Is Greed Good?
The psychology and philosophy of greed
Posted Oct 06, 2014 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
[Article revised on 2 May 2020.]
Greed is the disordered desire for more than is decent or deserved, not for the greater good but for one’s own selfish interest, and at the detriment of others and society at large. Greed can be for anything, but is most commonly for food, money, possessions, power, fame, status, attention, admiration, and sex.
The origins of greed
Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental absence, inconsistency, or neglect. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a substitute for the love and security that he or she so sorely lacked. The pursuit of this substitute distracts from negative feelings, and its accumulation provides much needed comfort and reassurance.
If greed is much more developed in human beings than in other animals, this is partly because human beings have the capacity to project themselves far into the future, to the time of their death and even beyond. The prospect of our eventual demise gives rise to anxiety about our purpose, value, and meaning.
In a bid to contain this existential anxiety, our culture provides us with ready-made narratives of life and death. Whenever existential anxiety threatens to surface into our conscious mind, we naturally turn to culture for comfort and consolation. Today, it is so happens that our culture—or lack of it, for our culture is in a state of flux and crisis—places a high value on materialism, and, by extension, on greed.
Our culture’s emphasis on greed is such that people have become immune to satisfaction. Having acquired one thing, they immediately set their sights on the next thing that suggests itself. Today, the object of desire is no longer satisfaction but desire itself.
Can greed be good?
Another theory of greed is that it is programmed into our genes because, in the course of evolution, it has tended to promote survival and reproduction. Without some measure of greed, individuals and communities are more likely to run out of resources, and to lack the means and motivation to innovate and achieve, making them more vulnerable to the vagaries of fate and the designs of their enemies.
Although a blind and blunt force, greed leads to superior economic and social outcomes. In contrast to altruism, which is a mature and refined capability, greed is a primitive and democratic impulse, and ideally suited to our culture of mass consumption. Altruism attracts passing praise, but really it is greed that our society rewards, and that delivers the material goods and economic growth upon which we have come to rely.
Like it or not, our society is fuelled by greed, and without greed would descend into poverty and anarchy. And it is not just our society: greed lies at the bottom of all successful modern and historical societies, and political systems designed to check or eliminate it have all ended in abject failure.
Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street is especially eloquent on the benefits of greed:
Greed, for the 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 [sic.] has marked the upward surge of mankind.
The economist Milton Friedman argued that the problem of social organization is not to eradicate greed, but to set up an arrangement under which it does the least harm. For Friedman, capitalism is just that kind of system.
But greed is, to say the least, a mixed blessing. People who are consumed by greed become utterly fixated on the object of their greed. Their lives are reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate as much as possible of whatever it is they covet and crave. Even though they have met their every reasonable need and more, they are utterly unable to redirect their drives and desires to other and higher things.
After a time, greed becomes embarrassing, and people who are embarrassed by their greed may take to hiding it behind a carefully crafted persona. For example, people who run for political office because they crave power may tell others (and perhaps also themselves) that what they really want is to help people or serve their country, while decrying all those who, like them selves, crave power for the sake of power. Deception is a common outcome of greed, as are envy and spite.
Greed is also associated with negative psychological states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and despair, and with maladaptive behaviours such as gambling, scavenging, hoarding, trickery, and theft. By overriding reason, compassion, and love, greed loosens family and community ties and undermines the bonds and values upon which society is built.
Greed may drive the economy, but as recent history has made all too clear, unfettered greed can also precipitate a deep and long-lasting economic recession. What’s more, our consumer culture continues to inflict severe damage on the environment, resulting in, among others, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, species extinctions, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. There is a question about whether such greed can be sustainable in the short term, never mind the long term.
Greed and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs can be arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs have been met.
Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because a person does not feel anything if they are met. Thus, physical needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are deficiency needs, as are security needs, social needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy, and ego needs such as self-esteem and peer recognition.
On the other hand, Maslow called the fifth level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because it enables a person to ‘self-actualize’, that is, to reach his or her highest or fullest potential as a human being. Once people have met all their deficiency needs, the focus of their anxiety shifts to self-actualization, and they begin—even if only at a subconscious or semiconscious level—to contemplate the context and meaning of their life and life in general.
The problem with greed is that it grounds us on one of the lower levels of the pyramid, preventing us from ever reaching the pinnacle of growth and self-actualization. Of course, this is the precise purpose of greed: to defend against existential anxiety, which is the type of anxiety associated with the apex of the pyramid.
Greed and religion
Because it removes us from the bigger picture, because it prevents us from communing with ourselves and with God, greed is strongly condemned by all major religions.
In the Christian tradition, avarice is one of the seven deadly sins. It is understood as a form of idolatry that forsakes the love of God for the love of self and material things, forsakes things eternal for things temporal. In the Divine Comedy, the avaricious are bound prostrate on a floor of cold, hard rock as a punishment for their attachment to earthly goods and neglect of higher things.
In the Buddhist tradition, craving keeps us from the path to enlightenment.
Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna calls covetousness a great destroyer and the foundation of sin:
It is covetousness that makes men commit sin. From covetousness proceeds wrath; from covetousness flows lust, and it is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, shamelessness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring, miserliness, cupidity, desire for every kind of improper act, pride of birth, pride of learning, pride of beauty, pride of wealth, pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all…
The song The Fear by singer and songwriter Lily Allen is a modern, secular version of this tirade.
Here are a few choice lyrics by way of a conclusion:
I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
…And I’m a weapon of massive consumption
And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function
…Forget about guns and forget ammunition
‘Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission
I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
And when do you think it will all become clear?
‘Cause I’m being taken over by The Fear
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.