The Spell of Greed


In my last post, The Dynamics of Greed, I talked about the outward dynamics of greed, focusing on the way greed is oblivious to its own consequences, on the way it renders the humanity of others invisible. But in concentrating on this negation of others, it might seem that I’m simply pointing a moral finger of blame at greed or the greedy. My aim, however, was more to be descriptive than judgemental.

To really deconstruct greed, I think it’s at least equally necessary to look at the inner nature of greed. In an earlier post, Life As Purpose, I explored the idea that purpose is central to life, that it is embedded in the structure of living things, down to the simplest single celled-organism.

Desire is, in essence, the propulsive force of life. At its core, it’s the drive to stay alive, to continue to exist, the body’s rebellion against entropy. This impulse is rooted in the core of our being, of all being. Desire is a stirring towards what is needed for our well-being.

Most non-human animals live within an ecosystem where needs and resources are in a balanced state. If a surplus of resources exist for a particular species then its population will increase until an equilibrium is reached. For example, if a species that is a prey is bountiful, the numbers of the predators will expand because more will survive to reproduce. Eventually, this can result in too many predators. Then the predators experience a population decline, as their isn’t enough food to sustain all the predators who are born.

Pre-humanity, nature was constrained by this cybernetic feedback circuit. Reality was the boundary condition of desire. Since existence was precarious, resources unpredictable, necessity impelled an upside bias to craving. Optimizing survival generally required maximizing desire, survival of the driven. The essence of life is the will to live.

Craving is this inner impulse, the existential sensation of wanting arising from the firing of neurons in our brains and the current of neurochemicals flowing through our bodies. It’s the natural propulsion of life; the urgent expression of being pushing into tomorrow.

For humans, desire swells into greed because of our ability to exceed our needs. The creation of surplus, producing beyond our immediate requirements, enabled the possibility of accumulation. By liberating it from the immediate requirements of the body, accumulation freed desire to expand into the dimension of time.

Life and death were no longer matters strictly of the here and now. Since existence could be protruded into the future, survival became a long term project, not just an engagement with the present. Desire was now loosed to extrapolate itself into the infinite contingencies of the future. Want became the sum of all possible needs ever. The concept of enough was reduced to an absurdity, a failure of either reason or imagination.

We humans don’t just create the possibility of desiring more, we also create more to desire. By elaborating the possibilities of living, our ingenuity continuously expands the universe of things to desire. For simple organisms desire might be limited to food, sex, heat and protection. But humans have refined desire to encompass a vast range of possibilities from wanting to know about subatomic particles to the wish to climb mountains 

And within each category of wanting, we constantly expand the number of items available. In the most basic category, food, we find subcategories like meats, breads, fruits, vegetables, beverages, dairy products, vegetarian items, frozen foods, breakfast foods, snacks, condiments, candy, baked goods, etc. And within each of these a seemingly endless range of possibilities, like the hundreds of varieties of cereal. In the snack section of the grocery store, you’ll find potato chips, pretzels, pop corn, rice cakes, tortilla chips, sesame sticks and a plethora of others. And looking just at potato chips, there is a vast array of brands and flavors, original, low-salt, ranch, barbecue, french onion, sweet and sour, cheddar cheese. Walking through a supermarket is like navigating a minefield of temptation.

The multiplication of desirables covers everything from soaps and househould furnishings to cars and airplanes. It might be most extreme in the realm of media products, transmitters of information and entertainment. There is a seemingly infinite production of books, movies, television shows, music and video games.

Every area of modern life includes vastly more legitimate objects of desire than one could ever hope to consume more than a tiny fragment of in a lifetime. Life has become a constant exposure to enticement, a ceaseless stimulation of inner craving.

The unfolding of humanity, in magnifying our capabilities and expanding our possibilities, makes the world fertile for desire. This kindled greed expresses itself in two forms, the greed of accumulation and the greed of consumption. Accumulating is hedging against the future, shielding against outrageous fortune. Consuming is about intensifying experience, vivifying the present. They are the complimentary responses of craving to the escalation of opportunity, the inflating dreamfield.

Arising from the impetus to maintain energy flows, to dispute entropy, desire, at its core, is the urge to perpetuate oneself, to avoid oblivion. In humans desire escalates to greed, animated by the growth of our powers, the successes of the human project. This natural predisposition of an organism to nurture itself took on a life of its own, ultimately evolving to where it’s now an elemental force in today’s global civilization.

