Punchinello’s Chronicles

December 19, 2008

Another Wrong Definition of Greed

Filed under: View from the Bottom — Punchinello @ 11:07 pm
Tags: , ,

I’m reading the December 2008 essay by Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, “A Work of Recovery,” from the Imprimis, college newsletter. It’s a discussion of how we should return to a constitutional government, and all things considered a pretty good essay.

The problem is that Mr. Arnn’s basic premises rest in part on an assumption about the word “greed,” and how it relates to human nature:

“One imagines that there is plenty of greed on Wall Street. Greed is a moral vice, a failure of justice involving taking more than one’s due. To eliminate greed would surely be a fine thing, as would the elimination of any vice. It would also be an astonishing achievement.” (Emphasis mine.)

Do words really matter all that much? Is the minuscule parsing of a sentence so important? Actually, it is. When you examine the law and how language is so critical to the setting forth of that law, you begin to see why words matter. Language and the meaning of words splits into semantics and sophistry, with the latter being today’s preferred method of communicating.

Sophistry uses words to bamboozle people, twisting words and language to promote seemingly legitimate arguments. Semantics is the field of words and their meaning. Both are an intricate part of the law. And the law rests entirely on the structure of sentences, the words within those sentences, and the interpretation of those sentences.

Modern Supreme Court decisions more often than not derive from a belief that the US Constitution is open to interpretation. The specific words and sentences describing principles and ideals were set forth more than 200 years ago. One (if not the key) difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals argue that the Constitution should be re-interpreted as a “living” document. The “intent” of the forefathers should be more important than what they actually said.

The argument rests on the proposition that nobody 200 years ago could have predicted or foreseen our modern society. As such, we must examine what was intended by the Constitution. Conservatives hold with a strict interpretation of the document, proposing that the ideals, principles and values written at that time still hold true.

It’s the complex parsing of words that often leads to court decisions with far-reaching consequences. Only one example would be the concept of “freedom of speech.” Does burning the American flag constitute freedom of expression and speech? Is it protected, therefore, by the Constitution?

Everywhere around us, particularly in light of today’s crashing economy, we hear the word “greed.” The Wall Street financiers, corporate moguls, executive boards, and crooked politicians all are moved by greed. That’s what people say. If we could only get rid of greed, we’d be a much better country and have a much better world.

In fact, that’s one of the discussion points presented by Mr. Arnn:

“Should we build our political institutions upon the elimination of greed? A caution stirs the mind immediately at the thought of it.

James Madison writes in The Federalist Papers about faction, about our making combinations to serve our interests, even when those interests do not correspond to the public interest. One will read in vain to find the chief author of the Constitution suggesting that faction, much less greed, could ever be eliminated. Rather, he writes that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” In other words, we must build our political institutions to operate around the problem of human vice, to mitigate that problem by discouraging vice, but also to place our interests in alignment with the public interest. “Liberty,” writes Madison, “is to faction what air is to fire.” To eliminate the effects of self-interest would be to eliminate freedom itself.”

Greed is defined as “excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves.” (Wordnet; once again emphasis mine.)

This entire link between greed, accumulation, and one’s “due,” or what one “deserves” has been handed down for centuries. It’s a flaw based on a deeper philosophic premise that morality itself derives from only two basic fountainheads. Either a supreme being in a religious sense produces a moral framework (law), or a political state produces that morality through a legal system. No other form of morality purportedly exists.

Who determines what’s too much? Who decides what one is “due?” How do we know when someone has passed that marker? What marker? Who’s in charge of what people “deserve?”

State-defined ethics proposes that a special, elite “group” at the summit of society, brilliantly defines who gets to “have” and who are the “have nots.” Opposing that, theologists claim that God (in one or another form) determines what’s fair, what’s just and who gets to keep how much of whatever they’re accumulating.

But what about rational individualism? What about using quality of life and the natural emergence of societies to define morality? The simplest question introduces the fundamental conflict and reason why such a morality hasn’t yet been structured: “Who is more important, the individual or the group? On what basis?”

Capitalism actually is the answer, and the concepts of free markets with reasoned oversight.

As soon as we introduce any kind of measured line in the sand, we start on a slippery slope that leads to totalitarianism. The entire theme of wealth redistribution is based on a never-defined, never-examined, never-questioned assumption that “somehow” there is a point of what’s “due” and what’s “deserved.”

Greed is the accumulation of things (including wealth) beyond any functional use of those things. That’s NOT a crime! Nor is it a moral flaw! Just because someone wants more than they can use, that doesn’t mean anything at all to you and me! We cannot ever draw that line for someone else! Otherwise, we absolutely will find that line coming back to bite us in the ass, to use a nicely mixed metaphor.

When anyone says something is “too much,” they’d best have a physical or reasoned explanation of why it’s too much. But to go the next step and say that “too much” ALSO is wrong, brings to bear the entire construct of morality. And unless there’s a clear, defined, structure to that morality, then we’re going to have to end up in personal interpretation.

The moral part of greed is when accumulation comes with a forceful infringement upon other people and their rights.

If there’s a finite amount of food on an island and one person has a gun, that person can take all the food and prevent others from having any food. The gun is the force. The greed is the need to accumulate more food than the one can possibly use. The food has a term limit as it spoils. No amount of twisted logic supports one person taking all the food, eating whatever amount, and watching as the rest becomes useless.

Especially when the other people on the island would live if they had that food.

Mr. Arnn’s arguments are fine, the essay is well done, and life is wonderful up to the point where he introduces the same flaw that’s been handed down generation after generation. We can’t put a limit on accumulation! Arnn himself argues exactly that point, citing the founding fathers and Federalist Papers. But without intending to, he contradicts his own argument through his offhanded, flawed definition of greed.



  1. Greed is not wrong per se. What is wrong is, the belief that being more greedy would result in more happiness.

    Destination Infinity

    Comment by Destination Infinity — December 21, 2008 @ 3:01 am | Reply

  2. There are two pathways of wrongness. The first is that isolated greed is okay, but it must be just that, isolated. The second one is personal, and you’re right. More doesn’t equal happier. In fact, much of greed is a result of a psychological problem…the so-called hoarding complex. That’s a function of obsessive-compulsive disorder, mania, and other pathologies.

    Comment by Punchinello — December 21, 2008 @ 3:08 am | Reply

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