Friday, April 19, 2013

Is Greed Good?

Human Desires
This avarice
Strikes deeper, grows with more pernicious root. 
William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good:
Greed is right, greed works. 
—Gordon Gekko
in Wall Street (1987)  

On TV there is a show called American Greed; I watched a few episodes. In each case, the viewer is walked through a narrative of how one man (it's usually men) committed fraud, used the ill-gotten gains to maintain a lavish life-style, and continued to act in such a manner until their actions eventually led to their downfall. Arrest. Conviction. Prison. In some cases, after being tried and convicted, the men had recognition their actions were wrong; in others not. It's a classic morality tale.

The chief point of the show, I presume, is to show that greed is not good when its method of gain is illegal. Few would argue with such a statement. A more subtle message is whether greed, the desire for over-consumption, is good. We are not here talking about laws or even moral considerations, as important as they are, but, rather, about whether the human characteristic of greed, stronger in a few individuals, is beneficial for society. 

Some argue that human greed leads to innovation, invention and the betterment of society. That without human greed, we would not be advancing civilization, that humans need reward for their efforts, and that greed (typically in the form of money) drives human civilization forward. In a sense money becomes the catalyst for progress. There is much to say about this argument, which is essentially an argument for Capitalism and its strong support for free markets (“laissez-faire capitalsim”); its leading thinkers include the American Adam Smith, the Austrian Friedrich August Hayek and the American Milton Friedman.  Their ideas, although persuasive and prevalent in most economies, go against the thinking of thinkers like the Britain John Stuart Mill, the Hungarian Karl Paul Polanyi and the Canadian John Ralson Saul.

For some, Gordon Gekko might seem like a straw man, a character unlike real life. Yet, there are Gordon Gekkos out there. For evidence. look no further than the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street and the consequences it caused around the world, still felt today, five years later. The individual efforts of a few in New York City has caused hardship to tens of millions of persons, now unemployed, worldwide. That the “selfish” actions of a few individuals can influence the lives of so many is a testament to the effects of globalization, and of both the New Economy and the Disposable Workers.

I use the word “selfish” in a way that would find agreement with such evolutionists as Richard Dawkins, who writes in The Selfish Gene (1976; later ed. 2006), a book I am currently reading. Dawkin's notes, as other evolutionists point out, that it is only the fittest, healthiest genes that will survive. Altruism does not see to such genes surviving; in other words, in the world of genes, selfish genes survive and do well; altruistic ones die off.
My own feelings is that a human society based simply on a gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live, But unfortunately, however much we deplore something, it does stop it [from] being true. This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would like to extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individual co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species have ever aspired to. (3)
In this scientific view of things, the Gordon Gekkos are acting according to their gene's desire to live on, as depressing as that thought is to the betterment of humanity. Humans, however, can overcome the need of our genes to dominate, a survival mechanism induced by the selfish desire to pass on our heritage to future generations. And yet, Dawkins points out that it is a fallacy “to suppose genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable. Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives” (3).

Even so, Dawkin's book explains much, but it is not, as he says, a book on how we ought to live, namely a book about ethical or moral behaviour. Greed might be a biological imperative, our genes driving us to become fitter by selfish acquisition, but we are not required to always agree to our gene's demands. Not every Wall Street player is necessarily a Gordon Gekko; and we humans are not slaves to our genes. Such is good news.