Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Ethics of Greed and Benevolence

"Greed is Good": Not!

Bumper stickers proclaimed in the 1980s, "Greed is Good," a kind of populist version of Ayn Rand's rationalistic, capitalistic egoism. In 1987, the movie, Wall Street, distilled the morality that said one should get all you can, while you can, however you can, without calculating costs or effects on others. Gordon Gecko, the film's lead character, made several speeches favoring unrestricted greed as natural, necessary, and good.

It is now 2010. Many Americans followed Gordon Gecko's celluloid-enshrined philosophy for decades. In fact, a movie sequel will appear within this year, again featuring Michael Douglas as a prison-chastened man free on the loose again.  I have no idea of what this movie will teach.  Hopefully better than the last.

Now literally millions of Americans are suffering from harms done by unscrupulous corporations, financial institutions, and corrupt government officials who helped them over the years.  Many have used every opportunity to pursue "Greed is Good." Among the victims are many who formerly worshiped at the Altar of Unrestrained Self-Interest. Now they have become victims to the greed of others and one wonders what these now say. Perhaps, "greed is good but just needs some adjustment?"

What is "greed"? Dictionary definitions include
• excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth
• excessive consumption of or desire for food; gluttony
We look around us today in the United States and see the devastating results of greed. Millions of Americans are without jobs due to jobs shipped overseas for higher profits. Millions have lost homes, investments, savings, pensions, due to unscrupulous banking and financial practices. If we go back into American history beyond our times, we also will see how greed is scattered throughout our history. In fact, this is the history of nations.

Some say greed is natural, human nature. Philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, and geneticists, have suggested, each in their own way, that the desire to consume, or consume more than we need, is completely natural, part of our very being. Augustine discussed how the human will was disordered and turned in on itself, curvatus in se, the essence of sin. Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes described the hoards of self-interested people in society, needing an enlightened monarch standing in the place of God to regulate their behaviors in his Leviathan. Evolutionary theorists make their own case for natural aggression and dominance, for example, in Dawkins's The Selfish Gene.

Sigmund Freud and the Command to Love the Neighbor

I remember, while preparing for a German examination, practice-translating a lengthy passage from Sigmund Freud's Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930). He openly rejected the commandment, "love your neighbor." He said, in essence, we cannot obey the religious command to love the neighbor because we do not know the neighbor. He or she is not family, or a friend. He or she merely is a stranger to us.

The definition of the German word for “neighbor,” naechsten, is closely allied with the Latin word, proximus, which translates the same. These terms mean someone next to, near, or in proximity to us. This is a relationship of time and space. As we all know, just because we move in next door to someone does not mean we will like, or be able to trust, that neighbor. Likewise, just because we work in the cubicle next to someone, this does not establish any other affinity.

Now Freud himself was a neurotic, but a genius. One thing that attracts me to him is his penetrating naturalism. He was an atheist and wrote in penetrating prose, discarding what seemed or was irrational. And so I agree with the naturalism embedded in his point. He is right. We do not know the neighbor and correctly should be careful. We all have life experiences of betrayal, not merely of coworkers but even friends and family.

Yet Freud was a neurotic, a suspicious and very lonely and unhappy man, it seems. So while I can agree with his naturalistic presupposition, my own life itself proves him wrong. How many times have I been helped by strangers? How many times did and does my open personality and quick conversation with strangers remove needless obstacles to real human and humane encounters? Yes, we must be careful but, No, we must not close ourselves off to the potential for what good will and even love can bring to us, or can impel us to give!

Of course, Freud recoiled at Jesus’ command to love the enemy, again quite naturally. He dismissed that command as even worthy of discussion. The enemy, die Feinde, or in Latin, the inimicus (from which we have our adjective, inimical), already has shown ill will, the desire or goal to harm. To be commanded to love such a person was against nature itself, and the instinct for survival. Many today agree with Freud. Having had a few enemies myself and, having a brother murdered on the street, I understand.

