As the smallest minority, the minority of one, I have always looked with a healthy bias towards the utopian ideas of socialism and collectivism, which philosophies are diametrically opposed to capitalism, the protection of our property and self-interest, which some define as “greed.”
As Will Durant and Ariel Dunant write in their journey through history, exploring the possibilities and limitation of humanity over time:
“The struggle of socialism against capitalism is part of the historic rhythm in the concentration and dispersion of wealth. The fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality, while the fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom.”
Give the devil his due, today in Europe socialism, in the form of the social democracy movement has been part of the de facto political mainstream since the end of the 19th Century and has led to a more balanced, equal and ordered society.
In the US the enlightened souls of the progressive left wing of the Democratic party in the US Congress represented by Alexandria Ocasio Cortes and other likeminded members acclaim to be the protectors and champions of the common people against the “self-interest” and “greed” of the plotting unethical rich of which behavior Samir Zeki said:
“I have the strong suspicion that when the brain’s greed system is in operation, those parts of the brain that regulate ethical conduct are de-activated. Perhaps the greater the amount of money to be made, the greater the deactivation of the system that regulates ethical behaviour.”
This begs the question, What is greed?
Webster’s Dictionary defines greed as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed. Obviously, the Bible has much more to say about greed, so did some Christian scholars who recently suggested that the top one percent of wealthy individuals in the United States are all greedy, because by almost anyone’s definition they have more of everything than is needed.
As an amiable atheist, looking at the destruction Christianity has caused during antiquity and frankly speaking throughout history I can do without their moralizing lectures about probity and ethics.
However greed is no stranger to this part of the world and has evolved thorough time.
As Aristotle pointed out “Greed has no boundaries,” which in ancient Greece was called ‘pleonexia,’ originating from the Greek πλεονεξία, is a philosophical concept which roughly corresponds to greed, covetousness, or avarice, and is strictly defined as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”
Aristotle saw this as a sign of a disturbed soul.
Greed has been part of the cultural fabric in Western Europe since the Middle Ages. There is no avoiding our European history is dark, messy and violent evidenced by our military history and the many leading countries (Great Britain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain) which have coupled greed with colonization and exploitation. This led these countries, supported by the Christian Church and not limited by morality or ethic issues, to great prosperity and riches.
According to Stanford’s Laura Stokes “In 16th-century Europe, it was all right to be a rich business person, as long as you followed societal expectations. Selfishness was frowned upon.”
As Laura Stokes notes “capitalism flourished in the intensely community-conscious culture of medieval times. Men of business successfully built financial empires based on trade and credit, even though unbridled greed was universally condemned and even cause for murder.”
This shows the contradiction between present-day business attitudes with a heavy emphasis on personal gain coupled with values of social responsibility and a medieval mindset.
There is no all-compassing truth what is best for man or what is moral and ethical. We hardly live in an ideal world and human nature has a lack of understanding, disciple, is not capable of perfection and our egoism contains the seeds of its own destruction.
As Jane Goodall, the tireless advocate for conservation, in addition to being one of the world’s best-known primatologists deducted:
“The biggest problem is greed. People want more and more and more — more than they need. Companies want to grow bigger and bigger and bigger and gobble up the competition. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting bigger all the time, causing resentment and anger, rightly so.”
Obviously Jane Goodall is right, there are great challenges to be met. Our global world is faced with multiple problems, environmental and otherwise which we will have to deal with, problems as a result of the progress we have made, which require effective responses to the waste we produce, as well as adaption of the way we consume and live.
But looking how there has been no real change in man’s nature and the way humanity has behaved through the ages I not optimistic as we are witnessing the extinction of many species in our generation, species which were once plentiful in the African Savanna’s during my parents’ generation. But it seems humanity is not far behind.
We have forgotten how
“Human dignity and welfare are inextricably linked to the dignity and survival of nature and wild animals.”
But how we define greed and excessive is a matter of perspective, just as how to strike the balance between self-interest and social responsibilities.
Which begs the question, is greed good?
Adam Smith (1723–1790) the Scottish economist, philosopher, and author who is considered the father of modern economics argued against mercantilism and was a major proponent of laissez-faire economic policies. In his first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith proposed the idea of an invisible hand—the tendency of free markets to regulate themselves by means of competition, supply and demand, and self-interest.
Smith, considered the father of capitalism allegedly provided a new dignity to greed by assuming self-interest is the greed that promotes economic efficiency. But Smith also championed the concept of voluntary self-restraint, brought about by a personal commitment to moral responsibility, enabling a person to balance and reach an equilibrium in one’s life.
On the other hand, our socialists friends have always reacted negatively to the rise of capitalism, liberalism and industrial progress. They envision a more classless society with equality for all workers in which wealth is redistributed, collectively shared and held, with economic state planning to replace the market.
Is greed good?
Although greed the pursuit of one’s self interest, in one way or the other has shaped the market place, this we will never know since there has never been a form of free market capitalism in which the positive forces of supply and demand rule the market because governments have always been unable not to resist the temptations to interfere in the free market with spending and tax policies and in doing so have always restricted the free market forces.
Perhaps this is better so, since man is an imperfect animal, has shown to have many vices and we live in a society in which there are heroes and villains. Moreover men has the tendency to strive for things which are unnecessary and even undesirable and is afraid of things which are not there and worries about things what might happen.
But is there any society which in order to facilitate its own advancement does not run on greed for lack of a better word and is not pursuing its interests.
As Gordon Gekko astutely said in the 1987 movie Wall Street, which conveyed the laissez-faire spirit of the era and the ethical egoism which flourished in America
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
On reflection, the differences and contradictions between greed and self-interest are rather subtle, whereby rational human self-interest is acting within the limits of the society’s law and the basic principles of morality.
Rational self-interest has always existed as a positive driving force to accomplish reasonable corporate or private goals and balanced with social responsibility mostly leads to positive results and likely to a just and undisturbed life.
Human greed on the other hand is the more excessive pursuit of our own narrow self-interests, thereby acting egoistically and only to our own advantages, without much moral scruple or regard for the law.
In the absence of ethics without virtue some suffer from a excess of self-interest, which greed is like driving on a slippery slope which often leads to the violation of the rights of others or groups and can also cause harm to society as well as to men himself. In the words of Albert Camus, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” But morals and ethics also adjust themselves to historical and environmental conditions.
Capitalism and free enterprise, operating in society within the boundaries of morals, ethics and legality is based on a healthy form of selfishness and shows how human nature functions. In the words of Milton Freedman ‘The world runs on individuals pursing their separate interest. ”