Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seven deadlies: Greed

Perhaps one of the most misquoted bible verses is “Money is the root of all evil.” That’s the misquote, by the way; the actual quote reads that "the love of money is the root of all evil."

I’m dedicating the next several Friday Philosophy posts to the Seven Deadly, or mortal, sins. Those are, in no particular order, wrath, greed, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, and envy. Last week, we covered wrath. This week’s post will discuss greed, the difference between greed and simply earning a living, what places it amongst the mortal sins, and its manifestation in the modern world.

There is a huge difference between greed and simply wanting to have enough to support yourself and your family comfortably and being greedy. That difference is that one type of person wants comfort and security, and the other wants the wealth, and the power that wealth brings, simply for its own sake. The individual who isn’t greedy might acquire wealth anyway, but will usually donate some to charity, will invest in the community, will invest in small businesses, will otherwise act to help create jobs that help others. In other words, money is a means to an end.

For the greedy individual, however, money is an end unto itself. They might invest, but only to make more money, and they’ll look for the investments with the highest short term yields. They don’t donate to charity, they don’t invest in their community, and will often act in ways that hurt others (fraud, theft, etc.)

It’s this acting against others that places greed into the mortal sins territory. Once again, Thomas Aquinas’s idea that what makes a sin a mortal sin comes into play: the individual is turning his back on God in favor of his vice. And this vice leads directly into other sins, just as the other mortal sins do.

The current economic meltdown was directly caused by greed. No, I’m not going to beat up on our free market economy. Capitalism might not be perfect, but it’s the best thing going, and I’m not an anti-capitalist. No, it wasn’t the free market economy causing greed that’s led us into a downward spiral. Instead, it’s the greed of a few individuals that has damaged our economy.

The CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are excellent illustrations of the mortal sin of greed. These two individuals engaged in creative bookkeeping to make it seem that the companies were far more successful than they actually were, and to hide the issues that homeowners were coming to face. These two individuals took advantage of the average American’s desire to have a home to cheat people out of their money—investors in hedge funds and individuals who wanted to own a home but didn’t have the money for the down payment, rich and poor, alike. They did it not because they wanted their companies to grow and provide more jobs but because they wanted to collect bonuses that were more than twice the amount of their multi-million dollar yearly salaries.

And now that their CEOs’ greed-driven dishonesty has been revealed, the companies that support almost half the market and most of the banking industry are imploding, taking much of our economy with them.

This is one of the sins that I just don’t understand. I don’t see the appeal of money for its own sake. I grew up poor enough that, yeah, I’m a little nervous about being able to pay all of my bills, and probably don’t turn loose of money as easily as I should. However. The only thing I’m interested in is the comfort and security that enough can bring. It’s clear from watching our media darlings that too much brings as much discomfort and insecurity as too little. That would be the main reason I don’t understand the appeal of greed to so many. Especially when one considers the consequences of greed-driven actions.

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