I’m having a lively discussion over at Ebonmuse’s recent post “Why I am not a communist” where I’ve mostly been discussing with a member of the audience, Mrnaglfar.
At a point in our discussion, Mrnaglfar asserted that greed is not inherently bad after I explained that it is not possible to have a perfect society based on a vice (greed). Specifically, his comment was:
More to the point, where do you get off even calling greed a ‘vice’, as if greed was inherently morally wrong? It’s like calling a hammer wrong; greed is merely a tool that can be used for many things. In the proper context, greed can be good – it can inspire innovation, make people strive for lofty goals, and without greed, very little would have ever been accomplished. However, greed can also throw people in poverty and lead to acts of violence, among other things. To merely paint greed a wrong with one broad brush stroke is similar to denying human nature entails greed and that in a perfect society it would vanish, and that through merely teaching children we can somehow undo over a billion years of evolution.
In all honesty, this perplexed me as I’ve never seen someone defend greed before. I’ve heard people claim that greed was a human flaw that capitalism has been built to exploit so that the end result is better for everyone. I’ve seen people believe that greed is part of human nature, a necessary evil and unchangable. But never that greed is not a vice.
As the conversation progressed and more thought was poured into the subject, it became obvious to me that Mrnaglfar’s idea of what greed is is quite different from what anyone normally associates with the word:
“A selfish or excessive desire for or pursuit of more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions” – from the Wiktrionary.
A telling example being how honour is explained as “greed for social status”. While Honour certainly entails a social status concept, there is nothing inherently greedy about it. People did not amass personal honour as an end in itself. Rather, if they did, then they had greed for honour or social standing, or to put more plainly, greed for glory and/or fame.
From the context, he seems to treat “greed” as a synonym for “desire” in order to base the idea that greed, by itself has a neutral moral value. However, greed entails aspects that go beyond the concept of simply desiring something. A Desire for money is not the same as Greed for money. A Desire for love, is not the same as greed for love. Indeed to treat greed like that in order to defend a concept is a form of equivocation.
As part of the converstation, there was a distinct defense of greed that I would like to tackle.
Greed as a tool
This was the initial argument that was raised in defence of greed. The concept being that since greed drives forward innovation, creativity and personal advancement under capitalism, it should be considered a tool and as such have a neutral moral value in the same sense that a knife can either be used for good (cutting food) or evil (killing people).
Initially I went with this definition although it did not sit well with me. Someting was amiss. I asserted that if greed is to be considered a tool then it is similar to a tool like a gun, whose main purpose is to do harm. However even this did not sound correct.
So I slept on it and with a fresh mind I think I can see what the problem is. Greed cannot be considered a tool at all.
A tool is something you manipulate in order to accomplish something. As an instrument it has no intrinsic value which is why you cannot label a weapon bad by default. However, even though the instrument has no moral value by itself, the action it is used to accompish does and that action takes its moral value not from the tool but by the desires.
And Greed is a desire.
You do not manipulate greed in order to accomplish something like you would a tool. Greed manipulares you (please save your “In Soviet Russia” jokes).
Say that I have greed for money. This is then my desire; to acquire money even though they are more than I need. My tool in this case is not greed as well but my brain and muscles. This is what I manipulate in order to acquire more money. The action that I decide upon on how to make more money can be labeled as good or bad depending on cumulative value of the desires and beliefs that manipulated me to do it.
Consider the following scenarios
A person robs a bank. The desires that led to this are:
- He had more than enough money to live on but had a greed for more. – bad
- The person has no avertion on intimidating and/or possibly killing innocent people. – very bad
- He has no avertion to taking items that do not belong to him – very bad
- He person was too lazy to find a legal way to acquire money. – bad
The cumulation of these three bad desires led to a bad action. You will also notice that the degree of how a desire or belief is bad varies. Thus a non-aversion to killing people is much worse than being lazy.
Now,if we are to take the same scenario with a twist on his desires:
- He did not have enough money to live. He had a desire to survive. – marginally good
- He did not have enough money to feed his family. He had a desire to help them. – good
- Even though he has an avertion on intimidating and/or possibly killing innocent people, it is not enough to overcome his desperation – very bad
- Even though he has he has an avertion to taking what does not belong to his, it is not enough to overcome his desperation – bad
- The person is very hard working but for various circumstances cannot find a job. This leads to desperation – good (hard working)
Even though the person has more good desires than bad, his weak avertion to intimidation and killing is cumulatively worse than all the good desires together. Nevertheless, any court of law would recognise the circumstances and would give him a more lenient sentence compared to the previous example.
Next, lets try something different but more related to greed. Say a televangelist is misapropriating funds from his wealthy church in order to have a wealthy lifestyle
- He has more than enough money to live. He is however greedy for wealth – bad
- He has no avertion to lying to cover this up – very bad
- He uses a very small part of his wealth to help the people who built up his wealth – marginally good
- He has not avertion to lying about his church’s powers in order to get more money. – bad
Now this person is not doing anything illegal under the law, but any moral person would condemn his actions.
