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Ethics and Morality

Is Greed Ever Good? The Psychology of Selfishness

What is the relationship between greed, evil, and spirituality?

Key points

  • Greed is a type of selfishness, which grows from ignorance (unconsciousness) of one's self and an over-attachment to desire.
  • "Spiritual selfishness" involves attending to one's own needs without crossing the line into egoism, self-indulgence, and greed.
  • Learning to be "spiritually selfish" rather than greedy leads to a more grounded, balanced, mature, meaningful, and spiritual life.

Greed is a hot topic today, stoked in part by investment broker Bernie Madoff's 50-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, the Wall Street collapse, the AIG scandal, and the bursting of an overinflated housing bubble—all built on the unbridled greed of investors, buyers and lenders.

Of course, viewing greed as selfish, sinful or evil is nothing new. Greed or avarice, after all, is specifically cited as one of the Seven Deadly Sins by the Catholic Church. And Dante Alighieri's Inferno dedicates an entire circle of Hell to the painful punishment of the greedy. But is greed ever good?

Definition of greed

Greed, like lust and gluttony, is traditionally considered a sin of excess. But greed tends to be applied to the acquisition of material wealth in particular. St. Thomas Aquinas said that greed is "a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." So greed or avarice was seen by the Church as sinful due to its overvaluation of the mundane rather than immaterial or spiritual aspects of existence. Avarice can describe various greedy behaviors such as betrayal or treason for personal gain, hoarding of material things, theft, robbery, and fraudulent schemes such as Madoff's, designed to dishonestly manipulate others for personal profit.

Where does greed originate?

Both greed and gluttony correspond closely with what Guatama Buddha called desire: an overattachment to the material world and its pleasures which is at the root of all human suffering. Greed is about never being satisfied with what one has, always wanting and expecting more. It is an insatiable hunger. A profound form of gluttony.

Where does greed breed? Paradoxically, greed really arises from too little inner selfishness. That's right. Greed grows from ignorance (unconsciousness) of one's self.

How greed relates to addiction

Addiction is a form of greed. Addicts always want more of what gets them high, gives them pleasure, enables escape from anxiety, suffering, themselves. They greedily crave that which their substance or rituals of choice provide, be it drugs, sex, gambling, food, pornography, internet, television, fame, power or money.

We all have our personal addictions: workaholism, rationalism, shopaholism, perfectionism, etc. This is our futile attempt to fill a spiritual and emotional emptiness within, to gratify some long-buried need, to heal or at least numb some festering psychological wound. Such self-defeating behaviors are rooted in formerly unmet infantile needs, childhood and adult trauma, as well as failure to appropriately be sufficiently selfish in the present. We strive instead to avoid the Self.

Greed vs. selfishness

Greed is a type of selfishness. And most of us are taught from childhood that selfishness is sinful, bad or evil. But is selfishness necessarily nasty? Negative? Unspiritual? Sacrilegious? Narcissistic? Antisocial? Or can selfishness sometimes be a good thing? Healthy. Necessary. Positive. Even spiritual. Can we get too selfless for our own good? Is self-abnegation always what's best for your psyche? Or soul?

Can being more selfish in the right way restore rather than reduce the soul? Shrink and regulate the grandiose ego? When does selfishness cross the line into egoism, self-indulgence, greed, sociopathy and pathological narcissism?

Psychotherapy patients struggle regularly with the issue of selfishness: both with the gluttonous narcissism of excessive selfishness and the soul-starving, saintly rejection of healthy selfishness. Often, they feel conflicted and guilt-stricken about acknowledging and asserting their own selfish needs, feelings, wishes and wants. Is nurturing one's own soul or sense of self selfish? Trying to attain one's innermost needs? Actualizing one's innate creative potential? Constructively expressing one's self and will in the world? And, if so, could this sort of selfishness be positive, beneficial or therapeutic?

These are vital questions for both psychotherapy and spiritual development. Because the right kind of selfishness—an honoring of the true Self—is essential to emotional and spiritual self-healing. And to finding and fulfilling one's destiny. So what is the secret to being selfish in the right way, at the right time, and in the right measure?

Spiritual selfishness

One of the most difficult tasks for psychotherapy patients is learning to be selfish in the proper way. I call this spiritual selfishness. Becoming more self-ish. Attentive to the Self. Selfishness that centers around, attunes to, acknowledges and honors the needs of the self is what is required. Not the selfish, neurotic, childish demands of the ego. That would still be mundane greed or narcissism.

The needs of what C.G. Jung termed the Self: the complete person, the whole enchilada, of which ego is only part. The Self represents both the center and totality of the personality. Honoring the Self is not simple. It requires persistence, patience, humility, courage and commitment. But this long-term investment in one's Self can provide a powerful antidote to greed, gluttony, avarice and addiction.

It is easy and convenient to condemn the selfish greed we see all around us. We live in a society that worships success, celebrity and money. But what of the greed within? Are we not all greedy in some way?

It is when we deny and project our own greed that it becomes most dangerous. So first, one must recognize that we all have greed for something. That is human nature. Recognize it and what it says about oneself and one's life rather than righteously rejecting or denying it. Greed is about being selfish, but in the wrong way. What is the right way of being selfish? How does one become more spiritually rather than greedily self-ish?

The right way to be "selfish"

First we must seek out the Self. This subtle process begins by listening more carefully and regularly to your own inner thoughts, feelings, impulses, perceptions and needs. Listening initially non-judgmentally, without preconception or attachment. Identifying your conscious and unconscious intentionality. Also by paying closer attention to your dreams, through which the Self speaks directly to us. If we are ready to listen.

Discovering and discerning the dictates of the core Self is not easy and takes time. The right kind of psychotherapy can help in this process. So can meditation. But once the Self has been encountered and spoken, it becomes our responsibility to discerningly obey its requests. Refusal to do so is at one's own peril, as poor Jonah discovered.

Summoning the courage to be selfish in the sense of religiously attending to and following the Self's sacred directions leads, paradoxically, not to greater greed and gluttony, but to a more grounded, balanced, mature, meaningful and spiritual life. A life informed and guided by the Self.

More from Stephen A. Diamond Ph.D.
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