Thursday, June 09, 2005

Greed: A Definition

Wow I haven’t posted in a while. That’s partly because I haven’t heard anything that’s really sparked a desire to write an article, but mostly because I’ve been busy taking advantage of stress-free enjoyment before fall semester preparation goes into high gear.

So I’d thought I’d take this opportunity and talk about something fundamental in the capitalist and anti-capitalist camps: greed.

Greed is one of those things everyone thinks they know what it is. We usually say it with a sneer. It is the attribute of evil and detached people who care nothing more than indulging in their vice. For many anti-capitalists, greed is the lifeblood of the free market demon: the binding force that ties in all arguments against capitalism. Like money, it is the root cause of all evil.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no set definition of greed. From economists to ecologists, from pundit to pop culture, greed means different things. Generally speaking it hinges on two distinctions with concern to material wealth: the nature of the desire and the relative value of the object in question.

For most, the first characteristic is about wanting (as opposed to demanding). Massive pillars of popular morality, such as Jesus and Gandhi, believed wanting of material things was being greedy and therefore evil. Greed as a matter of want is generally accepted as a signature aspect.

But you are not being greedy just because you want stuff. Both modern and ancient philosophers concluded that want is not always bad. A person should not be condemned because they want food or shelter in order to survive. Thus greed is sometimes equated with “want beyond need.”

This of course means that everyone—including all members of the Catholic Church—is going to hell. Surely there are scant exceptions but can you not think of anyone that does not desire beyond basic food, shelter and clothing? Even the poorest of people want to do more than merely survive.

Modern society has tacitly understood that want beyond need is inadequate so we have adapted the meaning in two different ways. First, we define greed as want beyond what’s earned. If Bob earns $50,000 a year but wants $100,000, he is being greedy. This line of thinking carries problems. Someday I would want to earn a six figure income, even though I haven’t done enough yet to justify that income. Am I being greedy because I set goals? People shouldn’t be deterred from desiring a better life just because they can’t justify it instantly.

Conceivably, protectionist pundits and anti-capitalists understand that people wanting to do more with their lives is a good thing, as long as they are of a sympathetic people. Few would call small businesses and middle class folk greedy the same way corporations and billionaires are. In the mainstream context, greed is set aside only for certain classes. It is want beyond what’s accessible to most people. Whoever “most people” are remains dubious, for the line between the well-off and the wealthy is a matter of context and perception. Thus it is perfect for popular media because the “greed” label can be applied to anyone as long as you juxtapose them with someone who isn’t as successful.

It appears that the popular belief of greed only applying to certain groups (and the desire to be like that groups) stems from humanity’s ancient roots. The rich were those of kings and knights and merchants that curried favor with the ruling class. The greed was often truly evil because they did not merely want more than they deserved, they took it by force if their threats were not taken seriously. Demanding what’s owed (whether it is beyond need or beyond the masses) is certainly not evil, but demanding beyond what’s earned is the hallmark of tyranny.

Modern thinkers get confused. Taking what you do not deserve is a zero-sum game, one with a victor and a loser, gain and loss. For thousands of years this was how most fortunes were amassed and often thought of the only way they could be cultivated. It was greed and because it was at the expense of others; it was a sin.

Yet today, citizens and firms hold greater fortunes than was the richest of kings. Almost as a reflex, we equate them with those nasty tyrants without ever stopping to remember that the people—for the most part—bestowed the wealthy’s fortunes on them. It was amassed through voluntary exchanges and thus pleasing to both parties.

If we constrain our definition of greed to merely taking unearned property, then it is always evil. But if we accept more popular perceptions—greed as desire beyond need or as the want of excess—then we have to acknowledge it is not always immoral. In fact, the rewards of wealth are a power motivator that makes society as a whole richer and happier. That is the hallmark of a positive sentiment: surely greed can be ethical as well as evil.

4 comments:

Asa said...

Let’s start with specifics. Greed is, simply put, excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness. I’d suggest doing away with ‘reprehensible’ because of the connotations of that word; excessive poses enough of a problem as is. This is, however, the definition of greed. It seems to me, that definition can be agreed upon by pop culture, economists, ecologists, etc. It’s a broad enough definition to fit a lot in, but it’s rather pinpoint in succinctly getting to the heart of the matter. If there’s a problem with this definition, the editors and collaborators at Merriam-Webster should be informed.
Want, desire is not the problem, they are not greed. Greed is not taking a lot, that’s too simple. You hit this right on the head. Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Our needs, our wants push us to excel, to grow. Greed is taking too much.

Also, I’d move away from the blanket term of ‘evil.’ Unless you’re talking religion—even then it’s dubious at best—evil is not a word that should be tossed about when trying to make an argument based on logic. Plus, you’ve already de-bunked the religious component. Just remember, immoral and evil are not the same thing.

Kings, knights, and merchants weren’t the wealthiest people in the European feudal era. Those men owed their allegiance and the wealth they had to The Church—back to religion. The Church was the wealthiest body around. The Church conferred property and allowed the familial transfer to take place.

But in the end, I am left wondering what your definition of greed is, what definition you are working under.

David said...

While Merriam-Webster is certainly a great definition source, I got mine at another great one, dictionary.com.

According to them, greed is "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth." Want is not the same as greed, but it is a part of it. "Acquisitiveness" is " a strong desire to gain and possess." Again, thank you dictionary.com.

But really this is just semantics because when I think of greed, "my" defintion is rather grey simply because I acknowledge that there are different takes on the matter. As you point out, even the MW definition is leaves room for interpretation because "excessive" is arbitrary.

If I had to pin down what greed is, I'd call it "wanting more," thus generating ethical and unethical dimensions, which was really what I wanted to get at.

I see nothing wrong with using the term "evil" outside of a religious context. Would not most (even the non-religious types like me) call the Nazis and KKK "evil?" Evil is just really unethical. We don't need religion to identify really immoral things.

True, the medieval era's most wealthy were the Church, but I never said it wasn't. I said, "It appears that the popular belief of greed only applying to certain groups (and the desire to be like that groups) stems from humanity’s ancient roots. The rich were those of kings and knights and merchants that curried favor with the ruling class."

I can see how you thought I made that mistake (and I almost did), especially since I left out the Church. But before we get too excited, the religious folk made serious money off serfs, too. Hell, they had their own army. The lesson--that our past engendered a perception that the only way to be wealthy is to take from others by force--still applies.

Peggy said...

I'm not meaning to attack anyone here, but I think saying greed is "wanting more" doesn't really work. It doesn't give a strong enough definition to what you're talking about and opens doors to side issues which may or may not have anything to do with the topic. The definition needs more.
While risking Asa's fate and continuing a purely semantic issue, the root cause of all evil is not money but the love of money. Well done David on pinning this down as greed. However, Jesus did not preach that wanting material things was wrong and greedy, and putting greedy people in the evil camp with the Nazis and the KKK is probably what Asa was trying to avoid with the caveat.
It seems that both arguments need something more.

David said...

I know that my definition was really vague, but I wanted to keep it open enough to include all the defintions people use/have used.

Invoking comparisons with Nazis and KKK was merely to point out that we can use the term "evil" without having any religious context. Some greedy people are not nearly as bad as Hilter. But some are worse.

For Jesus, he did have a problem with material wealth. Check out these from the Sermon on the Mount:
-Acquire treasures in heaven, not on earth (Matt. 6:19-21)
-No one can serve two masters, so choose either God or Mammon (Matt. 6:24) [Mammon is Aramaic for "riches."]
And from Luke 6:20-26:
-But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
-But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.

If he didn't think that wanting things was bad, why does he condemn those that have things?