Greed is a word whose meaning has lost its force. How could a modern mind see getting more of what you want as a sin, let alone a deadly one?
My first hazy recollection of greed concerns a tape of kids’ songs, and a certain Mr. Man having a little light lunch. The details of a vast feast are sung to a jaunty melody; greed is just a comic character quirk of a slightly tubby individual.
Shifting cultural gears from Mr Men to Mad Men, greed is shown as something far deeper and more serious. Don Draper, fictional advertising executive, aggressively pursues new business he doesn’t need but wants. His target company are doing ok. They have good market share. How will he get the comfortable managers over to his side?
The answer; an appeal to pure self-interest: “You’re happy with 50 per cent? You’re happy because you’re successful for now, but what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50 per cent of anything. I want 100 per cent.”
The management guru Ivan Boesky argued that greed is good. Humans always desire more, and desire creates more desires. This craving is the basis of the market, which supposedly harnesses our collective greed for the greater good, as argued by Adam Smith in the 18th century. Private greed drives economies, provides jobs, pays taxes – as the argument goes.
Greed is the attitude that drove the financial sector in the last 15 years. I’ve seen it first-hand from the moment I first walked into the office of an investment bank and saw the copies of How to Spend It lying on the table. It’s the attitude that pushed for less regulation, so that more of life could be commoditised and commercialised. But it’s also there in smaller matters. Greed might be leaving a job that meets all your needs and moving to one that meets more of your wants, but with zero leisure hours and no time for your family.
Greed is very persuasive. Greed attacks contentment as a vice. Greed is always there. Greed wants more, no matter what the cost. Greed tells you it’s just this once. Greed makes peace with vicious enemies. A dark cancer of the soul, always seeking to be fed. Never resting from its labours, its only motivation being more consumption.
Greed is an oligarch dead in his bathroom, in exile from his homeland. A man who used his immense mathematical gifting to build a huge base of power and wealth in post-Communist Russia. Owner of unimaginable wealth, sufferer of an unknowable fall from grace. Incapable of living a life on an income many would dream of because he’d tasted more; dead in the most tragic circumstances.
Greed undermines community. By pursuing more than you need, you leave less for everybody else. This might sound like primary school assembly wisdom, but the environmental and social crises are proof of its enduring truth.
Is there an alternative, if greed is not so good after all? The example of Jesus was radical in many ways, not least in the way he viewed wealth and possessions. There was a constant in Jesus that had nothing to do with earning money and having things. He said funny things about not worrying over the details of your life, what you might wear and eat, since there is provision for the one who trusts. A greedy world encourages us to feather our nests, to buy things on credit that we really can’t afford, to medicate our unhappiness through a course of retail therapy. Jesus had a relationship with God that satisfied him deeply, to the extent that he could live a nomadic life without the need for many possessions.
The opposite of greed is generosity. Instead of hoarding, we are to give freely. But the benefits are not just a private, warm fluffy feeling. A society built on generous people would be a wonderful place. Generous people live incredibly full lives, overflowing with joy and love, deeply connected to the welfare of others, and finding in that connection a deep and lasting satisfaction that cannot be attained through wealth.
Matt’s debut book, The Common Excuses of the Comfortable Compromiser; understanding why people oppose your great idea, was published in 2012 by Business Books.
This article is from our Seven deadly sins edition. You can read the other articles here.