“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
- Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)
Consider these three brief examples:
1) Kenneth Lay, was appointed the CEO on Enron in 1985 and within a few short years, he managed to turn it into one of the largest, most successful (on paper) and respected companies in the US. In 1996, and for five years running, Enron was voted America's Most Innovative Company by Fortune magazine. Kenneth Lay and his close colleagues were nothing if not innovative... in the ways they deceived the whole world. Creative accounting and revenue recognition, concealing debt, manipulating share prices...they surely were innovative. On 2nd Dec 2001, Enron filed for bankruptcy, while its top executives pocketed $681 million, with Kenneth Lay alone grabbing over $67 million. At the same time thousands of employees were made redundant, some of them pushed to the point of committing suicide.
2) Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian engineer and businessman from German ancestry, established Norberto Odebrecht Construtora Ltda in 1944. Under his and his successors' management, within a few decades, the company became the largest engineering and contracting firm in Latin America. In 2016, the firm was involved in what was branded by the US department of Justice as the "largest foreign bribery case in history". Between 2001 and 2016, the company paid over $800 million in bribes across Latin America, implicating hundreds of officials and politicians, who happily accepted care packages in return for favours and lucrative contracts. All this, at the expense of the greater good of society.
3) It is a nice sunny day in the African savanna. A group of antelopes are hiding under the trees from the scorching sun when a lioness fixates on the unsuspecting prey and prowls quietly towards them. Having gotten close enough, the lioness pounces and within a few brief seconds sticks its mighty claws in its prey.
What do these three stories have in common? Kenneth Lay, the South American politicians and the lioness, all acted in their own self-interest. Humans, like animals have the inborne proclivity to act in self-interest. However, there are stark differences. An animal cannot comprehend the implications of its actions or consider the greater good or ethical perspectives, we can. We have the capacity to project ourselves in the future, to plan beyond what is here and now. It is this capacity, which makes us take self-interest to extremes, without regard for others.
Greed is not a topic, which we openly talk about. It is almost a social taboo. Ask someone what they want in life and they will likely say - health, good family, friends, happiness, rarely money. It is a burning thought in many people's minds, but hardly ever spoken out loud. Almost everything in this world costs money. It is not the money per se we crave, it is what it can do for us - give us the freedom to spend some time with those we love (as opposed to being glued to a computer screen all the time), give us access to better education, to better healthcare, take us on a nice holiday, etc. Even health, which traditionally is one of the things people always mention as something money cannot buy, actually costs money. Medicine, private treatment, access to better healthcare and specialists, experimental treatment, all of this costs money, and a lot of it. Yes, we cannot cure everything yet, but we can cure a lot more than in any other time in history. Everything comes down to money, yet people will never admit they crave it.
Greed in Religion and Society
It is understandable to an extent - greed has bad reputation in society. It is seen as vain, soulless, unethical, and we wouldn't want to be perceived as such. These societal values have deep roots in religious teaching. All key religions decry greed. In Christianity, it is one of the seven deadly sins. In Buddhism, craving for material possessions stays in our way to enlightenment. The Koran warns against the corruptive nature of wealth. Even if we are not devout believers, these perceptions are deeply rooted in the societal value system, demonising greed.
I am not arguing that greed is good, although in the next section I will make the argument that it could be, all I am saying is - yes, it is bad, but why can't we just accept that we are not perfect, and greed is just part of our flawed nature? What a society of hypocrites we are.
Greed Can Be Good
Greed is not intrinsically good or bad. Like everything in life, it could be one or the other, based on how much of it we have and how we use it. Many economists have argued that it is greed, which pushes people to want more, to reach for more and it is this pursuit of self-interest, which drives progress and ultimately benefits the whole society. The 18th century economist, widely regarded as the Father of Economics - Adam Smith, summarises this point perfectly in his book "The Wealth of Nations" as such: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.” Without people's regard for self-interest, we would probably still live in caves.
The Usual, Ugly Side
On the other side, taken too far, greed can, of course, be detrimental to one's life and in extreme cases, impacting companies, communities, and economies. Living a life consumed by greed can lead to obsession and alienation. It is a sad, lonely place, where scoring big is all that matters. Taken up a notch, it drives people to break social, ethical, and legal norms. These are the cases that make the headlines and incur public's wrath. However, hearing about corrupt politicians, greedy bankers or capitalist CEOs, are just the most obvious and high profile cases. Greed has one very specific property - it only applies to others. Politicians are greedy, corporate leaders are greedy, bankers are greedy, but we are not! There are a few reasons for this:
Greed is hard to quantify. If you look up the common definition of the word, you are likely to find something along the lines of "strong and selfish desire for money and wealth", or "desire for excessive power, money and wealth". The problem with these definitions is that they are vague and broad. How do you quantify strong desire? How much is excessive? Unless, we have a very blatant example, it is not always easy to discern it.
Greed can often be masked by positive qualities like ambition and determination. If a person wants to climb the corporate ladder and earn more money, are they greedy or are they just driven and ambitious? In my experience, it depends on who the person is. We are always ambitious, not greedy. The others? Greedy, of course!
Probably the most obvious point - we have a massive blind spot for our own shortcomings. We often cannot see our flaws, even if they are the size of a double-decker bus.
The Nature of Greed
Greed has both biological and psychological foundations. From evolutionary perspective, greed is a survival imperative. Without some of it, individuals and communities were at the risk of running out of resources, impacting their survival chances. Hoarding resources provides a safety net for when resources are scarce. Additionally, our survival instincts do not only apply to us and our own survival, but also to procreating. Naturally, wealth is a sign of status and wellbeing, hence being wealthy attracts more and better mates. This in turn could allow us to create better, stronger, healthier offspring, with better chances for survival. It sounds ridiculous from where we stand in the 21st century, but this is biologically codified in our DNA.
From psychological perspective, many researchers and scientists conclude than greed is no different than addition to gambling, alcohol, or drugs. The pursuit of wealth activates similar pleasure pathways and releases dopamine in our brain's reward system, not unlike these other addictions. That does not mean we are all addicted to greed, but to an extent explains why some people can become so obsessed with wealth creation as a main purpose in life.
I am not saying that greed is good, although we know that to some extent it can be. We often hear of high-profile fraud and corruption cases involving people who already had more than enough, but wanted more. We stand on the side and blame and shame these people. Rightly so, of course, crime has to be recognised, punished and steps taken to prevent its reoccurrence. However, somewhere there among all the anger, we miss the biggest point - politicians, CEOs, bankers, capitalists, they are all people, just like us. We create a divide in our heads between us - the ethical, hardworking, honest people, and them - the greedy pigs who steal and destroy our future with their greed. This is all a fiction of our minds. Greed is ubiquitous, it permeates every industry and social class, we are just often blind to recognise it when it applies to us. This is the truth, so hard to accept. But at the end of the day, we are not born to be perfect, we are born to be human.