Is Greed Good?
The psychology and philosophy of greed
Posted Oct 06, 2014
Greed (or avarice, cupidity, or covetousness) is the excessive desire for more than is needed 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 or admiration, and sex.
The origins of greed
Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental inconsistency, neglect, or abuse. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a particular substitute for what she once needed but could not find. The pursuit and accumulation of the substitute not only seems to make up for her loss, but also provides comfort and reassurance, and distracts from frightening feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. As far as she can see, life is a simple choice between greed and fear.
Greed is much more developed in human beings than in other animals, no doubt because human beings have the unique capacity to project themselves into the future, and, in particular, to the time of their death and beyond. Throughout our short life, the idea of our mortality haunts us. Not only that, but it conflicts with our strong survival instincts, giving rise to anxiety about our purpose, meaning, and value. This so-called existential anxiety, though it may be mostly subconscious, yet manifests in the form of compensatory behaviours, and, of course, greed is one such compensatory behaviour.
To help cope with our existential anxiety, we inhabit a larger culture which elaborates a narrative of human life and death, and, through that narrative, furnishes us with the purpose, meaning, and value for which we yearn. Whenever existential anxiety threatens to surface into our conscious mind, we naturally turn to our culture for comfort and consolation, and, in doing so, embrace it ever more tightly. What other choice do we have, if we are not strong or educated enough to question our culture?
Now, it 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, greed. Our culture’s emphasis on greed is such that people have become immune to satisfaction. Having acquired one thing, they are immediately ready to desire the next thing that might suggest 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. Without greed, a person, community, or society may lack the motivation to build or achieve, move or change—and may also be rendered more vulnerable to the greed of others.
Greed, though an imperfect force, is the only consistent human motivation, and produces preferable economic and social outcomes most of the time and under most conditions. Whereas altruism is a mature and refined capability, greed is a visceral and democratic impulse, and ideally suited to our dumbed down consumer culture. Altruism may attract our admiration, but it is greed that our society encourages and rewards, and that delivers the goods and riches on which we have come to depend. Like it or not, our society mostly operates on greed, and without greed would descend into poverty and chaos. Indeed, greed seems to be the driving force behind all successful societies, and modern political systems designed to check or eliminate it have invariably ended in the most abject failure.
In the film Wall Street (1987), Gordon Gekko says,
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 has marked the upward surge of mankind.
The 20th century economist Milton Friedman has 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.
While greed may be good for economies, it may not be so good for individuals. A person who is consumed by greed becomes utterly fixated on the object of his greed. Life in all its richness and complexity is reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate and hoard as much as possible of whatever it is that he craves. Even though he has met his every reasonable need and more, he is unable to adapt and reformulate his drives and desires.
If the person is embarrassed by his greed, he may take to hiding it behind a carefully crafted persona. For example, a man who craves power and runs for political office may deceive others (and, in the end, perhaps also himself) that what he really wants is to help others, while also speaking out against those who, like himself, crave power for the sake of power.
Deception is a common outcome of greed, as is envy and spite. Greed is also associated with negative emotional states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and despair, and with maladaptive behaviours such as gambling, scavenging, hoarding, trickery, and theft. By overcoming reason, compassion, and love, greed undoes family and community ties and undermines the very values on which society and civilization are founded. Greed may fuel the economy, but, as recent history has made all too clear, uncontrolled greed can also lead us unto a deep and long-lasting economic recession. Moreover, our consumer culture continues to inflict severe damage on the environment, resulting in rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, and species extinctions, among others.
Greed and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are 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, physiological needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are deficiency needs, as are safety needs, social needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy, and ego needs such as self-esteem and 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 fullest potential as a human being. Once a person has met his deficiency needs, the focus of his anxiety shifts to self-actualization, and he begins—even if only at a subconscious or semiconscious level—to contemplate the context and meaning of life.
The problem with greed is that it grounds us on one of the lower levels of the pyramid, and thereby prevents us from acceding to the top level 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 highest rung of the pyramid.
Greed and religion
Because greed keeps us from the bigger picture, because it prevents us from communing with ourselves and with God, it is strongly condemned by all major religious traditions.
In the Buddhist tradition, craving holds us back from the path to enlightenment. 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 the self and of material things, forsakes things eternal for things temporal. In Purgatory, Dante has the avaricious bound prostrate on a hard rock floor as a punishment for their attachment to earthly goods and their neglect of higher things.
This neglect of higher things is the mother of all sin. For St Paul, greed is the root of all evil: radix omnium malorum avaritia. Similarly, in the Hindu 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…
A modern, secular version of this tirade is contained in The Fear, a sarcastic song by the English singer and songwriter Lily Allen.
Here are a few choice lyrics from The Fear 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.
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