On Greed

Published: 2022-11-27

Chasing Money

Last week saw three events that can be connected in some way, but one gained many more headlines than the others. The CryptoCurrency exchange FTX crashed, unleashing revelations of mishandling of funds. A Donald-trump-picked republican candidate Kari Lake chose to "fight on" in the face of her impending defeat in a US midterm election. And Elizabeth Holmes, once the doyenne of Silicon Valley founders, was sentenced for her fraudulent handling of Theranos.

What is it that these have in common? A win-at-all-costs attitude and a pursuit of power, wealth or acclaim where there is no respect for rules or for those caught in its wake. The founder of FTX wove a web of investments propped up by other investments, this week leaving debtors with "unreliable books and records". Elizabeth Holmes, touted as the next Steve Jobs, built a $9bn company based on potentially world-changing technology that didn't work. And Kari Lake, picked on the grounds of denying the 2020 election result and supporting the January 6th assault of the US Capitol, refused to concede amidst projections of losing her election race and instead chose to publicly accuse the electoral body of the same fraudulent behaviour, claiming she will fight the result in the court.

The fact that these 3 examples are all from America is curious in itself: is America another common thread connecting these examples, or is it simply because America is the most covered country in the news and that a collision of these types of stories was simply a statistical likelihood? These things of course happen around the world, but to be newsworthy is a matter of scale: the 1MDB fraud originating in Malaysia, the electoral funding-for-votes sports rort in Australia, and one might include the questionable awarding of the currently-running World Cup to Qatar. In America however we have seen not only the conditions enabling the growth of behemoth trillion-dollar companies, but also the type of self-promotion which idolises these achievements. So perhaps it is inevitable that America is seen by the world under both a spotlight and a magnifying glass.

What I am curious about is what drives a person to make wilful choices which knowingly betray customers, investors and voters? Is it Capitalism? A cultural pressure to succeed? Or is it simply greed? Are the people that are driven to make these choices morally ambiguous, or do they know that they are doing something underhanded, devious and even illegal? At surface level we can only speculate, but I think that simple greed is a major driving force of the modern day, whether that comes from society, peers or an innate desire, with modern consumerism pouring fuel on what may only be a few flickering flames.

Gordon Gekko

Greed has been evident throughout the ages, from being one of the seven deadly sins of Christianity to being the theme of many stories including Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The 1987 film "Wall Street" introduced us to Gordon Gekko, immortalizing the words:

"greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.".

Greed is seen as a force for progress. But we know that Gekko is a satirical caricature; he is the embodiment of the elite rich that seems to serve no other purpose than to get richer. He himself acknowledges that:

"I create nothing. I own."

I do agree that some kind of force is needed to drive progress, otherwise we would not have the world in which we live today. But what if this force is placed above our moral and ethical obligations? What is missing here is a distinction between greed and hunger; both of these things can be drivers for change and improvement, but hunger can be satisfied. Greed by its definition cannot be sated.

Greed as a vice and its remedies were discussed thousands of years ago by the Greek philosophers, and they refer to the lack of boundaries. In Seneca's letters he writes:

"the acts that spring from wilful lust are without boundaries."

Those boundaries include our moral and ethical obligations to one another and, in fact, to the world. In Wall Street, Gekko received his financial comeuppance from his protege Bud in a deal engineered to go sour, and in this we learn another of greed's traits: that while it produces winners it inevitably results in losers. The Theranos shareholders and FTX depositors are the losers in last week's culmination of their greedy games.

So what do we do about it? Seneca urges us to adhere to boundaries:

"Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second to have what is enough."

When a child is surrounded by more toys than they can play with, why do some still take more from another? When we sit at the table to eat, should we force down the entire quantity of the meal, or should we simply take what is enough to sustain us to the next? Society has progressed far enough that most people do not want for a second meal in the day, and Seneca of course writes from this perspective. However there are still places where a second meal is a gift, most notably Africa and South America, the countries in which have arguably been plundered and swindled by the more prosperous parts of the world in the pursuit of, well, greed. For what other motivation is there to take away from another for one's own benefit?

Friends share sunset

Seneca's other answer is sharing and friendship:

"No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it."

I think this is important; perhaps greed is a compensation for not possessing enough good relationships by instead possessing things? Many of the Greek philosophers talk of the importance of friendship. One of my favourite quotes is Epicurus:

"Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends."

With friendships come fulfilment and fulfilment lessens desire.

This is not to say that the people who opened this opinion do not have friends, but perhaps they have false ones, ones which arrive because of their own desires rather than a mutual respect and support. Seneca describes the reason that:

"prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends; but those who have failed stand amid vast loneliness, their friends fleeing from the very crisis which is to test their worth."

This is an important lesson; the philosophers often talk of the character of a person being built by the trials endured by them, but it is also a test of their friendships. Look back on your dearest friends and see which have shared tough times with you. These are the ones which make you truly wealthy.