Greed is not good


There's a new book out about the sin of greed. I heard the author discussing it the other day. At least this time they're not saying greed is good, just that it's a necessary part of what makes the world go round. Bunk. Forgive me for delving into a little philosophy but we can’t let ideas like greed being good or necessary go unchallenged.


Philosophers often have a hard time with questions like this. Is greed always bad? When does acting out of self interest cross the line into greed? They have similar questions about altruism. Does anyone really ever do anything for someone else? Or do they just want to avoid a guilty conscience or get into heaven?


As is often the case when a question seems almost impossible to answer, it's probably the wrong question. They pose the altruism question (If I do something nice for someone else, am I really doing it for them or for me?) as if it has to be an either-or answer. Not considering there could be alternate possibilities that transcend the question.


In the case of greed and altruism the problem is in the concept of ego. If we see ourselves as separate from others, see the boundaries of our ego as encompassing just our self, then every action becomes a question of "how does it affect me?" But there's a different view one can take. If the boundaries of ones ego expand outward to include others, then one looks for what is the greatest good for all affected. We accept this idea in parents. A mother may see herself and her child as so connected that considerations of what's best blur the line between herself and the child. She will at times sacrifice what she wants in favor of the child, but she will still take care of herself, both for her own sake and because the child needs a healthy mother.


A parent's sense of self, the boundary of the ego, may expand to include the family. To some lesser degree a person's sense of self can expand to include the extended family, the community; they may even see themselves as connected to everyone, even to other living things. Of course, the universe itself is a living thing, and we are connected to all of it just as surely as we are connected to our own hands. This gives a wonderful perspective. At one and the same time there is the ultimate “big picture” perspective and the very humbling perspective of being such a tiny part of it.


With the ego viewed in this way, the question of "am I doing this for myself or for the other" becomes meaningless, transcended. If it helps you can think of what your concept of god would tell you to do in any given situation: Not to neglect the responsibility to take care of yourself, to care for the life you've been given, but not to do it in a way that harms others.


Of course we are all going to be flawed practitioners of this at best. The point is that it is possible to pursue self-interest while being mindful of others. From that perspective the notion that greed is good, or even necessary, becomes rather silly.