is immoral must also therefore be illegal. I feel like the end result will either be trivializing rape (there are some current feminist discussions about consent that veer eeriely close to the idea that all hetero sex is rape because, given the power differences between men and women, there is no such thing as real consent, and once all sex is rape, then rape is just sex) or trivializing consent (if we keep defining consent up, so that it doesn’t just mean not saying no, or doesn’t just mean saying yes, but means saying yes enthusiastically at every step of the process, then suddenly it just seems like a silly, abstract concept that is totally foreign to most people’s sex lives). I don’t want either to happen, so I think it’s better to leave consent as a legal criteria and use other concepts to discuss ethics.

  • Isabel C.

    I like respect, personally: that’s a major part of my personal system of sexual ethics.

    I respect my partner as a person, so I’m not going to try and manipulate him into bed. If I want more, or less, than that one night, I consider myself obligated to let him know that in a straightforward fashion, and not to resent him if his feelings differ If he’s my friend, I respect him as a friend, so I’m not going to get all weird and either distant or clingy after we sleep together. I also respect my partner as an adult, which means that I’m not going to second-guess his decisions or try and do things based on what’s good for him when he wants something else.* For the same reason, I’m not going to try and break up existing arrangements, or get him to make different life choices than he would if I wasn’t there.** 

    That’s my code. Other people have different ones–some people value emotional connection more, some people value honesty more, etc–and that’s cool too, but this is what strikes a decent balance, for me, between “I have a good time” and “I can live with myself.” 

    *That doesn’t preclude my right to stay the hell out of potential drama, but I should frame it that way.  
    **Situations like taking a job in another state when you’re in a long-term relationship are different, but I don’t do monogamous LTRs, so that’s not really a factor for me. 

  • Carstonio

    The difference between legality and ethicality is about standards and not definitions. It’s possible for behavior to be unethical without a compelling government interest in making the behavior illegal. Adultery was mentioned earlier, and the old laws against it were questionable because they violated the privacy of the people involved.

    I can see how my point could be interpreted as watering down a definition of rape, and I most definitely seek to avoid that. Instead of moralizing using legal terms, I’m arguing against legalizing using moral terms. My point is about consent and bodily integrity as a principle and its application, not about consent as a rule in and of itself. I see the virtues that you named as extensions of the core principle of avoiding harm to others, and the principle of consent is another extension.

  • Gotchaye

    Yes, it was a bad comparison, if by that you mean that the situations actually aren’t alike.  If consent is all that’s going on, then clearly consent is sufficiently complicated to explain why that’s so, which was my point.  One could as easily go with a fairly simple notion of consent while allowing that there’s more than just consent at work in sexual ethics.

    For implicit consent, I was thinking more of trying to account for the permissibility of various actions in the context of an ongoing sexual relationship in the absence of explicit consent.  Kissing one’s sleeping long-term partner is a lot different than kissing a sleeping person you’ve never met.  Having sex with one’s drunk partner is at least a lot less problematic than having sex with a drunk stranger, and most probably have no issue with it.  One can permissibly just walk up and touch one’s partner in a way that would be wildly inappropriate outside of a similar context.  None of this requires explicit consent; it requires at most (an unspecified level of) reasonable confidence that the action isn’t going to be a problem for the other person.

    Likewise, apparent consent has to be accounting for things like the impermissibility of statutory rape or how one partner having a great deal of power over the other can cause apparent consent to fail to be actual consent.

    Certainly as a general rule, going by what people say they consent to is going to do pretty well.  But if you want to capture basically all of sexual ethics with consent, it’s going to need to be a lot more complicated than that.  When the “default” principle doesn’t apply is something that has to be in the concept of consent.

  • Carstonio

    No question that consent in a long-term relationship is not quite the same as that in an encounter between relative strangers. (I make an exception for your point about a drunk partner, which is more problematic than you suggest.) While the former does rely somewhat on implicit consent, that type of relationship still requires a healthy degree of communication, sexual and otherwise. Consent is still the underlying principle, it’s a matter of different degrees of explicitness and implicitness. Very good point about power imbalances undermining consent – that’s why a sexual relationship between a boss and an employee equates to abuse of power.

  • I’ve been thinking about this and I think that the primary consideration of Sexual Ethics is respect. Consent is an aspect of respect but it’s not all of it. I can’t imagine any way of having non-consensual sex with someone who you respect it is however possible to have consensual sex with someone you don’t and I don’t think that’s ethical. Then there’s the harm thing as well (note I wouldn’t count BDSM as harm unless permanent damage was done).

  • Isabel C.

    Hm. I’m not sure that hatefucks are *unethical* per se, now that I think about it, as long as it’s mutual. On the other hand, I don’t know that mutual hatefucks exist outside fiction. 


    it is however possible to have consensual sex with someone you don’t [respect] and I don’t think that’s ethical. 

    Can you say more about why sex-without-respect is unethical?

    For example… is it inherently unethical, or is it a symptom of some other unethical condition, or will it consistently cause some other unethical condition, or…?

    For example… is commerce-without-respect or raising-children-without-respect or community-service-without-respect unethical in the same way?

  • caryjamesbond

    I think part of the discussion of Adultery needs to tie into what marriage is. We discuss marriage as contract, but one of the most important parts of any contract joining two entities is joint action.   If my Company A and your Company B join and become Company C, then we’ve become something separate and different from the sum of the assets of our company.  The employees of the two companies may do exactly the same thing as before- the difference is that they won’t suddenly do something different without the consent of the entire unit.

    This is really a concept that we are already familiar with in marriage- Even if one partner makes all the money, simply walking into the house and saying “we’re moving to Moscow, go pack up” would be seen as incredibly violating and wrong, despite the strictly legal point of view that the paycheck they make is their own and they can move to Moscow if they like.

