How much is enough? When do our simple desires or wants rise to the level of immoral greed?
Steal to feed your hungry family, and you may go to jail. An investment banker, who makes millions, steals from the public, nearly destroys the economy, and causes financial crises to millions of people; we talk about the banker’s greed and move on – no consequences.
Here’s how I see my own greed: my wants become immoral greed when my having too much causes others to go without or suffer. That view is mostly due to culture and my beliefs about human nature. If I lived the aesthetic life of a Trappist, I’d restrict myself so there would be more for others. I want to have enough without taking away from anyone, especially those in need. But not everyone feels that way.
If there are 10 things we both want, and we each take five, that might seem fair. But what if we need only two each, and will never need more? Do we hoard the other six? Collectors spend fortunes adding items to their collections. Is that greed? If so, is it immoral? If they also donate fortunes to philanthropic causes, does that change anything? Am I discussing greed, or is this an issue of caring about others.
Is greediness a normal part of our nature? Is it instinctive to be greedy to survive, but also part of a darker human condition to be immorally greedy? If the answer to both questions is yes, why? From whence does our greedy nature come? Why are some of us incredibly selfish, while others are altruistic to the point of self-denial? If we feel greedy, but don’t act on that feeling, is it ok? If it’s normal, as I contend it is, then we should feel no guilt. If our actions cause unnecessary harm to others, that’s different.
Why do some people think greed is immoral, yet they blindly practice it routinely? Is it really the opposite of liberality, which is defined as the behavior of someone who gives things or money in a generous way? I think these are both normal. We are greedy and generous.
Bill Gates is very wealthy and continues to make a lot of money. He lives a good life that doubtless has some excesses. But, Gates is also very generous and kind. He is both an American capitalist and a kind and generous person. Many wealthy people seem to be. Some are not.
Is greed a form of self-preservation that has gone too far? When humans find themselves in extremely stressful situations, they become not only selfish and greedy, but dangerously so. Starvation changes us. When basic needs are not met, we don’t consider it greed when people take extreme actions to meet those needs.
Behavior in WWII concentration camps and American prisoners in Bataan and other places provide ample evidence to support this. Oddly, there are remarkable altruistic exceptions. Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, discusses why one camp prisoner will give away his last morsel of food to another who is dying. Yet, another prisoner will harm others, steal from them, or commit murder or suicide. While this was an observational basis for Frankl’s therapies and personal outlook, these very real human experiences testify to major differences in people.
If it has always been that way with people, will it continue? Is greed normal in other animals? Is survival of the fittest a basic instinct of our animal inheritance that now masquerades as greed?
Greed, like quality, is difficult to precisely define. Yet, also like quality, most of us know it when we see it; particularly when we see it in other people. However, we must admit that greed is something we seem to share, want it or not. We need to feel safe and that may mean not trusting that we will manage with enough. More is safer and better.
Our human nature has many facets and sides. Our morality is a big part of our nature, good or bad.
Keep in mind that if we take only what we need, we care for more than ourselves.
May we live our lives in concert with humanity and all of nature.
Let us look both ways and mind the gaps.