Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Greed Good?

Before we can answer that question, we must define the terms. Sloppy moralizing sometimes leads to sloppy morality, and I fear that is the case when it comes to thinking about greed.

This has come to my attention since a friend of mine posted on his Facebook page this old video of Milton Friedman explaining to Phil Donahue all that has been accomplished for human good out of a motive of greed. Mr. Friedman was explaining that most of the innovations that have improved mankind's material well-being have been brought about by people pursuing a profit for themselves. It is an engaging dialogue, and I would urge the reader to view it.

Mr. Friedman was responding to a question from his host, and the economist accepted Mr. Donahue's terms in answering the question. The term greed, as used in this snippet, is synonymous with the notion of self-interest. While that usage is common, it strikes me as incorrect. For one thing, virtually everything we do has some element of self-interest, whether it be material or intangible.

In thinking about this, I decided to consult the Bible, and I was surprised at how infrequently some form of the word appeared (I am using the KJV for this study because I have a concordance for it, but more modern translations would render a similar result). In the various contexts, it seems to me that the word does not denote the pursuit of self-interest; rather the term is used to speak of inordinate excess in the pursuit of something. Sometimes the term "greedy" conveys the thought of a ravenous animal: a lion greedy of its prey (Ps. 17:12) or "greedy dogs" (Is. 56:11). Using the term as meaning inordinate pursuit by humans, Proverbs 15:27 tells us that the person who is greedy of gain troubles his own house, presumably due to the person''s never satisfied ravenousness. In some instances, the term is used to speak of the inordinate pursuit of the wrong thing: the error of Balaam (Jude 11) or uncleanness (Eph. 4:19). In I Timothy 3, it is used in the context of saying that overseers and deacons must not be selfish or covetous of other people's money. The term is also used with regard to coveting in Proverbs 1, where greed for gain is used analogously to taking lives, and Proverbs 26, where coveting greedily all day long is contrasted with a person who is giving. In Ezekiel 22:12, the word "greedily" is used to describe illegal activity -- extortion and usury.

This has been a quick survey, but from it we can begin to sort out the meaning of greed in a sense that points to human sinfulness. In these passages, the pursuit of profit or self-interest is never condemned. However, the following are clearly condemned:

1. An inordinate amount of desire for something;
2. Covetousness -- that is, the pursuit of something that belongs to someone else;
3. An absence of generosity; and
4. Desire that leads to taking what belongs to someone else.

This survey also permits us to differentiate between some writers on the political right. Rather than seeing the profit motive as morally neutral, depending on the motives and actions of the person pursuing profit, Ayn Rand defines the profit motive in and of itself as a positive good, and she despises generosity as weakness. That is morally objectionable and goes beyond what I hear Mr. Friedman advocating in this clip.

In these matters, we should be careful to examine our own motives, and slow to condemn the motives of others.


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