Pigs are smart enough to play video games
The great Greek poet Hesiod wrote: “Observe the measure; moderation is the best in all things. It is a wisdom that finds support at all ages, stages and aspects of life. Drinking water is good, but drinking too much is dangerous. A glass of vodka won’t kill you, but a gallon probably will. Working hard is good, but exhausting yourself is not. Being nice is good, but a sycophant is scary. Moderation in all things.
But, it is not always easy to determine where this line is, and a good example of this concerns property and wealth.
Most of us agree that owning things, or at least having the right to own things, is a good thing. You can buy a phone, own a car, or have your own clothes. But it’s equally true that most people feel uncomfortable in a world that has both billionaires in vast mansions and children dying of malnutrition. Greed, avarice, envy and venality are considered vices. Being obsessed with material things is still, on the whole, considered a mistake or, at worst, totally immoral. So when Is wealth becomes greed?
John Locke and the Philosophy of Property
Credit: Godfrey Kneller via Wikipedia / Public domain
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when humans first called something “mine,” but the philosophy and law of property are much easier to follow. One of the biggest names to address the issue was 17th-century English philosopher John Locke.
Locke’s political philosophy is notoriously cited as a major influence on the United States’ declaration of independence, but also largely fueled the French Revolution and the Great Reformation movements in Britain. His work on property is perhaps one of his most important contributions.
Although subject to a lot of debate, what is not in philosophy? – it is generally accepted that Locke adopted a vision of “fair use” of property. He argued that one can own any property that meets the following criteria:
- It can be used before it spoils (for example, we don’t have huge reserves of rotting food).
- This leaves “good and enough” for everyone (eg one person cannot own all the land in a country).
- Ownership must come from your own labor and effort or what he calls “mixing your labor” with that thing (for example, if you cultivate a field, the field and its produce becomes yours).
If we were to follow these rules, it seems difficult to envision a world of greed and inequality. Anyone can have and get what they want, as long as there is enough left over for everyone else to get what they want. they or they also want.
But, there is a lot of ambiguity in these rules, and money makes a difference. Money, especially modern money in the form of digital numbers on a screen, does not spoil. And, thanks to modern banking, there is no limit to the amount of money there could be – a bank can, and does, literally create money every time it gives you one. credit card or loan (although, in practice, few countries allow this and impose limits on money creation). So no matter how many billions someone creates, there will always be “good and enough” money for others too.
(Of course, in practice constantly creating huge new money reserves will lead to hyperinflation, devaluing money for everyone. Yet even if we were to ban all new money creation today, a Lockean could argue that there is already more than enough for generous distribution around the world.)
So the money changes things on Locke’s behalf. It won’t spoil and there will always be at least some money for everyone. It has even been argued that Locke, far from advocating an egalitarian and distributive philosophy, can easily support the rampant capitalist accumulation of wealth. Locke wrote that because of the money, “Now a man could have … a disproportionate and unequal possession of the land … and fairly own more land than he can use himself.
This is the philosophy of greed.
Too much greed
The idea that greed is an essential part of being human (or at least an animal) goes back at least to Plato and has a rich philosophical history from there. Today this often takes the form of evolutionary psychology or genetics, exemplified by Richard Dawkins The selfish gene.
It is when we think of nothing but increasing our experiences and our material possessions. This is the point where greed has come to dominate your life.
One thinker who has disputed this is Peter Singer. Singer recognizes the fact that evolution works on a certain competitiveness, that is, the strongest will pass on their genes. But he also thinks it’s wrong to associate it entirely with greed or selfishness. Cooperation and productive relationships are equally vital for survival.
Singer argues that the desire to do good, to work hard, and to be successful are admirable aspects of the human condition, but when pushed to excess they turn into greed. This line comes when the lack of more – in particular, the desire for material wealth – becomes the only goal of a lifetime. It’s when you’re working late or constantly searching that promotion takes priority over family, friends, and common human compassion.
The point is that in the West most people have had enough. Even the poor usually have televisions, smartphones and automobiles. The average person in the West lives much better than royalty for millennia. The singer asks us to get a feel for the perspective. We spend more on bottled water than some families in developing countries live in a day. We are so obsessed with our current daily condition that we lose sight of how much we really have.
Greed über alles
Singer’s argument helps us identify the point at which motivation and success insidiously turns into greed: this is when we are reluctant to spend our money and devote our entire waking life to accumulating more and more at the expense of our relationships. It is when we think of nothing but increasing our experiences and our material possessions. This is the point where greed has come to dominate your life.
But it’s also when greed replaces our common sense of compassion. This is when property and wealth become greater virtues than charity, kindness and solidarity with others. It’s when dollar signs and fast cars matter more than people dying on the streets. This is when getting a raise is more important than getting someone else fired.
No one likes to think of themselves as greedy, but if you take a close look at yourself you will likely discover some areas of your life that are at least tainted with greed. We should all check ourselves in from time to time.