“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?” — Rabbi Hillel
“The problem which divides people today is not a political problem;
it is a social one.
It is a matter of knowing which will get the upper hand,
the spirit of selfishness or the spirit of sacrifice;
whether society will go for ever-increasing enjoyment and profit,
or for everyone devoting themselves to the common good.” — Frederic Ozanam
We are social beings confronted with the fact that while many of us do as we please without concern for others, we cannot do so without affecting them. No matter how we isolate ourselves or ignore the plight of others, we still live in a web of relationships where our actions have consequences.
When resources are perceived to be limited, greed is an ethical issue whereby claiming
more for one’s self is done at the expense of others. Whether apportioning pieces of mother’s apple pie or the world’s crude oil reserves, the division of finite resources has consequential impact on all. How resources are distributed within a society is a function of its sense of separation or wholeness and its inclination toward internal competition or cooperation. This sets the moral tone of a society. When individuals disengage from concern for one another by becoming increasingly competitive, manipulative, and self-serving, morality is eroded.
Currently, we are socially programmed to believe that “more is better.” This perpetuates the illusion that one who has more is more valuable and successful than one who has less. We are taught that our self worth is contingent upon external standards of competition and accumulation of stuff. This consumes us in an insatiable quest for status driven by escalating desires. What one “needs” is no longer simply a matter of survival, but an expression of one’s ego as it seeks to distinguish itself from others striving to acquire the label “successful.” The urge to “measure up” propels us into a repetitive cycle of greed, seeking satisfaction and fulfillment through material gain. This drama is rooted in a “consciousness of lack.” Snared in greed’s grip, we are blind to the need to build community around a higher purpose than mere self-interest and material accumulation.
According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, within the normal course of human development one evolves morally past the egocentricity of childhood into broader social perspectives, acquiring increasing sensitivity to the needs of others. However, his model assumes a social environment that encourages this process of moral development. Looking at American society today, it is apparent that many powerful societal forces including individualism, materialism, competition, capitalism, and the monetary measurement of success combine to stimulate our greed which in turn inhibits our moral maturation. There is nothing inherently wrong with material success and pleasures. However, when an entire society places too much emphasis on them, it pays the price of inclining its members toward moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Consumed by perceptions of lack, individuals and society as a whole turn their focus outward to patterns of unfulfilled desires rather than inward to the process of awakening awareness of the transcendental purpose of our lives.
A spiritual perspective on greed assumes belief in something greater than the identification of ourselves as merely bodies with personalities. It necessitates belief in something transcendent with which we ultimately reconcile our thoughts and behaviors. Over 95 percent of Americans claim to believe in God or some higher power. Yet, belief can be anything from a mere intellectual leap of faith to the very foundation upon which one lives life. While a hollow “belief” does little for us, actively living life in relationship to God obliges us to come to terms with our own finite nature and to live our life as an expression of our relationship to this God or sacred purpose.
In Buddhism, there are three concepts of evil: greed which involves pulling things toward the self; anger which is pushing things away from the self; and ignorance which is the result. Similarly, the fundamental principle of Taoism is the existence of “Tao” or “the way” a natural order or oneness in the universe from which nothing can be separated. Taoism teaches that one lives successfully only by surrendering to and cooperating with this implicit order. This does not suggest passivity, but rather an active disengagement from illusions of desire. One learns that to desire anything other than that which is, or to manipulate events or relationships to achieve personally desired outcomes is to violate this natural order.
Spiritually, greed can be seen as an expression of impatience and a judgment against God as having failed or forgotten to adequately provide for us. When we misinterpret a perceived lack as evidence that God has abandoned or failed us, there is a temptation to align ourselves with something more tangible, material, and seemingly controllable. Material greed is one of the fundamental ways through which this desire for self-will expresses itself. Doubting the existence or benevolence of God, we seek to live independently of God’s will as the guiding principle of life. Feeling out of control and afraid of suffering, we fire God, attempt to usurp command and play God. This ultimate rebellion against authority is fundamentally a crisis of faith.
While the Ten Commandments primarily identify forbidden actions, greed and the other Seven Deadly Sins and their counterparts in non-Christian traditions are about wrongful desires that are “off course” — that is, out of alignment with God or goodness or the Tao of life. Becoming ensnared in patterns of wrongful desire creates separation from others and from God.
Religious and spiritual teachings are filled with guidance on practicing generosity and gratitude rather than greed. For example, in Deuteronomy 26:1, people are obligated to bring the first annual fruits of the land to the Temple in thanks and gratitude to God.
Buddha teaches about freedom from addictions and desires. The essential dilemma of human life, as Buddha presents it, is that people get caught in time craving and desiring such transient things as beauty, youth, money, power, and the illusion of independence. When we become fixated upon these, we demand and pursue their fulfillment. This kind of attachment causes suffering because, in essence, we are attempting to make time stand still in order to gain a sense of power and control over our world.
In Christian teachings, greed is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse appearing in the second of John’s seven visions where the consciousness is cleared and lifted by overcoming false types of thinking. The establishment of right thinking occurs through a reversal from an outward to an inward pursuit of happiness.
It seems that life is ironically yet exquisitely designed to teach us lessons through polar opposites. For example, we come to know light only through the presence of darkness. And greed’s opportunity is not through its fulfillment, but rather in recognizing its presence as feedback that we are moving further away from the true source of happiness in our lives.
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