    One cracked article had a fantastic breakdown of this.  The author pointed out that married men calling their wives to “get permission” to stay out or do something get mocked by their non-married friends as “whipped.” In reality, however, its not about permission or control, it is recognizing that you are part of a joint entity and you have responsibilities to that system outside of and separate too your responsibilities to yourself.  

    Similarly, if a married couple A and B decides that its fine for A to sleep with C, but then A sleeps with D, A was wrong. Even if B would have consented to A sleeping with D.  A has a responsibility not only to B, but to AB, their marriage, and that responsibility is one of understanding that some of their autonomy has been sacrificed to the AB relationship.

  • caryjamesbond

    As for whether a perfectly logical system of ethics is possible, I think not. Humans are good at logic, but we are primarily feeling creatures.  It’s like the old “your kid is one set of tracks, five kids are on the other, you can only save one set, which do you save?” question.  The simple fact is that the vast majority of people will save their own child over the strangers. 

    I can say with confidence that if it was a situation with my child or sibling, it is not even a question. When placed in the light of that relationship, other people cease to have moral standing to me.  You might as well say “There is your sister on this track, and 1,000 fleas on the other, which do you save?” There is no number of fleas high enough to give them any moral weight next to my sister.  

    Is that right? I’m not sure. Is that the best moral code? Probably not. But that is what it is. Trying to operate entirely from logic ignores the incredibly complex nature of human emotions and emotional relationships, which don’t have anything to do with logic.

  • stardreamer42

    Your point is valid, but somehow I doubt that it’s what the original sneerer meant. You’re talking Advanced Sexual Ethics here, and that person still seems to need remedial education to get up to Sexuality & Ethics 101.

  • stardreamer42

    Lunch and Other Obscenities. Arguably the finest New!Trek fic out there, built around a very similar premise. 

  • stardreamer42

    “Money can’t buy happiness” is simplistic. Money can buy you a much better chance to find the things that will make you happy — which may not themselves be monetary!  Money can also buy peace of mind (in the sense of not having one unexpected expense send you spiraling down into a pit of “for want of a nail”), and it’s amazing how much happiness that can provide all by itself.

  • EllieMurasaki

    There’s also adultery, which I think we can agree is immoral, even if the two people performing the act have both given consent.

    By most definitions of adultery, Anne having sex with Bob while Anne is married to Cathy is wrong, but if Anne and Bob and Cathy have fully and freely consented, then where’s the problem?

  • EllieMurasaki

    an ethical system that doesn’t develop from pure logic is ultimately a weak one

    There would be unquestioned benefit from mandating and enforcing a two- or one-child policy worldwide in order to stall or reverse population growth. How does your developed-from-pure-logic ethical system handle that?

  • EllieMurasaki

    consent is a legal principle, not an ethical one

    Say what now?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Define ‘implicit consent’.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Money can also buy peace of mind (in the sense of not having one
    unexpected expense send you spiraling down into a pit of “for want of a
    nail”), and it’s amazing how much happiness that can provide all by

     QFT.  Money may not be able to buy happiness, but LACK of money seems to be able to buy a lot of horrible stress and misery.

  • Well, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does raise the question of who exactly we’re talking about when we say “all affected parties consent.”

    If everyone involved has similar implicit intuitions on the subject (e.g., of course my husband’s consent is required before I have sex with a third party, and of course my mother’s consent is not required, and etc.), there’s no problem.

    Conversely, if everyone  involved agrees that affected-party status must be explicitly negotiated and is never implicit (e.g., either we explicitly agreed I would seek my husband’s consent before having sex with a third party, or I don’t need their consent), there’s no problem.

    Or various other default conditions can apply that are similarly no problem.

    But a problem can arise when different people in a community have different opinions about whose consent is required for various activities… who the “affected parties” are, in other words.

  • Hexep

    Because if Cathy has consented to it, they’re no longer in an exclusive relationship, and therefore it’s not adultery. Pay attention, Elli, Lori and I already worked this out 20 comments ago.

  • Hexep

    One would first have to answer some tough questions about exactly how many future generations we are individually responsible for.

  • Hexep

    Allow me to quote myself?

    Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but once you’ve already found your happiness somewhere, money can do a pretty decent job of insuring it.

  • Anton_Mates

      There are wrinkles here, but in general one isn’t allowed to withdraw this sort of consent.  On the other hand, one can withdraw consent to have sex up until it’s done.  Even if you want to frame sexual ethics as being all about consent, you still have to explain why consent works differently with sex than with other things.

    As Tonio says, I think this is pretty easily dealt with on physical autonomy grounds.  It’s not just sex, after all.  If someone pays you in advance to do a certain amount of labor for them, and then you refuse, they can demand restitution–but not in the form of labor.  You can have your wages garnished, or get carted off to prison for fraud or something, but–according to my ethical attitudes anyway–they can’t actually enslave you and make you do the work you’d agreed to do.

    Similarly, I don’t see why we can’t have contracts involving sex, at least if you think sex work is morally permissible under the right conditions, which I do.  And if you pay someone to sleep with you and then they don’t, then they would have to give your money back, or make some other form of restitution–but they still wouldn’t have to sleep with you.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Would we? Does it really look like we can maintain a reasonable standard of living for this generation right here and now? Have you seen the world poverty rate? By world-poverty standards, mind, not US-and-similar-countries’-poverty standards; the latter includes far more people. Never mind the next generation, especially if it’s bigger.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, that’s not what I got from those comments. Might’ve been what you meant, but it’s not what I got.