Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Radix Omnium Malorum Avaritia

Originally on my Web site I posted something similar to the following:

Whereas an interest in one’s philosophical foundation seems these days to surrender to sound bites, simple rhetoric, and ideology, it is still an imperative when discussing human capital sustainability. Therefore, I shall divide the issue into three axes, each with diametric opposites at either end. These axes are love – greed, connection – isolation, and life – death, and are illustrated in the figure below:

From an historical perspective these axes seem to have always been in play. For example, when the universe first came into being, the big bang, it expanded for a short while and then almost immediately began to run down, that is, to succumb to the force of entropy. But just recently in the history of the universe life emerged on planet Earth, the little bang, and against all odds, even against the force of entropy, life began to run up, to escape to higher and higher orders of complexity, processing and organization. Life was then and continues now to be syntropic, that is, anti-entropic. Individual life forms may die, but life as a whole continues in an upward spiral of greater function and complexity. (From this perspective, for example, it would be erroneous to argue whether or not life begins at birth because life began eons ago and should continue unbroken into the future. Some even argue that the purpose of the universe is to foster life and its advancement, the strong anthropic principle. Therefore, the beginning of life was when life began and the only end of life would be the utter end of life everywhere.)

Once life was up and running, genetic evolution eventually led to memetic evolution in the form of intelligence and communication, and ultimately humanity’s genes and memes gave rise to phemes, or wisdom. Over the course of history humanity has done a marvelous job of transferring its genes and a fair-to-middling job of transferring memes, but it has really botched the job of transferring and disseminating phemes. However, this is a subject for another section.

For now suffice it to say that love, connection, and life appear to be essential ingredients of syntropy whereas death, isolation, and greed fall within the critical mix of entropy. This is not to say that one group is always good and the other always bad, or that one always represents syntropy and the other entropy. But for the most part these key ingredients define entropy and syntropy most of the time.

Therefore, the essential philosophical foundation for human capital sustainability, at least on these pages, will be grounded in the primary aspects of syntropy, i.e. love, life, and connection. Other similar ethics will certainly come into play, but these are the syntropic triad upon which they will be built. In aggregate, unfortunately, America appears to have spent several decades leaping into the gaping chasm of entropy, having strolled towards it for at least forty years and sprinted towards it for the past eight. This must change absolutely.

The only difference was that I used the word fear in the original text instead of greed. Having grown up in the psychological community, it was almost de rigueur to think of fear as the opposite of love. But love is such a big category and fear is rather small. And, at times fear is appropriate.

The notion of fear being the opposite of love was starting to feel wrong and worrying about it a real nuisance. If love could contain so many things that were good; compassion, generosity, kindness, peacefulness, forgiveness, etc., then what was an equally large category into which most of the bad things fit?

A PBS presentation on the seven deadly sins provided an answer. Although the seven deadly sins were never in the Bible, they had come to be considered by many spiritual authorities to be characteristic of the most common set of bad behaviors among we humans. But the sin that they consider to be the father of all sins, and to contain within it the seeds of all the others, was greed. And greed was the bad behavior bucket that I was looking for. Fear is merely a tool greed uses to get what it wants. Greed is the big enchilada. Greed is what has brought our ecosystem, economy, government, and society to the brink of disaster. And it doesn’t just exist at the top of the economic ladder, although the top has a disproportionate share.

Most citizens in America now demand that their merchandise be purchased at absolutely the lowest price while simultaneously demanding that they get the highest return on their investments – regardless of the cost imposed on other people or the planet (Reich, 2007). The herding instinct, when manifesting greed or fear, is what makes the market behave so erratically; when one person gets scared most everyone else gets scared; when one person gets greedy so does most everyone else (Ferguson, 2008; Shiller, 2000). Smart crowds do not operate well in this environment and they most likely never will (Surowiecki, 2004). When we spend most of our time and resources on quid pro quo and caveat emptor there is little time left over for summum bonum.

And we behave badly because this is what most of us have been taught. The classical and neo-classical creed have been drilled into our little consumer minds. The Market and unrestricted Capitalism, we are told, will work through an invisible hand to produce maximum benefit for everyone. Misquoted and misunderstood, Adam Smith is cited as the venerable father of this philosophy. But capitalism wasn’t even in the lexicon when he was writing his tomes on the economy, and the invisible hand only worked in the local market economies that he studied.

In the past people had better information, because things were not that complex, and they could deal with local bankers, suppliers, and producers on an eyeball-to-eyeball basis. At that time it was in the self interest of the provider to take care of the customer. In the past the rich rubbed elbows with the poor on a daily basis. At that time it was in the interest of the wealthy to protect their sensibilities by providing for the less fortunate. But now things are different. Neither honest business nor charity thrive when the wealthy are cocooned and live separate lives or when the banker, investor, supplier, manufacturer, etc. live at great distances from their customers. We are no longer, if we ever were, perfectly informed, purely self-interested, and perfectly rational – nor is the market free. There is no perfect competition and large businesses are forever the recipients of tax breaks, favoritism, protection, subsidy, and so on. Therefore, greed has been left to run rampant and unfettered, and what most of us are now experiencing in our tattered economy is the result. The invisible hand moved to coddle the rich, strike down the poor, and squeeze out the middle class.

So greed is a bad thing, even in small amounts, and has no laudable rationale. It is also the progenitor of many if not all of the subsequent bad behaviors that we exhibit as individuals and as a society – and this truth has been know for a long, long time. The Bible has often been misquoted by the anti-Herans as proposing that, "Money is the root of all evil." Some will then correct them by noting, "No, it says that the love of money is the root of all evil." But, in fact, the original Aramaic reads, "Radix omnium malorum avaritia," or "The root of all evil is avarice."

Recently Barack Obama has made a point of telling Americans that we must work together to love each other better, to make life richer, and to focus on the non-monetary things that improve our quality of life. But this will not happen until America gets over its case of addictive greed. For far too long we have worshiped greed as a virtue. It’s time to turn our backs on it and recognize it as the deadly vice that it truly is.


Ferguson, N. (2008). The ascent of money: A financial history of the world. New York: The Penguin Press.
Reich, R. B. (2007). Supercapitalism: The transformation of business, democracy,
and everyday life
. New York: Knopf
Shiller, R. J. (2000). Irrational Exuberance. New York: Broadway Books.
Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations. New York: Doubleday.

No comments:

Post a Comment