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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Greed is an essential virtue part 1

On this blog, I talk a lot about Christianity and how it is the bitter enemy of Western civilization and modern values. In fact, it's somewhat of a refrain with me : Western civilization and modern values, Western civilization and modern values. It's an important point because the extreme tension between them is an essential part of the culture wars. If Christianity was in accord with modern values, the atheist movement would be reduced to atheology, and thus would have little social consequences. But if Christianity was in accord with modern values, then it wouldn't be Christianity at all.

However, I don't want people to think that I completely support modern values. I diverge with them on many points. One important point, perhaps the most important, is the idea that greed - greed for money (materialism), greed for knowledge (scientific progress), greed for happiness and pleasure (hedonism) - must always be tempered and tamed by the "common good".

It was not always this way. When industrialism just started and people were starting to emerge from the poverty of agriculture, it was more natural to value greed. A greedy person makes a better life for himself than a content, passive one. People didn't join the factories because they liked the smoke or because they liked the products - but because they wanted to make a better life for themselves than the back-breaking 365-days-a-year work of the small unmechanized farm.

Nowadays, in Western civilization, and for the first time in history, we finally have enough resources for most of us have leisure and to pursue our values in a more systematic manner. That means we also have enough resources for the most fortunate and disaffected amongst us to be able to complain about having too much resources - giving us the altruistic and Greenie movements, which are solely built on that premise.

Why do these people argue against greed ? They say that greed is socially regressive, that greed helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that a society solely ruled by greed would be devoid of feelings, decency, virtue.

In fact, if we observe what happened historically, the reverse is true. From the dangerous journeys of merchant ships to today's technological globalization, from man's frantic searches for regularity in nature to today's laboratories and incredible scientific tools, from the original thirst for freedom and equality to today's extensive leisure markets, greed in all its forms has been the single most powerful impetus for the progress of mankind.

Today's marriage of science with capitalism has made the 21st century the best period to live in - expanded our lifespan by more than half, eradicated diseases, made mass literacy, communications and transport available to all, gave us food from around the world at lower prices than ever, gave us the productivity that makes leisure markets possible, but most importantly freed us considerably from the constraints of local culture and politics through commodification. Now lifestyle is no longer as much of a geographic issue as it is a personal issue - where we live, who we live with, how we live, and how we die.

Greed, commercialization, selfishness, have the end result of making things better for everyone. On the other hand, the policies "intangibilists" - people who believe that the "intangibles" are most important - "culture supremacists" and altruists only lead to disaster. It is precisely the motors of progress, science and capitalism, that the altruists constantly attack - in the popular culture (no one is more demonized than scientists and entrepreneurs), in political discourse (movements against the markets and scientific research are legion) and in the post-modern parts of academia.

This article continues in part 2.

Post a Comment


12 Comments:

At 3/07/2006 12:44 AM, Blogger BlackSun declaimed...

You hit the nail on the head. If all the wealth were to be evenly distributed around the world, it would soon be back in the hands it is now.

People are wealthy because they know how to make money and keep it. People are poor for the opposite reason. And making money involves providing services or products that make others' lives better.

The only altruism I'm interested in involves promoting scientific education and critical thought. This is not really altruism, because activism in this area will make the world a better place for me to live.

One area where I'm opposed to greed is where it results in corporations getting away with not paying for externalities. When they do this, their stockholders make money by shifting costs for cleanup and resource depletion to future generations. This should not be allowed.

Closing the loops on manufacturing processes by encouraging cradle-to-cradle product design is an important step in reducing externalities. Additionally, corporations should be required to be responsible for their products at end-of-life. This would force them to design products that could easily be refurbished or recycled. This would not only be a better value for customers, but would result in overall lower costs and bigger profits in the long run.

Natural Capitalism = Healthy Greed

 
At 3/07/2006 1:25 AM, Blogger UberKuh declaimed...

You remind me how much our everyday language is entrenched in subtle religious meaning. I... want to... speak... but I am... afraid of... what it might... mean!

 
At 3/07/2006 1:37 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

I can't say I agree with all of blacksun's suggestions there, but I think we're on the same page. I'm glad you guys liked my entry. And need I mention that any comment from humanists will be happily deleted.

 
At 3/07/2006 4:06 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

What most people call "greed," I call "irrational self-interest."

For someone to reach for personal gains in life in a rational way, is called "drive" or "motivation" or some other complementary term. But for someone to reach for personal gains in an irrational way, is referred to as "greed."

The problem is that the critics think that the desire to attain values itself is wrong, which is absurd. The critics should instead argue against using coercion or "exploitation" in their pursuit of values.

 
At 3/10/2006 11:39 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

"greed in all its forms has been the single most powerful impetus for the progress of mankind."

While I agree in the main with your central thesis that tempering greed with concerns for the "common good" is ridiculous, I cannot agree with the statement above. Greed that is unmitigated by ethical consideration or rational long-term considerations does not lead to progress, except in a Newtonian sort of way. In other words, stupid people are greedy too, and feed their greed by criminal acts. The result is Enron, and things like the financial collapse of the Mill Yard in Manchester, NH in the early 1900's. The overabundance of greed leads to financial depression. The market is self-regulating, but in devastating swings to either extreme.

 
At 3/11/2006 5:10 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

"Greed that is unmitigated by ethical consideration or rational long-term considerations does not lead to progress"

Bypassing long-term gains is not very greedy now is it ?

 
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