Thursday, March 29, 2018

Is Greed Implicit in Christian Theology?

In Business Ethics for Dummies (p. 123), greed is defined as a basic desire for more. The authors posit a “reasonable greed,” which in business “fuels growth,” which in turn “creates jobs and adds value to a society [and] economy” (p. 124). The authors conclude that “in terms of this social and economic growth at least, greed is a good thing” (p. 124). This sounds like a partial affirmation of Gordon Gekko’s claim that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Wall Street). As long as greed proffers good consequences—the greatest good for the greatest number—the desire for more is ethical, or “reasonable.”

In terms of Christianity even where the religious thought has allowed for profit-seeking and the holding of wealth (e.g., for the virtues of liberality and magnificence), greed itself has been excoriated as sin. That is to say, even though Christianity contains different takes on the relationship between wealth and greed, the religion has never approved of the desire for more.

Theologians have typically assumed that the fundamental desire for more is for lower goods, such as wealth, rather than for higher ones, such as God. Greed thus represents misordered concupiscence: the placing of a lower good over a higher one. Such greed is thus desire in excess to what the object deserves. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed” (p. 316). The desire is thus sordid in that it is selfish and excessive, regardless of the object being desired or any beneficial consequences for others.

Undoubtedly, the basic desire for more can be directed to many objects. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, people can be greedy “for power, status, influence, or anything else they desire in excess” (p. 316). One might ask whether a desire for God can possibly be selfish and in excess.

Augustine, for instance, writes of his yearning for God as though a lover pining after a beloved. His language evinces an obsession of sorts, hence possibly capable of excess. “You are my God, and I sigh for you day and night,” Augustine declares in Confessions (7.10.171). “You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you and I hunger and I thirst for you. You have touched me and I have burned for your peace” (Confessions, 10.27.254-55). If it is the limitless nature of the desire for more that is responsible for Christianity’s long-held aversion to greed, then what of Augustine’s sighing and burning for God?  If Augustine’s higher passion is akin to lust, is not selfishness and excess possible? Augustine’s more may be higher, but it is still more, and he wants the object without limit.

To be sure, God is without limit, being omnipotent and omniscient as well as omnipresent, so it could be argued that a desire for God can be unlimited without being excessive (given the nature of the object). If so, Augustine’s sublimated eros being directed to God can be carved out as an exception and labeled as “holy greed” to distinguish it from the commercial “reasonable greed” that issues in economic growth and jobs. The nature of the object and beneficial consequences are the respective justifiers of these two manifestations of greed. However, this path of carving out exceptions can lead to greed itself being deemed good in itself.

I contend that the desire for more is troubling even if the desire evinces a proclivity to vindicate more and more of itself. In being selfish and subject to excess, the desire for more can be said to resemble an addiction, regardless of the object and unintentional beneficial impacts on others.

In terms of excess, the desire innately sets aside any possible restraints such as a desire for equilibrium (e.g., “enough is enough!”). Furthermore, in being self-centered, the desire warps one’s perception to enable still more. For instance, something just ascertained is suddenly viewed as a given, and thus to be augmented rather than accepted as sufficient. If the amount gained had been a good deal, this is taken for granted as an even better deal is sought. Hence, the desire does not diminish out of a sense that enough has been gained. Lest a declining marginal utility arrest the desire in terms of consumption, still more is desired in terms of savings either because 1) you can never be certain that you won’t be able to use the still more or 2) the addiction to more is too captivating. The question is perhaps whether the human desire for more is itself subject to declining marginal utility as a motivation.  Does one become tired of feeling it or is it self-perpetuating?

Even though the desire is innate and self-perpetuating, it need not dominate a person’s motivation and behavior. I suspect that the key to setting aside the desire for still more is seeing it for what it is—that is, being able to recognize it as one is in its grip. A person noticing the cycle can instantly see that the good deal one has just achieved as sufficient. In other words, once the desire is recognized, a bracketing counter-motive can be applied. The promise of freedom from the otherwise all-consuming desire for more is superior to even “reasonable” and “holy” greed.  


Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011).

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance.