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Is Greed Good for the Goal of Improving Society?

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Remember the infamous quote of villain financier Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street…back in 1987?

“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed–for 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. And greed–you mark my words–will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”.

I guess in this context, Gekko is using “greed” to define the constant desire for more, whether someone else has it or not.  He likens it to an evolutionary drive, that the need for more makes us figure out how to get it faster, more efficiently, and ultimately, easier.  And that this, in turn, results in benefits to everyone.

This is clearly a very particular definition of greed, and if you look at it from that perspective, it is indeed “good” in that it is a simple motivator that derives benefits beyond the individual actor.  In essence, it’s an “ends justify the means” argument.

Though this was quoted over two decades ago in one of the most controversial Hollywood movies ever, it resonates more than ever today… The only difference is that it is occurring at a much bigger scale.

So what do you make of it? Is greed good?

I guess as with any question like this, we need to start with the word “good.”

It is a fault of our language that “good” is most often used in an unqualified way. This is a symptom of our natural preference for dualistic thought. So what does unqualified ‘good’ mean?

Is greed good if your goal is monetary gain?  Absolutely, it’s the prime motivator.  Is greed good if your goal is running a successful soup kitchen?  Probably not.

Is greed “good” for the goal of living a happy life?  It could be, because it motivates you to improve your life in very real ways; on the other hand, there’s a fair amount of research that indicates over-attachment to material belongings draws your focus from other aspects of life that pay higher happiness dividends (personal relationships, self-improvement, etc).

Is greed “good” for the goal of improving society?  I doubt it.  I suppose it could motivate you to amass more resources, which you could then apply to humanitarian causes, but a very greedy person would probably also be unlikely to part with it.

Another way to use the unqualified “good” is as a sort of estimated sum of how effective greed is for helping you meet each of your goals, weighted by priority.  Let’s call this the “all-in-all” meaning.

So, is greed “good” in the all-in-all sense?  Will greed help you live a happier life?

From a wide-scope approach, it might be said that an economy of greedy people is an economy of motivated, productive workers.  This might be true, to a certain extent.  However, a society of extremely greedy people would mean a society of very stingy people; I doubt a country of greedy financiers, sitting on their money would lead to a robust, healthy economy.

But this is all about your average person.  Aberrations exist.  What if you’re not like most people?  What if poverty starvation is a serious possibility in your life?  Well then yes, greed would be a good thing to have.  What if material wealth is the big thing that makes you happy?  The only thing that makes you happy?  What if greed is your only motivator, the only thing that gets you out of bed and drives you to accomplish?  Then yes, having greed would be good in relation to your goals.  You might get better results though from examining your priorities and possibly changing your goals.

So in general, I would say that a little greed is good; it’s nature’s way of getting you to take care of your self-interests.  It’s also one of the major forces that keep societies progressing past the survival point.  Too much greed though poisons you.  There are countless examples of callous damage done to the world by the business community, and the only cause we can point to is human greed.

Bottom Line: I believe greed is ‘good’ only to the extent that it can be channeled productively.  Most of modern greed leads to people skimming money off of the productive and creative members of society; it results in many people with enormous intelligence and capability dedicating their lives to essentially worthless endeavors (such as predicting minor movements in stocks, bonds, currencies, etc.).  It also leads to frivolous lawsuits, ‘gaming the system’, overcharging and overbilling, etc.  It also leads individuals to steal and engage in other criminal activities.  Greed – when it leads one to invent, create, increase productivity, work harder, etc. can be good.  But it doesn’t always or even rarely has that effect.

I have no problem with people that amass large amounts of wealth — but if it pools up, it leads to problems. Wealth, like water, needs to move. Ideally that motion through society will be generated by the heavenly virtue that is classically contrasted with the deadly sin of greed.

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