What’s Good About Greed?

The Judeo-Christian heritage, common to much of the Western world, teaches us that the human tendency toward greed is timeless. It’s a trait that cuts across most human endeavors and goes as far back as the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit in order to gain something to which they believed they were entitled.

Little seems to have changed over the millennia. Nightly-news images of handcuffed executives being escorted from corporate offices suggest that, even today, those who seem to have it all can become obsessed with having still more.

Are we as vulnerable as ever to this human vice? Have we not learned anything through the ages?

How Much Is Enough?

Most people work for a living and can identify with the challenges of being a breadwinner. The sight of hard-working men and women providing for their families’ needs warms the hearts of those who understand the labor of love it represents. Such people are more than responsible human beings. Their devotion to duty makes them respected members of their communities. And in the eyes of their families, they are heroes.

Something bad can happen to these hard-working heroes, however, when they begin to consider their accumulated wealth and reasonable level of affluence insufficient. What causes the distinction between a need and a want to become blurred? When do wants become unwarranted and out of control? Why are seemingly successful people sometimes willing to risk personal and financial ruin by grasping for more?

In Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” the peasant Pahóm declares, “Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” The devil, having overheard Pahóm’s remarks, thinks to himself, “All right. We will have a tussle. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.” As his life’s energy is engaged in a continuous quest to find the “more” that would be land enough, Pahóm dies. The story’s question is answered: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahóm to lie in and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

It can be difficult to know when enough is enough.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The desire to get while the getting is good isn’t new and certainly isn’t limited to executives in pinstripe suits. Those who strive for power and wealth, whether peasant or blueblood, have long thought that more would satisfy them. Human experience demonstrates that individuals and institutions, small and great, have faced this temptation.

Philippe Gigantès, history professor and retired Canadian senator, suggests in Power & Greed: A Short History of the World (2002) that the highlights of human history have been part of an ongoing quest to gain power, “the best instrument for satisfying one’s desires.”

To avoid chaos, society needs rules that limit the freedom of its members to pursue their desires.”

Philippe Gigantes, Power & Greed: A Short History of the World (2002)

Whatever their culture and epoch,” writes Gigantès, “mankind has sought to acquire what it takes to satisfy five basic desires: security, shelter, sustenance, sex (for pleasure or progeny) and self-expression. To avoid chaos, society needs rules that limit the freedom of its members to pursue their desires.”

Gigantès’ synopsis of society depicts a perpetual conflict between the drive to fulfill personal appetites and organized efforts to contain that drive.

To be sure, the historic record is replete with examples of those notables who used every means fair and foul to reach for more than their share of wealth and what wealth can buy. Gigantès identifies them as “grand acquisitors.” They “always want more, and hence they disturb the social order.”

Stanford University scholar Dinesh D’Souza, author of The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence (2000), argues that we are at a pivotal point in history. The stunning success of technological capitalism has produced unprecedented prosperity in America. Poverty, he suggests, the bane of previous generations, is well on its way to becoming a relic of history. The affluence of the Age of Entrepreneurs has equipped businessmen and scientists with sufficient wealth, power and technology to be next in line to disturb the social order.

Never in the history of the world,” remarks D’Souza, “have so many people made so much money. Many of the richest guys have made it in high tech, but the technology boom has also reverberated in the traditional economy, creating massive fortunes in real estate, financial services, entertainment, even consumer goods retailing. And once again, this degree of affluence is an American phenomenon, although the rest of the world is quickly catching up.”

He adds, “Only in the last decade have we seen twenty-eight-year-olds sporting a net worth in excess of $1 billion. The emergence of so many young people with so much money has changed all the rules about affluence in America.”

The Rules of Fair Play

Even in the new economy, however, there is great disparity in the distribution of monetary rewards, and that can create confusion and cause one to wonder whether there are rules about attaining affluence.

The scale of inequality in today’s economy seems to call this whole concept of fair play into question,” D’Souza writes. “Think about the old notion of reward in America: you start at the bottom and work your way up, and over a lifetime you hope to build up wealth as a due reward for your efforts. But now if you adopt this approach there is a name for you: sucker. The new formula is one of instant wealth: set up a new company, take it public, and pocket half a billion dollars in two and a half years.”

He continues, “This is a wonderful prospect, except that it destroys the notion of just deserts in a society. Rewards today seem completely detached from any defensible notion of merit; ours feels like a casino economy.”

