Forget Mr. Burns, what does greed look like on a day-to-day basis?
Lately I’ve been thinking about greed.
We all know what greed looks like, don’t we? We’ve witnessed it many times in movies and on television. There are plenty of fictional characters that epitomize the attribute of greed, from Mr. Burns (The Simpsons) to Ebenezer Scrooge.
And we also know that greed is not just for fictional characters — it exists in the real world. There are plenty of examples of people famous for their greedy behavior, from Charles Ponzi, to Emelda Marcos, to the people behind Enron.
But ask yourself: how many people have you met, in your life, that behaved this way? Do you actually know anyone who cackles over giant piles of money, or relishes the idea of screwing over the little guy? I don’t.
Part of the reason why fictional “greedy” characters are so cartoonishly evil is that real-world greed is subtle and hard to detect in day-to-day interactions. Storytellers have to greatly exaggerate and caricaturize greed in order to make it recognizable to the audience.
At the risk of moralizing, I’d like to outline some of the ways that greed can manifest in ordinary people, so that we can better recognize it when we see it in other people, and more importantly, in ourselves.
The first and most common type of greed is what I would call inconsiderate greed. It is characterized by a lack of concern as to the consequences of acquiring wealth.
Although not everyone wants to be wealthy, we all want to put food on the table and have resources sufficient to survive and be comfortable. Many of us would like more than that, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But most of us also have limits on what we will do to acquire those resources. There are certain jobs we won’t do and certain stocks we won’t invest in. We won’t lie or cheat our way to the top.
But some people just don’t care about those things. This does not mean that the person is generally inconsiderate or lacking in compassion; rather, it is often the case that a person will have moral or ethical “blind spots”, where they simply don’t consider the ramifications of what they are doing, especially if those consequences are far away or are highly abstract.
Human cognitive capabilities are highly influenced by pecuniary interests. As Upton Sinclair is famously remembered as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”.
This kind of greed can be hard to spot because it is the absence, rather than the presence of something — an absence of concern. You have to observe someone’s behavior for a long time before you notice the missing element.
A second type of greed is what I would call systemic greed. This is where a basically decent person is put in a position where their job or official duties require them to act greedily.
For example, we know that tech giants such as Apple are notorious for their tax-evasion strategies. Yet, the people like Tim Cook who run these companies seem like relatively decent folks, and even on occasion stand up for their principles.
This kind of problem can happen in any system where (a) there is competition, and (b) competitors have to perform at a certain level or they get shut out of the game. In the case of tech giant CEOs, if they don’t do their very best to eke out every last dollar of profit, the board of directors will replace them with someone who will. Moreover, due to the logic of the market which requires continuous economic “growth”, this behavior tends to intensify over time as companies mature. Scrappy startups can more easily afford scruples than transnational giants.
Hey, it’s just business, you know?
The third, and most confusing type of greed I want to discuss is compassionate greed. This is where someone acts greedy out of compassion for others.
That seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? Aren’t greed and compassion kind of incompatible?
The solution lies in the fact that the person’s compassion is highly selective: they are screwing one set of people (usually a large, amorphous set of strangers) in order to benefit a different set of people (typically people well known to them who they care about).
For example, I’ve read that the majority of people who commit business fraud do so out of concern for their co-workers. They start small, just bending the rules a little bit, knowing that if they don’t the company will fail and all of their comrades will be out on the street looking for a new job. But, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the transgression doesn’t stay small, the lie grows and grows until finally it is discovered.
Similarly, I once worked for a man who proclaimed “Anything I do to support my family is OK”. He was ethical within that narrow scope, but his scope was very limited. (The sad part was that most of his would-be customers could subconsciously sense something was “off” about him, and would stay away — so ultimately his behavior was self-defeating.)
It’s easy to rationalize that you are doing the right thing, when in fact you aren’t. As one pundit put it, “All slopes are slippery, which is why you need a moral footing.”
So how do you avoid being greedy? The same way that you avoid any other negative trait, which is rigorous and unbiased self-examination. Of course, that’s easier said than done — none of us are completely unbiased about ourselves.
However, there are lots of ways to improve our self-introspection. Learning about logical fallacies and cognitive biases is one; studying the mistakes of history is another. Being inclusive in our moral reasoning, and not just limiting our ethical behavior to those in our “tribe”. Discussing problematic issues with other people. A general commitment towards self-improvement.
In fact, it’s a lot like science — scientists make errors all the time; part of the process of doing science, and the training of a scientist, is about detecting and correcting those errors. Finding and detecting our own ethical lapses is a skill that must be developed and honed.
Being a better person can, in fact, be a fun and creative project.
End of sermon. :)
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