If you look within American culture you will agree that greed and self-interest dominate our way of living. Greed echos in our music and on our TVs. It’s on 5th Avenue and on Wall Street. It seems that the American Dream is just another way of saying “A life in which I get mine by any means necessary”.
But are people born greedy and selfish or do we simply learn these traits? The video above provides an interesting psychological answer to the question but it’s also as interesting to trace the history and philosophy of greed as well. A few years ago, Princeton Philosopher Peter Singer answered these questions in his book How are we to Live? Ethics in an age of Self-Interest. In the book Peter Singer first takes a look at evolutionary biology. Through studies he points out that instead of a social darwinism ethic that many promote, humans are far from that ethic naturally. Humans as social animals has always naturally been concerned with others.
Singer points out that family and the group has always been a priority because of their ability to carry on its genes and also to ensure its safety. Philosopher and Utilitarian John Stuart Mill believed that the family was “a school of sympathy, tenderness and loving forgetfulness of self” although Plato believed that the family was a barrier to an egalitarian society. If we look in nature we will see that social animals seem to natural care for the family and others in their group. Like dolphins who are shown to help the injured, chimpanzees who share, and gazelle’s who will warn other gazelles of danger even at the risk of their own safety; we as humans have it in our nature to do the same. As a result, Singer concludes that it is a mistake to view our nature as a ‘survival of the fittest” way of being.
So if selfishness is not in our genes as Peter Singer reports, how did we Americans get so greedy and concerned with so much of ourselves? Peter points to history. In Plato’s Republic we see that the concept of wealth and poverty is eradicated. Aristotle although his thoughts differently from Plato in regards to the elimination of wealth, believed that wealth should not be an end but merely a means to the Good Life. Aristotle mentions the fable of King Midas to illustrate what happens when we become obsessed with wealth. Arisotle believed that acquiring money for its own sake is unnatural.
Peter goes on to note in chapter 4 of the text that this thinking towards wealth became adopted in Christianity when the classics were rediscovered by the church theologians. As a result, usury and avarice was condemned and giving to the poor became a matter of justice. So how did all of this change? Singer points to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther would write that the laborers has a calling as much as the priests. Reformer John Calvin would go even further and suggest that wealth was a sign of God’s grace. These views were adopted by the Puritans who would soon settle in America.
In a space where the creation of a community is needed, the Puritans spread the message of the need for labor and wealth as a sign of salvation. Out of these early settlers were William Penn and Benjamin Franklin who both praised wealth and the ethic of hard work. Soon America would become obsessed with the view that wealth was the goal in life.
Peter Singer notes that not only did America become obsessed with wealth but that America would eventually became a consumer society in the 1950′s. Everyday Americans were taught to consume more for the good of the economy. The Companies of that era use of advertising agencies and psychologists showed their need to get consumers to buy. During the Reagan Era of the 1980′s this obession with wealth would continue. Singer sites a Time Magazine article that states that the Reagan Adminstration clarion call was “Enrich Thyself” and the fact that Reagan surrounded himself with the wealthy and the reality of “Reaganomics” seem to perpetuate that magazine’s belief.
During the 1980′s wealth was also an obsession of Christianity. Singer quotes Scientologist’s founder L.Ron Hubbard as saying that the quickest way to make money was to create a religion or reinvent a new one. Televangelists of the 1980′s such as Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, and Jim Baker were not only living wealthy but some were also preaching wealth. Millions of people followed them. This was all happening in an age where the wealthy was getting richer, but their wealth was not impacting the poor in helpful ways.
It is now 2012 and it seems that things have not changed. Our culture is still obsessed with wealth and we will use greed and selfishness as a means to get it and keep it all to ourselves. This is the way things are. But this is not the way things should remain. Peter Singer and Yale Professor, Paul Bloom say that we as human beings are not born this way. We are born with empathy, compassion, and a concern for others. Singer suggest that we became this way by mistakenly believing that the good life is the rich life and that money is what we should live our lives for.
I believe that if we were not born this way then we should not stay this way. To be human is to be compassionate, caring, and to not be concerned with just “I”. One of the things that I appreciate about the field of ethics is that it at least considers what is the right thing to do which in someway suggest that we have the tools needed to decide right action and perhaps do it. The problem with wealth obsession is an issue of greed not an issue of freedom. We should be free to better our lives but we should also be caring enough to make sure that there is some left over for others. One of the key concerns of the Occupy Movement I believe is not an issue of envy on behalf of the 99%. Rather it is the predominate self-interest on behalf of the some of 1% that is tremendously harming others. Some members of the elite are doing what is unnatural of humans which is not concerning themselves with others. And as much as this type of self-interest is said to have built this country, it will not be enough to sustain it.
I believe we should praise and encourage rather than shame selfless acts. We must realize that life is so much more than the accumulation of pieces of paper that a group of individuals magically decide worth to. We must realize as Socrates suggest, that life is truly about maximizing our full potential as human beings. That it is the unexamined life that is not worth living not the rich and selfish one. Our nature as human beings is that of care and concern for others not just a focus on ourselves. When we make that a part of our lives we will find that its not about a life of self-sacrifice, but it is rather as Singer believes and I do too, about self-fulfillment.