Rewards today seem completely detached from any defensible notion of merit; ours feels like a casino economy.”

Dinesh D’Souza, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence (2000)

Entrepreneurs, equipped with the tools of technology, are eager to take a spin at the wheel of fortune. They expect to be handsomely rewarded for providing us an ever increasing and dazzling array of products to educate, entertain and generally enhance our life’s experience.

Will this entrepreneurial explosion, this latest disruption of the established social order, this changing of the economic rules, be good for society? Or is another generation of robber barons simply poised to make huge amounts of money at the expense of the masses?

In Defense of Avarice

The Greed Is Good school of thought, as popularized by Gordon Gekko, the fictional tycoon in the film Wall Street, suggests that we stop the moralizing and get on with the moneymaking. Marc Lewis, author of the best-selling Sin to Win: Seven Deadly Steps to Success (2002) and a spokesman for this perspective, advises, “No business would ever have got off the ground if it weren’t for avarice. No invention would ever have been brought to market, no factory constructed, no coal dug out of the ground, no crop ever sown. If everyone had strictly observed the rule against avarice since the beginning of time, we’d still be living in caves.”

Still, despite the invitation to jump on board and enjoy the journey to mass affluence on the techno-capitalistic juggernaut, many are looking for a moral map to guide them to the destination. But can an economic engine that is fueled by self-interest and the profit motive be expected to be fundamentally fair and morally just? Or is it axiomatic that unchecked ambition will end in avarice?

Tongue-in-cheek definitions of greed and envy have a ring of truth about them: a greedy person is someone who has more than I have; an envious person is one who can’t stop noticing it. These definitions illustrate the all-too-common comparisons that contribute to the insatiability cycle. Are the poor more moral because of their lack of material things? D’Souza asks, “Aren’t there just as many ordinary people who are obsessed with the material things they don’t have as there are successful people obsessed with the material things they do have?”

Before we ask successful people to be ashamed of themselves and what they have to show for their efforts, we should consider that it is largely through those efforts that many jobs have been created and prosperity placed at the disposal of the general populace. D’Souza argues for the beneficial social consequences of entrepreneurship: “One could say that over the years the entrepreneur has in practice done more to serve people—to meet their material needs and raise their standard of living—than all the goodwill efforts sponsored by government, churches and philanthropic organizations put together.”

Still, entrepreneurship—that is, capitalism—is driven in large part by self-interest. And since self-interest is a trait that is inherent in all humans, says D’Souza, it must be governed to serve society best.

He declares that capitalism civilizes greed, just as marriage civilizes lust. “The institution of marriage allows the fulfillment of lust,” he explains, “but within a context that promotes mutual love and attachment and the raising of children. Lust is refined, purified, and in a sense ennobled by marriage.”

Similarly,” he goes on, “capitalism channels greed in such a way that it is placed at the service of the wants of others. Destructive forms of greed, in which we seek to seize and appropriate other people’s possessions, are outlawed in a capitalist society. We can acquire what others possess only by convincing them to give it to us, and the best way to do this is to give them something in exchange.”

Safety Zone

Previous civilizations and cultures have attempted to control the ever present appetite to acquire by establishing societal boundaries. These safeguards, both secular and spiritual, were supposed to provide legal and moral limits on the means of attaining wealth and power.

History reveals a number of great lawmakers who offered civilization codes of conduct. As an example, Gigantès mentions Moses and the Ten Commandments.

These commandments are brilliant in their brevity: in a few words Moses prohibits the behaviours that disrupt society.” 

Philippe Gigantes, Power & Greed: A Short History of the World (2002)

These commandments,” he notes, “are brilliant in their brevity: in a few words Moses prohibits the behaviours that disrupt society. He prescribes limits on what the individual can do to increase his share of sustenance, shelter, safety and sex: do not steal, murder, or commit adultery. He sets boundaries to self-expression: do not calumny [sic], do not use the word God in vain and, more importantly, do not dispute the existence of God or his Commandments. He goes to the very motive for the bad behaviour he prohibits—greed or covetousness: do not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his slaves, nor his house, nor his animals. He establishes the principle of social security—look after the old—as well as the principle of statutory holidays—a day of rest each week.”

Summing up, Gigantès adds, “A great shortlist on how to stay out of trouble in society, the Ten Commandments are the basis for modern legal codes in the western world.”

