Is Greed Inherently Evil?

Throughout this chapter, I have been treating self interest as a suspect impulse, following the example of Rousseau and Marx, who desired to remake human nature. But is self interest interest inherently evil?

If self interest is evil, then charity encourages evil, for charity fulfills the self interest of the needy. So is it evil to give to charity!? Should we scourge ourselves and burn our excess possessions when we feel like being good people?

If anything, the best justification for charity and welfare programs is that the fulfillment of selfish desire is a good thing. Since the rich have the means to satiate their most intense material desires, we should expect that an additional dollar to a poor person provides greater material reward than it does to a rich person. (This does not justify complete income equalization. Many are rich due to hard work and/or risk taking; wealth is their compensation. Many are poor because they are poor stewards of wealth, putting all our capital stock into their hands would be a prescription for universal poverty. And then there are the issues of freedom and justice.)

Ayn Rand looked at the contradictions in the ideal of pure altruism and opted for an opposite philosophy: that rational self interest should be the foundation of morality. By her philosophy, the market interaction is the ideal, since all the players are acting selfishly. Objectivists can make a pretty good case that crooked dealing and other bad behaviors are contrary to rational self interest. I disbelieve, but their arguments are closer to the truth than many imagine.

Morality in 2 Dimensions. Selfishness and benevolence can be viewed a completely separate traits. One can be selfish and benevolent (upper right quadrant), or selfish and evil (lower right quadrant). It is possible to selfless and benevolent (upper left) or selfless and evil (lower left). Those who love to decry greed often reduce this to a one-dimensional view going from upper left to lower right. Ayn Rand noted how this view missed the beauty of capitalism and took an orthogonal view, from upper right to lower left. Both views are incomplete.

We see that all the permutations of good/bad to others/self are possible. As Ayn Rand noted, capitalism is in some ways “pure” good in that all benefit, and that the horrors of Marxist and National Socialist regimes were pure incarnations of an altruist ideal: everyone suffers. But thinking one-dimensionally as Rand did blinds one to the fact that it is possible to harm others while following one's rational self-interest. The slave owners of the Old South lived rather well. Likewise, there are good deeds that need to be done which cannot be done at a profit – including preserving laissez-faire capitalism against those who would have subsidies! But those who curse greed are also blinded by one-dimensional thinking. The market process is a beautiful thing, albeit imperfect. And the willingness to sacrifice yourself for a cause does not make you a good person as certain suicide bombers have recently demonstrated.

Ironically, the idea that charity is worthy of praise and even heavenly reward is something of a statement that the upper right quadrant is ultimately the ideal. On the other hand, if goodness is to be measured by the willingness to do good deeds regardless of reward, we see a reason for the Creator to make his existence uncertain...

Further Reading

The Works of Ayn Rand promulgate a moral philosophy of self-interest for everyone. It is a surprisingly benevolent philosophy despite the jarring use of words. A good introduction to her moral philosophy can be found in "The Virtue of Selfishness." which you can find the philosophy section of most bookstores. This moral philosophy is also developed in her famous novel: "Atlas Shrugged." Her writing is extremely powerful, with a biting wit. Enjoyable and thought-provoking, but I recommend serious contemplation after being under her spell. Her attacks are often on the money, but her proposed moral philosophy is dangerously incomplete.

Ayn Rand loved to attack Immanuel Kant and his moral philosphy. Some of her attacks were unfair (though Kant's moral philosophy is also dangerously incomplete). To see what she was attacking, try Kant's "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals." It is wrong from the first sentence, but not in precisely the way Rand claims.

The most famous work on the mixing of self-interest and benevolence is, of course Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations."

C. S. Lewis liked to mix a surprisingly hedonistic view with Christian morality. This view can be found in several of his works including "The Screwtape Letters" and his science fiction trilogy: "Out of the Silent Planet", "Perelandra", and "That Hideous Strength." I highly recommend reading his works; they are beautiful and thought-provoking.

Read the Book

Do you want to start a new political party? Or are you simply interested in what that would entail? Check out my new book: Business Plan for a New Political Party.

People wanted an ebook version of the Plan here on this site. So I started cleaning up, reformatting, and adding a huge amount of content. The book is about three times the length of the free online version -- and easier to read.