Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Catholic Ethical Stance on Greed

Catholic economic, social and political ethics from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World) encyclical in 1965 through the relevant encyclicals of John Paul II are “especially critical of the risks of avarice, acquisitiveness, and waste in consumerist societies, the indifference of many affluent people toward the poor, and the swing of governments away from redistributive taxation, welfare ‘safety nets,’ and foreign aid to poor nations, toward a kind of ‘economic rationalism’ that encourages and enacts hard-heartedness and selfishness.”

Avarice is simply another word for greed, a basic desire for more. This motivation presumes that however much a person has accumulated, it is not sufficient; rather than resting on a good deal having been achieved, it is human nature to instantly view it as insufficient next to a better deal not yet accomplished. The change of perspective from gladness to near indifference is truly remarkable. The quickly-assumed mere default-status of a good deal (e.g., from self-congratulations to the banality of fait accompli) is occasioned by the recognition that even more can potentially be had (on even better terms). A fundamental desire for more is behind this recognition and the ensuing change of perspective on what one already has procured.

Acquisitiveness itself can thus be seen as the value—indeed being an end in itself—behind greed. Within acquisition, or as a further end, is the pleasure that can be obtain by consumption. There is thus a utilitarian, pleasure-maximizing, utility undergirding the value (of acquisitiveness) and motive (of greed). But unlike the ethical utilitarianism of Bentham and Mills, here the maximizing of pleasure is at the individual level, rather than of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Although individualism can be ethically laudable in terms of character or virtue ethics, a focus on the individual can also reduce to hard-heartedness and selfishness. Where pleasure-maximization is centered in, or limited to, oneself, redistribution is viewed negatively. For example, in the context of the stalemate during July 2011 on raising the U.S. Government’s debt ceiling, certain members of Congress refused to go along with an agreement that included ending the Bush tax cuts for individuals making over $200, 000 ($250,000 for couples). At least for some of the wealthy, having more rather than less even when the latter included ample surplus was worth continued stalemate and the related possibility of default of the U.S. Government and global economic turmoil and hardship. Individual pleasure-maximizing at the expense of the public good can thus be viewed in terms of niggardly selfishness at odds with justice as love and benevolence, and thus, furthermore, as being at odds with Catholic ethics.


Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Vol. 1, Ruth Chadwick, ed. (New York: Academic Press, 1998), p. 486.

On the historical Christian views on the relationship between wealth and greed, and the associated theory of justice as love and benevolence, see: God's Gold, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.