Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Greed

On HBL there was a thread on greed and whether objectivists should defend it since many in politics and the MSM are blaming it for the meltdown. I don't like the concept greed as it is used today. It has become a non-objective concept meaning different things to different people. So when we start passing laws to punish greed we are taking one group's idea of greed and forcing it on the whole country and that is wrong. I'm told that the English Oxford dictionary says greed is 'hunger' or 'thirst' or 'intense desire.' While there certainly isn't anything malevolent about those words they are certainly not the meaning ascribed to greed today.

Some people think that the desire for anything above some acceptable level of necessity is greed and immoral. Others think that the businessman's practice of maximising profits is greed and should be smacked down with windfall profits taxes or treble damages or some such. Still others think greed is a matter of numbers; if a businessman makes millions he's successful and productive but if he earns billions he's greedy. And of course there are those who think that any business failure is automatically caused by greed, no further evidence needed. Naturally I don't subscribe to any of the above.

Even before I discovered objectivism I had a definition to which I still adhere: Greed is the irrational pursuit of a value. Greed then is not a rational thirst, hunger or desire but an irrational one like a con man who lies to get possession of another's money, or a man who pursues money by robbing a bank, or a politician who craves power to the point of lying to get elected, or the scientists who fudges his statistical studies to say something pleasing or favorable to the granting agency in order to get more grants or to get published.

But the concept greed seems to be morphing into a concept applicable only to money and wealth. Greed for fame, glory, or power are routinely referred to as lust for these things. It's as if the concept greed is being characterized as a monetary crime for which government punishment should be warranted.

When someone asks me "Do you think some banks were greedy?" I usually respond 'yes but that greed was a consequence not a cause.' I also like to add that greed as such doesn't violate anyone's rights and should not be outlawed. When greed leads to fraud or robbery it is those actions that are already illegal because they are rights violations.

It is obvious to me that greed is being honed into a concept through which self-interest can be attacked and condemned. So when someone starts condemning businessmen for being greedy, I ask them to define greed and I do not accept such notions as having or desiring too much money.

A lot of people don't understand the nature of money; that money represents survival time. Even when you point this out to people they still retort that some billionaire will never need all his money to survive and he should make it available to many others who could then survive. They don't understand that this making available is exactly what the wealthy people are doing when they put their money into banks and other investments. They also don't understand that the wealthy have a moral right to do whatever they want with their money and it is the failure to understand this right that causes them to envy the well being of others.

There is probably a lot more that could be said about greed but I will always offer resistance whenever it is brought up. Even the modest "I don't agree" is the minimum I'll do.

Update: about 24 hours later.

Thinking it over, I just want to add that the only social system that can actually punish and discourage greed--that is the irrational pursuit of wealth--is laissez-faire capitalism. Irrational practices will result in enterprises going out of business. The only way the irrational pursuit of money can continue to fleece the public is if it has some government backing or encouragement as is the case with the mortgage crises. Laissez-faire has never existed anywhere on this planet. It needs to be our future.

2 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

You have done an outstanding job of looking at the different ideas various people label by the one word "greed."

I use the word "greed" to label this idea: the virtue of ambition applied to material goods. There is no such thing as too much virtue.

Whichever definition an individual chooses in his own thinking, the named concept must be properly formed, as you have suggested.

In discussion and debate, the proper step is exactly what you have offered: Ask for a definition and/or be prepared to offer one's own. The words don't matter a lot; it is the meaning (the facts of reality subsumed by the concept) that matter.

Congratulations on the article. It flows really well, which is a sign of the thinking you have done about it.

P. S. -- My understanding (through Tara Smith and others) of the traditional history of philosophy is that "objectivism," in ethics, refers to the notion that values are outside human consciousness. That is radically opposed to the Objectivist position: values should be formed logically from sense-perception of the facts of reality, an act of consciousness.

Mike N said...

Thanks Burgess:

Your point about asking for a definition and being prepared to give one is right on. Where there is no clarity there will be no understanding.