If loving the neighbor was neurotic, then loving the enemy perhaps was psychotic, though Freud did not say that. Enemy-love was so far afield from the instinctual and rational it deserved no more rebuke. Freud, like many today, probably would have said the insanity (in the original Latin sense of, insanus, unhealthy-mindedness) of loving enemies was confirmed by Jesus’ example. Jesus was crucified by the union of his enemies, Jew and Gentile. And for this same reason today, not many Christians have much use to practice the command, except to repeat that Jesus said it, the only one who could obey it.

A Little Critique of Freud From the Bible

Freud was not a biblical scholar, but a dilettante or amateur. He did write a book, Moses and Monotheism, but it is more philosophical than textual. In the Hebrew, the word for neighbor actually means, “kinsperson,” or a fellow Jew. There is, then, in the command a religious and, to some extent, racial element as to the obligation to love. There is no command to love the goyim, the non-Jews of the world. We can see positive relationships in the Hebrew Bible between Jews and non-Jews, for example, the Book of Ruth. Nevertheless, in the truly biblical sense and in the biblical command, the obligation to love is sectarian or even racial.

Jesus, when he said the Torah hung on the two commands, to love God and neighbor, actually spoke these words knowing the latter command meant a fellow Jew. But in his own life and dealings with non-Jews—the Syro-Phonecian woman, the Centurian, the Gadarene demoniac, the woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, and lepers who were ritually unclean, as a few examples—Jesus exhibited love for them all. So while he was a Jew faithful to the Torah, he extended the applications of religious love to all he met. Even his harsh words to fellow Jews (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”) should be taken as words issued with an intention to reform.

Practicing and observant Jews obey the command to love their Jewish kin. There are many Jewish philanthropists who go further, having benevolence towards their communities, states, and the nations in which they live. Just as Jesus did, their good will extends far beyond the borders of sectarian faith, but to all God’s children and even creation itself.

The Ethics of Benevolence

The word, benevolence, is a transliteration of the Latin word, benevolentia, literally meaning a "good will" towards others. Whereas greed is based in self-love and taking, true benevolence is based on willing good for other persons.

There is such a thing as false benevolence. A billionaire can give millions of dollars for a "benevolent work," but the motive may be self-serving. Perhaps the giver has accumulated vast wealth through profiting from harming or even killing millions, yet wants to manipulate public opinion. This has happened. The victims and victims' families know the truth. This is pseudo-benevolence for private satisfaction.

Benevolence, unlike greed, is not "curved in on itself" but rather aimed outward to others in love. Benevolence is omni-directional, always aimed towards other people, other living things, even the biosphere itself. Good will can be directed as specific as to an ant or as broadly as to the cosmos itself.

I remember reading Albert Schweitzer’s rich little book, Out of My Life and Thought, where he said, as a boy, he even recoiled from impaling worms on hooks for fishing bait. He said, even a worm feels the steel go through its body. I, too, have that memory. But the encouragement of other fishermen to ignore that feeling for utilitarian purposes of catching a fish (which engorges what will horribly hurt when removed) also is part of that memory. “Have no benevolence either for the worm or fish. Push through the hook, anesthetize your will, then enjoy the catch for supper.”

While some today have consciences so hardened they can only mock what seems to them an absurd ideal, I love the universal benevolence in Schweitzer’s doctrine, Reverence for Life. He impresses and endears me in so many ways. Though he had three doctorates and wrote such masterworks as his Philosophy of Civilization, that brilliant intellect was tender and gentle towards the smallest creatures. He lived benevolence and inspired his time, though now younger generations never learned his name in exchange for the most superficial, egocentric, hedonistic icons called “stars” in our culture.

Yes, we have enough steely wills today. We have enough wills driven by Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” We have enough consciences so hard and dead they not only destroy animals and the ecosphere with impunity, they will not intervene if a murder or rape is happening before their very eyes. They do not want “to get involved.”

Benevolence Brings Happiness, Not Greed

Have we not had enough greed yet? Is the United States not ruined enough? Are there not enough nations in the world where only a few gobble up all the resources and labor? Why would we want more greed? Surely greed has been proven to be a neurotic obsession that easily leads to a psychosis-aggression against our own species!

We are born into love. We are born to love back. From our mother’s breast to our parents’ loving arms, good will is found in our earliest experience. We never are truly happy until we live and move and breathe in loving and being loved. Neurosis comes, for people like Freud, when our original instinctual needs for love are thwarted and twisted by unhealthy childhood experiences. Yet even those can be undone, with great success.

