Sunday, April 16, 2006

Greed's Trilemma

Last week I ranted that greed has a bad rap and it some forms (especially in capitialist societies) it is actually quite ethical. In part this argument spawned from a post I did last year about how greed's definition is arbitary and effectively useless in today's society.

Last week's greed rant attracted a bit of response, notably from Brian, engendering a lengthy debate between the two of us (and some others). The biggest criticism I've faced is that I'm turning greed into the same as self-interest in order to make it a good thing. My counter is, again, that greed's definition is arbitary and unless I want to throw aside the wisdom of crowds, that's the only way. I have yet to hear a more satisfying definition.

Thus I turn to you, the reader. In effect, my argument is that defining greed faces a trilemma. There are three elements it should have but we can only pick two. Here are the choices:

1. Congruent with popular use.
2. Contains no arbitrary words.
3. Always undesirable.

We can ignore #1 and call greed "demanding beyond what's earned," which means forcibly taking what you have no right to take, though this would not fit when people refer to "corporate greed," etc. (I admit, this is still a little arbitrary but it's good enough to satisfy 2, though if someone comes up with something better I'll listen.)

We can ignore #2 and refer to the dictionary, knowing that the definition is insufficent because "excessive" is a matter of taste and perspective.

Or we can ignore #3 and admit that greed can be a good thing. I've used definitions of "focused self-interest," a burning desire to want more of X, and "the desire to improve our own welfare regardless of the impact it has on others." (The latter being suggested by Brian, though I showed how such a definition doesn't have to be bad....see the link to Brian's post.)

The question for the reader is: can you break the trilemma?

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