In one of several books in the Hebrew Scriptures attributed to Moses, we read of God’s concern that abundance could become a distraction to the people of ancient Israel and be potentially detrimental to their relationship with Him. In this account, God blesses them with prosperity and invites them to enjoy it. But He requires that they remember where it came from.

Could it be that the God of the Bible reveals that gratitude is a major component in the antidote for greed? “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. . . . lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God . . . then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:10–17).

Holy Greed?

Though Gigantès cites a biblical example to help make his point, many would note that even the churches, which after all claim the heritage of this Judeo-Christian ethic, have not always conducted themselves in an exemplary manner. Gigantès reminds us, “There were wars of religion all over Europe but ‘wars of religion’ is largely a misnomer. Everyone, of course, claimed the religious, moral high ground. But, more often than not, the claims had nothing moral about them: they were just grabs for more ground, literally, and for more people to be taxed by the grand acquisitors.”

Over the centuries, everything from ornate buildings to sales of indulgences to televangelist scandals have caused many to wonder whether the religious world has the courage to address its own need to grapple with greed. Churches risk losing their moral mandate when they appear to be in the “business” of religion.

Lewis, in Sin to Win, offers this challenge: “So why doesn’t the Church sell all its art treasures, all its gold and silver plates, all its antique pine pews, sell all the great bells in its towers for scrap and convert all its churches and cathedrals into homes for the homeless? . . . The Church doesn’t give up its wealth, nor its need and desire for wealth, and neither should you or I.”

While the motivation of some churches to accumulate wealth may be questionable, can abuse on the part of others ever serve to justify greed on a personal level?

Beyond the Law

In recent years, the business world has spent considerable time and energy compiling and communicating codes of conduct that are intended to define corporate culture to employees, customers and clients. It has come to be recognized as a benefit to business if what a company stands for and how it will operate are clearly understood by all concerned. These initiatives are welcomed as clear statements of acceptable behavior and accountability.

However, codes of conduct, spiritual or secular, can become no more than epitaphs to morality if they are not practiced in the real world. Central to the strength of any value system is the willingness of individuals to embrace it.

Michael Novak, director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that there is another important element in establishing a healthy moral environment. He reminds us that when we talk of business and train the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, we are inclined to make a beeline for the bottom line. Modern business techniques have emphasized material things, while they often overlook moral issues.

Corporate responsibility must be backed up by good laws,” says Novak. “Laws teach. But it cannot be completed by law alone. The law necessarily rides along behind breakthroughs in invention and technology. . . . The law often arrives . . . after the damage has been done, in time to put up some monuments.”

Between the cutting edge of change and the slow force of the law must come something else: character and conscience.”

Michael Novak, director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute

He notes, “Between the cutting edge of change and the slow force of the law must come something else: character and conscience.” Novak then cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that a free society allows people to do many things that they shouldn’t do.

But it depends on people who have a North Star inside,” he continues. “You can’t have a free society unless you have a sufficient percentage of people, a good number, who know how to use their freedom, who can fill in the gap between the breakthroughs in technology possibility and the later arriving decisions of the law; persons of character who know limits, who know there are things they will not do, no matter what and no matter what other people are doing.”

Consider the apostle Paul’s antidote for greed: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Ephesians 4:28). His prescription calls for a healthy dose of respect for law, honest work and a willingness to give to those in need. This suggests that a willingness to share plays a pivotal part in protecting us from becoming preoccupied with possessions. Is giving another ingredient in the antidote for greed?

Revisiting Eden

If the techno-futurists are correct and we are on the threshold of unlimited potential and unprecedented wealth, then it’s as though we are once again standing in the Garden, with the resources, power and freedom to influence our environment for better or for worse. And the same moral choices that faced our progenitors await us. Can we accept laws that prescribe limits? Do we possess the character and conscience to contribute positively to the moral ecology of the future?

Perhaps the necessary code of conduct and the laws that teach moral behavior have been with us all along. Perhaps all that the Judeo-Christian ethic needs for the establishment of a moral climate is a human heart that is humble enough to recognize and receive it for what it is. Perhaps people looking for a moral compass to serve as a “North Star inside” need look no further than the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostolic Writings that have long declared God’s will for mankind: “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).

Headline: “Eden Revisited. Gratitude and giving flourish. Index of Leading Economic Indicators forecasts a promising future.”