Greed – Is it a Virtue?
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Greed is the insatiable desire to consume or hoard what one doesn’t need, or in amounts beyond one’s needs. It can be for anything, but is most commonly for food, money, material possessions, power, fame, attention or admiration, and sex. We have struggled with ‘Greed’ and ‘Selfishness’ from time immemorial ever since it found inclusion in the seven deadly sins. In order to recognise Greed as a sin, we must understand the concept of scarcity. Resources are limited, and hence when you take more than your fair share, you do so at the cost of the society. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘Greed is a sin against God. Trade whose only purpose is to expand one’s wealth is sinful, for it only encourages the desire for profit which knows no end.’
Why Are We Greedy?
From childhood, we often learn from negative experiences on account of parental inconsistency, neglect, or abuse that resources are scarce in relation to our demands, forcing us to make sacrifices or consumption choices. In adult life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability in a person can create an obsession to find a substitute for their unsatisfied demands. The pursuit and hoarding of this substitute provide us with a sense of fulfilment and prevents us from feeling empty and meaningless in life.
Greed is more pronounced in human beings due to existential anxiety i.e. anxiety about our purpose, meaning and value in life. This gives rise to compensatory behaviours, one of which is Greed. We create a narrative of human life to explain the purpose, meaning and value that we desire. Every time existential anxiety makes an appearance, we take solace from our larger culture. Our larger culture in turn places a high value on materialism and by natural extension, Greed. We have entered an acquisition rat race, acquiring one thing after another, where the object of longing is no longer fulfilment, but longing itself.
Another theory states that Greed is in our genes and has helped humans evolve and survive. Without greed, a person, or society may lack the motivation to do any activity of creation, or innovation.
Is Greed a virtue?
Despite its imperfections, Greed is the only consistent human motivation that produces preferable economic and social outcomes under most circumstances.
Bernard Mandeville was the first person to attempt the upliftment of ‘Greed’ by suggesting that ‘Private vices yielded public benefits.’ Philosophers pounced on him, most notably Adam Smith, who struggled to differentiate his own theory of the ‘Invisible Hand’ from the one made by Mandeville.
For this, Smith emphasised the distinction between primary aims and secondary effects. The primary aim of the landlord was vanity, self-indulgence and greed which could not be morally defended. However, without intending to, or knowing about it, his efforts distributed widely the necessaries of life and therefore benefited the interests of the larger society. Smith, also re-defined ‘Greed’ stating that any self-interest pursuit was not inherently morally suspect. It was important to distinguish between a merchant and a thief, both of whom pursued their self-interests, but only the merchant’s acts were legitimate. This helped to lay down the foundation of the upstanding businessman.
That foundation of Up standing businessman was seconded by Benjamin Franklin who found nothing wrong in riches and repute, provided they were diverted towards greater good of society. English Economist, Alfred Marshall wrote that the love of money has innumerable motives which include many of the highest, the most refined and the most unselfish elements of our nature.
The modern corporation consists of a group of self-serving individuals whose interests are aligned with that of the shareholders because of their love for money. This is the basis of introduction of employee stock options, bonuses and other forms of performance pay incentives that hope to spark innovation in the corporation. The moral arguments relied upon to support the above performance pay structures are the same old. Greedy behaviour is now not only acceptable but is even encouraged so long as it fights the bigger evils of Poverty and starvation.
The economic system of capitalism at its core depends on the pursuit of self-interest to generate financial surplus which can then be utilised to meet the greater objectives of the society and bring people out of abject poverty and starvation. In fact, Greed is the driving force behind all successful societies, and any political system which has attempted to restrict or eliminate it has invariably ended in failure.
As Gordon Gekko said in the movie Wall Street:
‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.’
Economist Milton Friedman argued that we should not attempt to eradicate greed. Instead, we should find a system under which it does the least harm. What is that system, you might wonder? Capitalism, of course.
Ayn Rand was the first person to come out openly in support of Greed and selfishness. She rejected altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argued that the ultimate moral value, for each human, was his or her own well-being. Since selfishness was serious, rational, principled concern with one's own well-being, it was a necessary prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believed that selfishness was a virtue.
‘In popular usage,’ she wrote, ‘the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve their own ends . . . and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. ‘Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.’
One must manifest a serious concern for one's own interests if one is to lead a healthy, purposeful, fulfilling life. For her, the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to themselves nor sacrifices themselves for others.
What are the Negatives of Being Greedy?
Greed might have done wonders for the economic society but it has its drawbacks. People fixated by Greed tend to benchmark their personal achievements in life based on their possessions. For them the richness and value of life is reduced merely to an exercise involving acquisition and hoarding of whatever it is that they crave. This mindless pursuit is at the cost of social ties and family relationships giving rise to negative emotions such as stress, depression, anxiety and trust deficit. Since the acquisitive desire is unlimited, no matter how successful they are in acquiring and hoarding whatever they desire, it doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Deception is also a natural outcome of Greed as is Envy. People who are embarrassed about their greed create well-crafted personas to justify their actions, deceiving the society and sometimes themselves in the process. Similarly, comparisons with others necessarily gives rise to envy.
As per Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs, human beings have different kinds of needs starting from the psychological and safety needs which are more basic than social and ego needs. At the top of this 5 level pyramid, sits self-actualization needs.
Maslow called the first 4 levels of the pyramids as representing ‘deficiency needs’. They arise due to deprivation and motivate people when they remain largely unmet. Only once these deficiency needs are largely fulfilled, does a person move towards the next level of the pyramid called self-actualization. Self-actualization is a growth need, which does not arise from deprivation of something, but from the desire to grow as a human being.
If a person suffers from Greed, then their deficiency needs tend to remain unfulfilled no matter how much they acquire and hoard. Consequently, they never reach the stage of self- actualization. But, this is exactly the purpose of ‘Greed’, to protect us from existential anxiety which is associated with the 5th level of the pyramid.
Is greed good? Have we come to accept it for what it is, or do we still hide behind its benefits to justify its existence? We have come to tolerate greed because of its unquestionable role in capitalism. It is a strong motivational force for humans and societies alike. We have come to realise that Greed can certainly do a lot of good, but is Greed good in itself, is an endorsement that is still missing from society. Greed is a topic that seldom finds mention, and generally gives rise to discomfort when it does. By keeping quiet about it, but not denying its existence, we have intelligently taken a path that enjoys the benefit of being principled without the corresponding negatives associated with morality.