Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reflections on Desire and Greed

Back in the 80s, the expression 'greed is good' became popular for awhile. This verbal contradiction was used to call attention to the value associated with needs, wants and desires, the driver behind all effort and all production. Needs, wants, even longings and cravings, are normal and even necessary to life.

Greed cannot, however, literally be good, simply because the word ‘greed’ is intend to name a vice. For example, in the Christian faith, greed, also called avarice and covetous, is one of the seven deadly sins.

But the word play and other uses of the word 'greed' have had me reflecting for a long, long time about what distinguishes morally acceptable desire from contemptible greed. Greed is excessive desire, but the question remains: what is ordinary, fair desire and what is excessive? How do we decide?

I had largely come to think that action distinguishes ordinary desire from greed. Though sin-in-your-heart types might disagree, I have trouble believing desire that has no consequences is a vice. If, however, your desire seduces into you into dishonorable behavior like cheating, lying, stealing, committing fraud, that might distinguish greed.

But last week I posed this question – desire vs. greed – to my Facebook friends. (I didn’t get a rousing response, which probably means this question interests me more than it does most people. Perhaps I should be taking the hint!) Of the people who responded, most spoke of a psychic or emotional internal difference in the individual, not of behavior or action.

I recognize that that might be significant.

Curiously, all too often when I hear a person charge others -- whether individuals or organizations -- with greed, what I hear is frustration and resentment. I wonder if this is projection or a ‘takes one to know one’ phenomenon. Responding to frustration with resentment and bitterness is an error or vice of some kind; resentment eats the soul.

Thus, it comes together for me this way: greed is desire that corrupts. Desire that results in bitterness in the psyche or dishonor in action – or both -- : that’s greed.


Holly Wehmeyer said...

I like your analysis, Janet. When our desires move us to harm other human beings - with our actions or with our words - then we've crossed a line and done wrong.

Anonymous said...

(via email)


Thanks for sharing the blog.

Do you see a relationship between greed and self-centeredness?

What's your take on people who seem greedy in their neediness? Perhaps a friend experiences a death or divorce. We want to want to comfort, console and care for the friend. Comes a point, however, after a year or so, when the person's fixation on the loss becomes, though one hates to say it, burdensome. Is the friend's neediness a form of greediness?

Does the clamoring desire for attention exhibited by a child sometimes take on a similar neediness? Can a child's need for attention ever be greedy?


Anonymous said...

(via email from Ellen Pritsker)

How do you distinguish between acquisition that results from legitimately parlaying 'the system's opportunities' to one's own benefit and acquisition that destroys other people's ability to do so? (I am thinking of Madeoff, Boesky, Milken, etc.)

Where does "avarice" enter the matrix?

Love your thoughts.


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