weddings, indigence, and morality

weddings, indigence, and morality
image by dalle. 2

In light of the recent Ambani pre-wedding, I posed a question in my Financial Foundations class at church, “Can we have Christian billionaires?” To keep my story short, I was met with a resounding “Yes” followed by examples of the likes of King Solomon from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. It is now roughly three weeks after the Ambani celebrations have concluded, and I’m still at odds with not just the idea of Christian billionaires, but the concept of billionaires altogether. To be specific, I’m curious about whether there are any conditions in which it is morally justifiable to be a cash billionaire. So, I write in hopes that one can make a case for the wealthy and their weddings, particularly in a world full of indigence, such as the one we find ourselves in. To do so, we must first consider the realities of the Ambani pre-wedding event, which took place in Gujarat, India. 

Between March 1 and March 3 of this year, Asia’s wealthiest man Mukesh Ambani hosted an opulent bash in preparation for his youngest son’s wedding in July — an event that is anticipated to be one of the most memorable weddings of the century. One has to wonder how larger the wedding will be though as esteemed guests at the pre-wedding included fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Bollywood A-listers Sha Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, and also the singer Rihanna, who received an alleged payment of 5 million USD to emerge from her musical hiatus and deliver a performance. The Guardian reports that the pre-wedding required over three months of planning and cost approximately ₹1260 crore (around 120 million GBP). For deeper context, given my diverse readership, this is equivalent to 150 million USD, 560 million AED, 8.6 billion PHP, 109 million CNY, 390 billion TZS. 

This, my dear reader, is clearly a curious level of abundance. So curious that it warrants a consideration of whether there is something inherently wrong with the pre-wedding event. 

Certainly not. 

It is indeed true that weddings are events worth celebrating. I haven’t had the time to delve into this instinctive belief, yet I suppose it has something to do with the potential of the propagation of our race… somewhere in the horizon. Taking this simple reasoning, weddings and their accompanying celebrations are entitled to honor. Yet the concern with the Ambani pre-wedding is not with the level of glory that we all observed. Rather it is the wider local and global contexts that these celebrations took place in. 

I need not cite statistics to persuade you that there are presently millions among us who lack clean food, clothing, and safe shelters – the most modest of our human needs and most of which could be easily met with £120 million and the even larger sum that will potentially be spent in the awaited Ambani-Merchant wedding. So it must come as a surprise to a sound thinker that these two states exist: mind-boggling luxury on one side and heart-breaking destitution on the other. For our world has proven to be nothing but abundant and ever generous. 

At the outset, we ought to be aware that seventy percent of our planet is made of water. If we could send a man to the moon, we surely could find – and have – ways to make good use of this essential resource. A similar case can be made for food since we brazenly waste about 1.3 billion tons of food every year. As such, it is rather startling that simultaneously, we hear reports of famine and the largest "global food crisis" in modern history affecting countries like the DRC, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Haiti. What rationale can we provide for the existence of 250 million people barely having one meal a day, while there concurrently exists feasts with “75 types of dishes for breakfast, more than 225 types of dishes for lunch, 275 types of dishes for dinner” (Times of India) as in the Ambani pre-wedding? 

Turning to clothing, we witness a similar pattern. In a world where just a few years ago, one in eight children lacked access to warm clothes, consider the fact that the fashion industry produces over 92 million tons of textile waste annually due to overproduction, offcuts, and unsold inventory. In contrast, the Ambani pre-wedding featured a bride adorned in a Lehenga embellished with 20,000 Swarovski crystals, crafted by the hands of 70 artisans (perhaps to match the event's nine-page dress code). Again, I ask, on what basis do we validate this?

Yet perhaps we might find something in exploring statistics on shelter and housing access. 

So, diverging from the pre-wedding, let’s consider the Ambani residence—a 1.6 billion USD property located in Mumbai, notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page. While it’s tempting to keep our perspective local by focusing on the 6.5 million Mumbai residents living in slums, more disturbing statistics emerge when we consider that there is a “homelessness crisis”. This plight includes 150 million people who were homeless in 2021, and now a significant portion of the current 1.6  billion people living in inadequate housing conditions as of January 2024. 

I need not elaborate further; however, for the sake of my argument, I will entertain some mathematics based on broad but valid assumptions regarding the amount of land suitable for human habitation.

Suppose a quarter of the earth’s land surface is completely uninhabitable for humans due to extreme climate conditions. This would include deserts, polar regions, mountainous terrains and the likes. Next, let’s assume that about 15% of our land is made of protected areas such as national parks, wildlife reserves, and conservation zones. This automatically means that we cannot use 40% of earth’s land mass for habitation and shelters. Now, out of the remaining 60%, let’s deduct 10% which is arable land – to be used for agriculture. Supposing we use it all, with no humans in sight, this still leaves us with 50% of the earth’s land surface as potentially suitable for human habitation and housing development. Clearly, we should not be having a shelter problem with about 74,470,000 square kilometers of land available to us. And this is just on the horizontal scale. 

If one disagrees with my reasoning thus far, one need not read further.

Since we agree on the bounteous nature of our Earth and the absence of justification for the current levels of poverty thereof, my next premise is this: owning a manipulable resource in surplus is morally questionable in the presence of another’s lack for the same resource. By “manipulable”, I mean those tangible and intangible assets and commodities that are subject to direct human influence, control, or alteration. It is resources that can be actively managed, modified, or utilized by individuals or groups to achieve desired outcomes or objectives, either through physical intervention, strategic decision-making, or technological means. Naturally, this automatically excludes entities like health, time, beauty, talents, intelligence, and the likes. Therefore, concerning manipulable resources, surplus should only be deemed acceptable in a state approaching total equality.

Now... I suspect some resistance, particularly if you’re one aspiring to such luxury – as am I – as that of the wealthy attendees at the Ambani pre-wedding. Let’s not ignore your doubts, but rather consider them… in light of this thought experiment. 

Imagine you are about to die, and after death, you find yourself in a state of complete uncertainty, detached from all knowledge of your personal identity, circumstances, and characteristics. This state represents a metaphorical “veil of ignorance.” Now, you are presented with a unique opportunity: to return to Earth as a newborn baby and reshape society according to your ideals. This new world you create is the world where you will live eternally, never to die again. However, there’s a catch—you have no control over your future status or position in this new society. You could be born into wealth and privilege or into extreme poverty and hardship, but you don’t know which. In this original position, how would you choose to distribute resources and wealth? Would you prioritize the needs of the least advantaged, knowing that you might be eternally one of them? Or would you allocate resources based on principles that could benefit you, in hopes that you would end up among the rich?

Clearly, the challenge lies in designing a just society without knowing where you will stand within it. Will you be on the Forbes’ list of billionaires like Ambani or will you be a nameless data point hidden behind the poverty statistics on the World Health Organization (WHO)? 

The decision is manifest for me, my dear reader, and I hope that it is for you too. I stand by my imperative, which is rooted in Peter Singer’s assertion that “... whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance.” Let not the fact that our world doesn’t currently operate on these principles of justice deter you. The fact that this is how it ought to be is sufficient to examine the existence of the billionaire class, whether Christian or not.