Greed or “avarice” in Christian morality has always been a blameworthy vice, one of the seven deadly sins. Buddhists believe that strong desires, lust and craving lead humans away from the path of Enlightment. Hinduism also claims that covetousness is the root of all evil. The public opinion has been unequivocal as well: the greed deserves the scorn; it is unacceptable in the context of the social propriety. Still, what do we actually know about greed? What do we know about the concept of greed and psychological mechanisms of its occurrence?
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Would it be possible to assume that greed could be transformed from a vice into a socially useful feature, a potential agent for change? This paper focuses on the study of the concept and psychology of greed and attempts to prove that greed can be useful for society, using several historically significant humanities and social science works to prove this thesis.
First of all, it is important to contemplate the idea of greed and its perception. It is also important to differentiate the concept of greed from similar concepts and, essentially, from misconceptions. According to various psychological researches, greed is the feeling rooted in insecurity and fear, which emerges in early childhood when a person is deprived of his basic needs. If greed becomes a dominant character trait, it is capable of completely ruining a life of an individual; however, intrinsically greed is an echo of an ancient survival instinct that dictates a human to compete and gain success at all costs. It is a very consistent motivation, and when viewed impartially, it is a driving force behind many successful initiatives, political systems, and societies.
While the feeling of greed can be directed at various subjects, material and abstract, real or conceptual, this is where the differentiation begins. Numerous emotions and intentions can be driven by greed, or otherwise, can be mistaken for it. For example, a well-known aphorism by Walter Savage Landor says: “Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked” (21). However, in modern society the ambition is not a vice, quite the opposite, it has become a welcome and cultivated feature.
A person can crave for power and wealth, and such lust can be destructive for the individual as well as those around him or her, but one can also aspire after a specific status or attention, or strive for knowledge. It would be a fair assumption to say that not every manifestation of greed can be viewed and judged in the same way. Moreover, modern psychology has come to a conclusion, that when subjected to constant displacement, greed can lead to the emergence of a socially acceptable “persona”, a substitute for personality, which will be manifested in denying such trait in oneself and intolerance and constant criticism of it in others.
A. F. Robertson in his book “Greed” states the following: “Moral notions like greed develop within us and, because human development is necessarily social, within the communities in which we live. Greed is doubly interesting because it is both an aspect of our own growth … and one of the ways we come to terms with growth socially – measuring, criticizing, commenting on one another” (14). Essentially, this means that an individual, as well as the society as a whole, is capable of accepting this character trait and explore the psychological growth and development using greed as an example.
Robertson also reflects on the meaning of greed in the context of the public good: “Greed is never an absolute judgement … It is an assessment of changing circumstances … We may find it respectable to be greedy for our family, or on behalf of other real and imagined communities from the bowling club to the nation. A good citizen has the right to be a bit greedy” (10). As can be seen from these examples, the arguments in favor of greed exist and are acceptable, at least when it comes to certain variations of greed.
The point that greed can be a useful instrument for society can be proven using several significant works. Although the choice of these works may seem somewhat uncharacteristic, all of them can serve to prove this argument, although from an unusual perspective. The first of these works is the letter of Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham jail”. M. Luther King Jr. was an American Baptist minister, well-known for his love of biblical quotes, and he would have been the first person to remind of inadmissibility of greed; however it would be hard to deny that some of his actions and objectives were motivated by greed, though not in the ordinary sense of the word. In his letter he argues with his correspondents about his untimely actions, proving his case:
Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!”… This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see … that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (King 3)
His impatience, thirst for action, the need for justice, attention and recognition for himself and his “colored” brothers and sisters can indeed be called greed; but that would be the lust for better life in the name of a whole community, desire to succeed in order to survive and prosper. The same ulterior motives can be seen in desires and actions of two other historical figures – Frantz Fanon and Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi, the famous leader of Independence Movement in India, has always believed that a person is capable of mastering his own emotions and desires, and discovering the nature of true restraint. He claimed his favorite the quotation from the sage Nishkulananda: “Renunciation of objects, without the renunciation of desires, is shortlived, however hard you may try” (qtd. in Bose 220). Definitely Mahatma Gandhi, who venerated the principles of non-violence and supported the anti-colonial movement, can be a perfect example of a person, who acknowledged his own desires and motivations, mastered his emotions and put them in service of society and the public good. He thrived for justice and truth, and his desires proved to benefit the whole nation. His work is an illustration to a thesis that primary, basic emotions that may seem evil and barbaric, when acknowledged and accepted, can be developed into an advantage, instead of leading to hypocrisy.
Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, philosopher and author of many works, including the book “The Wretched of the Earth”, supported various liberation movements across the world and was known as an active proponent of anticolonial struggle. While his ideas are obviously Marxist, Fanon also actively supports and advocates the desires of the citizens of colonized countries to return to independence, gain their freedom and commonwealth, even by violent actions.
He says that “the violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, … will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters” (Fanon 40). Probably this impatience, wrath and lust for violence can be considered a form of greed, but will it not be justified by the good cause, as the colonized peoples have had enough suffering, and much like the “colored” people of Martin Luther King have come to claim what belongs to them in their own right?
To summarize the research, it can be said that all of these examples have illustrated the varieties of greed that could be acknowledged, given positive development and properly channeled, can serve the purpose of greater good. In fact, in some ways greed can be good for society, for its development and change. Indeed, as the character of the movie “Wall Street” professed: “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms… has marked the upward surge of mankind” (Weiser and Stone par. 110).
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Bose, Nirmal Kumar. Selections from Gandhi. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1948. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1963. Print.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham jail.” Why We Can’t Wait. Ed. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963. 77-100. Print.
Landor, Walter Savage. Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1824. Print.
Robertson, Alexander F. Greed: Gut Feelings, Growth and History. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001. Print.
Weiser, Stanley and Oliver Stone 1987, Wall Street. Original Screenplay. Web.