If greed is our goal, there are built-in limits. We must use our days and nights to achieve things we may never grasp. There is no certainty in greed, only the constant and expanding aspiration for accumulation and control. The more we acquire, the more our warped grasping wants to acquire. And because greed actually is against our own deepest nature, with all we may obtain, that deeper hollow inside—where Love wants to dwell—never is filled. We are too busy planning, doing, taking, buying, selling, to be our true selves.

But with benevolence, there are no limits at all. We allow our essential human nature to flow naturally and for its power to extend from within us to everything and every person we meet. When we arise in the morning to lying down at night, benevolence, the attitude and expectation of willing good, is in our complete control. Moreover, because benevolence is a natural human propensity, every person as the capacity and opportunity to be natural and let this most basic nature take its course.

Why are young children or grandchildren such great pleasures? They are filled with good will, positive curiosity, trust, enthusiasm, learning, excitement, wonder. Only the children of abuse, war, abject poverty, have their natural good will extinguished. Yet even children taught to take up guns, as in some African warring groups, if given a chance to be children, will be as they are able. For those who are skeptical about benevolence or its possibilities, just look at a normal child who still is close to his or her parents’ loving care. You must be convinced this is how you were, or how you want to be again. Benevolence is your nature.

The grand fact about benevolence is it universally is available to every person, regardless of material possessions, regardless of education, regardless of intellectual or other endowments.

Benevolence has no favored linguistic form. In every language and dialect, rudimentary or highly inflected, benevolence has equal power and potentialities. Even the person with a physical or mental disability, limited in some ways, can become a king or queen in the realm of benevolence. And many do, outstripping those called “normal” precisely because their “limitations” open their hearts to what instinctively they know best—to will good and to love. Benevolence abides no more in any geographical location, ethnic group, or nation, than in any other. Why? Because we all are of the same species, and our earliest postnatal love is universally known by us all.

Benevolence, however, can be impeded, suffer, and be deformed by economic systems and economic realities. Enlightened capitalism can be a great channel for benevolence, as wealth finds many ways to will good to the neighbor and the stranger. Yet amoral capitalism, which fuels so much of the greed today, places money and acquisition as the do-all and end-all for every living breath. Yet even here, benevolence is vindicated again.

In the famous story, A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge devoted his life to gain, not giving. The reason this story is so beloved is its simple critique of greed, and its profound recommendation for benevolence. Our American society has many Scrooges now, all unhappy after they achieve their goals, all wondering why their hunger is never satiated, yet all candidates for conversion back to their true nature: benevolent human beings.

How many true stories are there in cultures around the world where a poor person invited a rich person into their humble home, hovel, or tent, then gave freely whatever they had for food and drink? Why and with what power did they do this? Benevolence. They know hunger and thirst. Yet when they met another person who was hungry and thirsty, they did not ask, "Does this person favor me?," or "How can I benefit from this person?," or "Do I know or owe this person?" They see the person in need as one like themselves. They are connected to the person in need, and so still obey what Freud rejected: "love your neighbor as yourself."

The greedy person sees other human beings as means to an end: profit, property, possessions. The benevolent person sees other human beings as in connection with themselves. We often look at the history of genocides and ask, "How could the killers kill with such impunity men, women, children?" In every case, the killers have lost the understanding, based in fact, that they share the very same genome, the very same humanness as their victims.

The benevolent person has not lost that awareness and identification. And, of course, the truly wonderful thing about benevolence is there is no limit to its capacity other than our imaginations! Even the poor person who has no food or drink left can put his or her arm around the stranger as they suffer deprivation together. And there remains also the quiet word of encouragement, "I am with you. We will endure this together."

Live in Benevolence, Not Greed

Let us learn from the destruction of our nation the high costs and reality of what greed is and produces. Are these millions of lessons not enough for us? Let us turn from the poisoned spirit of greed, curved in on itself, to the sweet and easy fruits of hearts, minds, speech, and deeds of benevolence. You have the power within you, so live in love! It is so much better, so unlimited, so satisfying. Amen!

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