Sunday, September 16, 2007

In Defense of Greed

Recently, a family member of mine to whom I am very close called me in a state of despair. She had just watched the documentary “11th Hour” and was depressed about global warming and the future of the planet. The movie’s thesis is that this present moment is the last chance to save the world and we better mend our ways or it will be too late. This close relative said that she was so concerned and felt that the situation was almost hopeless. Human greed was going to destroy us all, she said.

Sometimes, I can be less than sensitive and diplomatic. It is not wise to tell a despairing liberal, “I disagree. I think greed is a virtue.” I should have gently said, “How so?" And, “ What do you mean by greed?" I then could have tried to distinguish greed from enlightened self interest.

It is hard to defend greed. By definition it is a bad thing. The dictionary describes it as, “Excessive desire to acquire or possess more than one needs or deserves.” How can one defend that? After all, greed is considered one of the seven deadly sins. To defend greed is like defending sloth, pride, or lust.

“Enlighten self-interest” may not be as offensive of a term as “greed,” but whatever we call this desire to improve one’s well being, it is a force for good. Adam Smith recognized the importance of self-interest when he said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

I admire those who give away their wealth to help the less fortunate. Charity and caring about the poor, the sick, or the state of the planet are virtues. However, more people are fed, housed, and healed due to the profit motive than all of the benevolence in the world. If global warming is to be solved it will be due to a proper accounting of the cost of global warming not because we can change human motivation. Once we properly account for the externality of global warming, then the magic of the market and a desire for profit will find the solutions.

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1 comment:

  1. "global warming is to be solved it will be due to a proper accounting of the cost of global warming not because we can change human motivation."

    True. The progressive perspective is that we must implement policies that motivate companies to act in an environemtally responsible manner out of self-interest. Incentives for the production of alternate fuel vehicles or employment of solar panels to power businesses, for example.

    As for acting out of pure self-interest - it can be a bad thing. If a persons act purely out of self-interest w/o any regard for the well-fare of others, he or she is acting irresponsibly. The only reason that the profit motive works in most - though not all - cases is because self-interest coincides with the interest of others.