What would the world be like without greed - Greed for power, money, status, fame, stuff, experience, or love? A reader recently posed this question. So let's reflect on it. Greed is a potent source of action. It powers ambition and achievement. It moves people to take a risk and persist. It can even elicit creativity. It gets people up in the morning, and keeps them working hard through the day, and even into the night. In the hit movie Wall Street, the star character Gordon Gekko famously proclaimed, "Greed is good."
But is he right? A philosopher like me would say that greed is not only unnecessary, it's unhealthy and toxic. It's not good at all.
Desire is a good thing, when attached to good purposes. Greed is an excess of desire. Aristotle had an interesting analysis of virtue as the mid point between two vices, or extremes. Courage, for example, is the mid point between the extreme of too little, called cowardice or timidity, and the excess of too much, known as rashness, or temerity. Likewise, perhaps, a healthy form or degree of desire is a mid point between the too-little of apathy, and the too-much of greed. Desire is necessary for ambition and achievement. Greed isn't. In fact, greed enslaves and corrupts people. And this has been recognized by the wisest thinkers, east and west. It's the maximal extent of what eastern philosophers call "attachment." It's bad for the soul. And it isn't for even a minute good for business.
Greed is about getting what you want, not about making the world a better place. It doesn't actually support the full range of creativity or curiosity you might at first think it would, but just focuses on getting the most it can the quickest way possible. It's willing to do great damage to others to get its own way. And it's sometimes surprised by the consequences.
The greedy tend to go too far, burn bridges, alienate others, and violate all known ethical codes. They become captivated by things they don't need. They get obsessed by things and habits that will distort their lives. They lose all balance and discernment. They bull their way into situations that will ultimately make them unhappy. They corrupt their own souls.
I was asked this question just a few days ago by a reader of this blog: What would the world be without greed? My answer is simple. It would be a much better place. And, Yo, thanks for asking.
And readers: Feel free to make other suggestions. I desire them, but promise you I'm not greedy. I'll share.