Series on Morality: Greed

Just another desire?
Just another desire?

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.

So some of us firmly believe.
So some of us firmly believe.

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.

One of life's balancing acts
One of life’s balancing acts

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.

Can greed be satisfied?
Can greed be satisfied?

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.

Don't even think about it
Don’t even think about it

14 thoughts on “Series on Morality: Greed

  1. Greed and Altruism come with the package, I think. How we deal with them as children and again as adults is a complicated process. In my personal trip between greed and altruism I found that even as a child I was generous (with no coaching) with others–with toys, with have and havenot.
    My mother was horrified that i actually wanted to share my surfeit of dolls with a neighbor girl who had none. I refrained, instinctively knowing, even at seven or eight, she would manage to embarrass me and make the other girl feel dreadful. She did not, sadly, encourage generosity to others. I also understand now that if I had tried to give Linda one of my dolls she would have felt as if I were pointing out how ‘poor’ they were. And her mother would have made her give the doll back. sigh.

    It’s a complicated process.

    Years later I began anonymously donating goods that the local orphanage needed, and felt good about that. Someone discovered what I was doing and made such a fuss about how ‘wonderful” I was, I was so embarrassed I never did it again.

    it’s also a two-edged sword.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I live with a never ending guilt that I don’t do enough or donate enough. Even though we’ve done helpful work and donated quite a bit. We are still very comfortable while I see that children are starving in Madagascar. Idk it plagues me.
      I’ve learned to stay away from and im repelled by people who try to keep up with the jonses, even while knowing I also buy things I like.
      I’m repelled by people that gamble and say they can’t afford life insurance. That seems irresponsible to me and i don’t want to pay for their health care. That’s a judgement.
      Money has so many strings attached.
      It’s attached to work, the government, and every aspect of our lives.
      But I do see a huge difference among peoples attitudes toward it. It just depends on what you feel in your heart. But it drives everything.
      I’m studying the Romany culture for a book im writing and they don’t believe stealing is stealing as long as they don’t get greedy and take only what they need and if the person they steal from has enough.
      We probably act out what we learned growing up through many circumstances and by our own personality traits. But it’s a complicated one!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. so every fall, I stock my freezer with food I most likely will not need over the winter. And the last three winters I have not needed it. Is that greed? Or prudence? Where does prudence become greed?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe a bit of both. Do you live in an area where you get huge amounts of snow?

      I stock up, but not excessively. We get lots of snow, but the roads are usually clear by the next day, and if I need fill-ins that’s what I get. I have a freezer, but dislike buying too far ahead, since much food has a freezer/stress level and loses food value after that time.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. well that’s good then. And I understand that snowed in thing; when we have a blizzard we always lose the power. It seems to be a unversal law. I don’t call stocking up at that stage as greed, just common sense. (The first two days are always fun, but after that it’s just tedious. )


  4. I’m not sure there’s one definition of greed but I think it comes from our desire for more, our need to have “enough” and our fear that we somehow don’t have enough, or that others have more. Maybe deep inside we fear that we are not enough and we try and fill that hole with things.
    I sometimes struggle with whether it’s greedy to be selfish and do things for myself, but then I remember my daddy telling me as a little girl that it was important to take care of myself so that I can be of service to others.
    I don’t know if it happens for everyone in midlife, but for me, I jumped off the career ladder, left a six figure salary behind and selfishly decided I needed to take care of myself and my health. Was that greedy? Some argued it was down right crazy to give up my career when I was at the peak. But what I’ve learned on my spiritual journey is that most of what brings me happiness is “priceless”. Yes, you need to have enough money for the basics, but you don’t need as much as many financial planners would tell you. I’m all for living a simpler, more authentic life and looking for ways to give back. In the end, we all need to find balance and realize that we are enough and that life is filled with abundance if only we would stop and count our blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Which is why I say, “when greed becomes immoral” we cross a moral/immoral line, different for each of us. I retired late because I liked working, for money, and it made retirement more secure. Moral greed to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My last one was a red Subaru Justy. I fixed everything broke before I sold it for 2x what my wife said I could get. The guy who bought it was thrilled. Go figure!


  5. I like the morality clause you’ve given to greed. I’m generous and stingy. Give, give, give, always give, but not the last Coke and definitely not the last of the coffee. (Signs of addiction may include…)
    Money doesn’t motivate me beyond living. Like, more money is nice, because you can provide more security or travel and or improve things, but after a certain point, it’s just money for money’s sake. I am one of those people who mentally asks, “How much money can they possibly need.” But then, need was never the core issue, was it? Need and greed don’t match.
    Point of study: The greediest people I know grew up poor and seem to think they can erase previous poverty with material items. Materialism is its own problem.
    I’m more generous with money and material than I am with time, especially since I returned to work. I think it goes back to the phrase, “Fill your own cup first.”

    Liked by 1 person

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