Finally, let’s look at an example where the action of a greedy person is good. This person is a used car’s salesman.
- He is greedy for weath – bad
- He has a small avertion to lying but it can be overcome by greed – bad.
- He has a strong desire to avoid illegal activities – very good
Now this person, even though greedy and occasionally a liar, is still considered good (only marginally) as regards to his work. It is not because greed is neutral and does not count but rather because his good desires outweight his bad.
If we are to define greed as a neutral tool instead of a bad desire, then these calculation fail for we would have to define all desires as neutral tools. Lazyness is a tool (just not useful in capitalism as Mrnaglfar says), lying is a tool, intimidation is a tool etc. They can all possibly be used for good or bad purposes but if we are to make all desires and beliefs into neutral tools, how are we to judge an action as good or bad?
The answer is, we cannot. To do so would be to judge an action as good or bad on strictly subjective basis without any base. Even I do not promote such a way to judge.
So, Greed, like all desires, is not a tool. It has a moral value and that value is that greed is condemnable. One would thus be inclined to ask:
Why is greed wrong?
- Greed is good because without it, capitalism would not work.
- Capitalism is good because every human is greedy and capitalism is the only system that can make it to serve good purposes.
This kind of circular reasoning does not allow a window where greed could be potentially phased out with a better desire, say, a like a desire to help people for emotional gain. As long as as capitalism remains the dominant culture, greed must be maintained and indeed increased if possible. As long as greed remains a powerful desire in most people, capitalism will work until it hits its other inenvitable hurdles.
Under this logic it is impossible to change things and indeed greed takes a perverted good moral value only because it derives this value from the perceived good value of capitalism.
The morality of Greed
Circular reasoning aside, how do we decide the moral value greed? I believe we can extract the value of greed from the definition and results it produces by itself, when not tempered by any other value.
Lets take the definition of greed once more.
“A selfish or excessive desire for or pursuit of more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions“
I’ve highlighted the parts which are relevant.
- A selfish desire: is the desire to hold yourself above others or have your own well being as your most powerful desire. This is not inherently bad but as far as desires go, it’s pretty low on the list (Objectivists begone!)
- An excessive desire: is bad by definition. Excess is never good.
- More than is needed: This denotes that this person, even though he has anything he might ever need from the subject of his greed, would still require more. This would in turn shift the supply and demand chain in a way that would create indirect suffering to other people.
As an example, to borrow one from the Atheist Ethicist, is the desire to wash your dog every day when there is a shortage of water. You do not need to wash your dog every day, indeed, washing it less would aleviate the urging problems of other people with the small drawback of a little stink.
- More than is deserved: Once again, this is bad by definition. Someone who desires things he does not deserve is prone to performing actions that deny these items from people that do deserve them.
- Possesions: Indeed, it is true that greed mainly manifests itself for material goods. It does occasionaly appear as a greed for power or fame but it is the minority of cases and does not really work with capitalism that well (unless fame or power is gained through wealth).
The problem with this is that excessive materialistic desires are prone to create a problem in a world where the resources are already severely limited.
But lets not jugde just by literal semantics. Greed can be shown to be wrong philosophically.
As mentioned above, greed is usually for material possesions. This goes contrary to the knowledge that the resources of this world are limited. A greedy person, would not care if what he takes (legally) would indirectly cause someone who needs it more to miss it. As long as he has it then his desire is quenched. This is easily shown if you look at the recent problems with gas. Even though poor countries are not necessarily the ones that are producing the food, the rising food prices all over the world because the food is being used as gas by rich countries is indirectly affecting them.
Secondly, greed feeds upon itself. When someone has a excessive desire to get more than what is needed, it means that when the current target is reached, the desire remains and a new target is acquired. It is not true that the person will stop acquiring the subject of his greed after the current objective is reached for this would not be greed anymore.
Thirdy, greed causes needless suffering to the humans who posses it. Someone who is driven by material greed will always crave for more material possesions, no matter how many he already has. This will never allow him to be at peace with himself.
Even if his greed is stopped by other desires, like an avertion to crime or an avertion to other’s suffering, his greed will not go away. It will stay within him, causing emotional pain for the things he desires but cannot have.
And thus we come to the end of my little article. I hope I’ve sufficiently proved, by definition and philosophy that greed is a vice for it is a desire with an inherent negative value. Claiming that greed is good because it can occasionally lead to good deeds it akin to saying that the end justifies the means.
One last thing I’d like to tackle is the “perfect society” comment. I, like many others, strive to better the world. There are various things that are ambiguous and difficult to label as bad or good but we try. When I mention a better world, I do not know what I mean. I have no solid idea if the perfect world would be communism, anarchism or a socialist capitalism or whatnot. However I do have a clear idea of what does not belong in a better world, indeed, what is contrary to the spirit of it. Vices.
And greed is one of them.