Greed as human vices
Is greed actually a vice of human behavior?
Greed is human behavior that had been regarded as vices since a long past history of civilization. Seven deadly sins, teaching from Christianity, lay out the seven vices behavior, namely pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Greed is one of those among them. Aside from Christianity, many other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and many others also have a similar stance against greed. However, despite greed being widely regarded as a vice, is it actually something that is so evil?
Basic need, basic wants, and overly wants
Before we start discussing greed, we need to understand what is the exact definition of greed.
Greed is an excessive desire to possess wealth or goods with the intention to keep it for one’s self.
Above definition are taken from the Wikipedia. In the above definition, it uses excessive desire to distinguish what is considered as greed.
First, the use of desire indicates wants, which is by itself different from needs. While there is a general guideline of what’s considered as need, but there are many scenarios where it is extremely ambiguous to decide which side should it belongs to. Take a smartphone as an example, while it does not directly affect one’s survival, it can indirectly heavily affect one’s survival in a city where a lot of activities involve smartphones. A job can be one of those activities, where it is extremely difficult for one to find a job without a smartphone. Without a job, one will not have an income, which affects one’s ability to sustain himself. You might argue that there are a lot of jobs where it does not require a smartphone, and human had lived their life without a smartphone for the past thousands, if not million years, up until the last century when smartphones are widespread to the majority of the people, which makes it a wants. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to classify them to either one category. However, the good news is even if a smartphone is considered as wants, desire for a smartphone will never be considered as greed because desires for a smartphone is clearly not overly wants, which brings us to the next point.
The use of excessive desire in the definition indicates overly wants, which is different from basic wants. Generally, we will consider things like desires for a smartphone or a car as basic wants while desires for a 500 thousand square feet bungalow or a big car garage full of supercar would be classified as overly wants. The main way we draw a line between basic wants and overly wants is the former is able to provide a huge increase in happiness with a relatively small amount of cost compare to the gain while the latter involves a large amount of cost in exchange for a relatively small amount of happiness increase. Again, the same problem exists when it comes to distinguishing basic wants and overly wants. For some people, desires for a Mercedes-Benz car is basic wants, while it is overly wants for others.
Since it is extremely difficult to distinguish them, for this blog, we will assume that we are able to distinguish them because actually distinguishing them is a whole topic of another day.
A world without greed
Consider a world without greed, it is going to be a world where very little improvement happens from our day to day life. Thousands of technologies we enjoy today is also impossible. This is because needs, basic wants and overly wants changes from time to time.
Consider around 200–300 years ago, where the majority of peoples do not have a private toilet in their house, a private toilet is almost an overly wants according to that period standards. If we date back to earlier than that, toilet sear does not exist, and the toilet is merely a hole. It is the vision of some people for an improved standard of living, they envision a world where private toilet exists in every house, and a toilet bowl for every given toilet. Today, we would consider such desire merely needs. Potentially, it is considered as basic wants for people hundreds of years ago, and nevertheless overly wants for any time period earlier than that.
Let us consider another situation, where to imagine having a handheld size machinery that can perform various calculation within a fraction of milliseconds is impossible, and having such desire is nothing but both overly wants and daydreaming. Today, not only our 13 inches laptop that can achieve it, such can even be achieved with something as small as a smartwatch. It is because of someone laziness of calculating with various calculation tools in the past, the calculator is invented, and it changes our lives tremendously.
Now, let us put someone genuine desire to improve the human standard of living aside, let’s imagine a person who desires is to live a life where he/she can buy anything without thinking twice, be able to live in a huge bungalow, and owns numerous supercar. What is the best way for this person to achieve what he/she desires? The best way to achieve that is to be a successful entrepreneur. To be a successful entrepreneur, he/she is required to be able to build a successful business that outperforms the competitors, and the only ways to outperform the competitor is to innovate. You may think that innovation is not required and the best way is to merge with competitors and create a monopoly. However, by doing so, there will always be new competitors appears so long as it is a free market, and it will not be a long term solution. This person, so desperate to be rich, trying out numerous idea, trying to innovate every single day, and eventually, not only he achieve the lifestyle he wants to live, the innovation that brings by this person also advance the society forward.
A world without greed, everyone is content with what they have, there will no longer be an improvement, not in science, not in literature, not in art, neither does it in technology. A world without greed, talking to your friend millions of miles away is impossible because people are content with being able to only communicate with people when they meet physically. A world without greed, we will still be a hunter-gatherer tribe because our ancestor does not bother with having a fixed shelter.
Drawing a line
Greed had always been the guiding force towards human advancement. However, at the very same time, greed had also destroyed countless people’s lives. Greed, while being used in a good way, positively affect human’s life. On the contrary, misuse of greed would lead to disaster. This is also the main reason why greed is generally being regarded as bad.
The main reason greed is highly regarded as evil, I believe, is due to the cognitive bias of a person towards the subject. In general, when greed does not affect us, we do not pay extra attention to the subject. However, when it does affect us, we pay extra attention and put extra weight on the negative effect of greed. This is how we slowly build up the general perception of greed is evil.
Certainly, a line needs to be drawn so we can stay within the good boundary of greed and do not goes beyond it. An example of greed going beyond control would be Elizabeth Anne Holmes from Theranos. She started the company, wanting to become rich by revolutionalize how a blood test is carried out. However, as she working towards the vision, she faces various obstacles, and her pride does not allow her to step back and admit these obstacles she facing to the investors and public. Deception and manipulation are used in order to let her stay in her position. In the end, it not only affects her investor, but it also put people who perform blood test with her solution at risk.
If she declares the actual results of her company to the investors and the public, trying hard to raise more funds without giving false results, the difficulty in raising funds might increase, and the business might fail eventually (which she fails nevertheless, making it a zero lost decision), she would had most likely goes on to the next business with her ability, very likely to become rich eventually, meanwhile benefiting humanity with the innovation ideas that brought by her.
So, while greed might bring positive effect, we should always be aware that we should not be blinded by greed.
Originally published at gaara4896.github.io.