This unleashed greed breeds harm because of its two primary attributes, its insatiability and its compulsiveness. That greed is insatiable, knows no limits, has been commonly observed throughout history (perhaps first and most probingly by the Buddha). This ravenousness is currently on display all over the world, from billionaire Russian oligarchs moving their money to tax havens, to the skyrocketing earnings of corporate CEOswhich grew 15 times faster than workers last year, and hedge fund managers, the top 25 of whom took in a total of $21 billion in compensation in 2013 (including number 2, the scandal plagued Steven Cohen, now barred from further hedge fund activity and who ranged up $2.4 billion in earnings in his final year in the “business”).

When you consider these examples or any of the innumerable examples of excessive greed one finds today or throughout human history, the most obvious thing is that greed transcends any connection to need. A billionaire can extravagantly meet all current and future survival needs for themselves, their families, and many future generations of their families. Yet, they may continue to actively and aggresively work to increase their income and worth, minimize their taxes, lobby for favorable government treatment, and in some cases, even engage in unethical or morally questionable business practices including things like insider trading.

But for what purpose? One of the unique aspects of being human is that we’ve expanded the possibility of desire beyond basic material needs. We’ve cultivated a vast array of comforts, pleasures and interests.

But there is a law of diminishing returns to most of these. One example that comes to mind is razor’s. I saw an ad recently for a new men’s razor citing several improvements that were claimed to enhance the shaving experience. And while admittedly these products have improved greatly over the first razors I used back in the 1970’s, in this process of razor refinement, how much better can they become?  As the technology improves, the differences become less and less meaningful, or even detectable.

The same idea applies to almost anything related to comfort or pleasure. Maybe one is interested in a comfortable chair; maybe one’s current chair feels uncomfortable.. It might be possible to create infinite refinements of design, materials, construction and ergonomics to fabricate an ever more comfortable chair. But once finds a chair that reaches a certain level of comfort, there is decreasingly less pleasure gained from succesive enhancements.

This same dynamic of diminishing returns can be found in everything from food to the search for beauty, all of the material or experiential pursuits. The only exceptions to this principle that come to mind as I’m writing this are the search for knowledge and the desires to acheive one’s possibilities, make others happy, and to contribute to the world.

It’s really an extrapolation of the thought that for someone starving just a little food can mean a lot, can equal the difference between life and death. The purest need might be if someone was to place a plastic bag over your head. The only desire at that moment is the next breath.

The more one has then, the less value that results from any amount of increase. For someone worth $10 billion dollars, what’s another $10 million, what actual difference can it make in their life? What possibity of increased satisfaction or fulfillment could it provide? Will a 250 foot yacht really make one happier than a 200 foot yacht? The same question was raised by Allen Frances in his Huffington Post article, Why Are Some Billionaires Still Greedy for More?.

Maybe I’m just revealing a failure of imagination. Maybe there are truly wonderous reasons for continuing to accumulate billions of dollars. But it seems to me a deeper lack of imagination that someone with that much couldn’t find more profound things to do than aggressively accumulate more; greed is an impoverished approach to self-realization. Except maybe someone who was doing it with the purpose of having more to give away, of being more able to contribute to the well-being of others.

In its most virulent expressions, greed can go beyond not only any relationship to need, but of any reasonable calculation of value to the accumulator. If one thinks of reason as connecting action to purpose, then it would seem that greed is capable of blossoming beyond even excessive self-interest to irrational self-interest, accumulation for its own sake, for no better reason.

In it’s extreme, greed doesn’t involve a calculation of utility, it doesn’t undertake a cost-benefit analysis. Greed doesn’t seem to have any self-regulating mechanism at all. More is always better; there is no such thing as enough. Greed doesn’t have an end-game, there is no possibility of satisfying it. Greed isn’t about purpose; greed is its own purpose.

That greed can be truly limitless might be most completely shown by the essay, Under Construction: Redesigning the Solar System, by Robert Bradbury, from the book Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge. Bradbury discusses the possibilities of encircling the sun to capture all of its energy and disassembling the other planets in the solar system as sources of material and energy. Then he further extrapolates this (over a quite long term) to encompass the dissassembling of other stellar systems, and eventually whole galaxies. So ultimately, greed wants to feast on the entire universe.

Because it is ultimately insatiable, greed takes on a life of own. This inextinguishability makes greed compulsive. Since greed has no fixed objective, it has no plan of action to follow, no process for measuring progress. Uninhibited by analysis, not subject to the arbitration of reason, greed acts as an elemental force.

Not diluted by pragmatic considerations, this pure essence of greed takes possession of its host. This trance of greed is obsessive, a relentless impulse of craving. Greed is an unconscious state. Unaware and unreflective, greed is a less than fully human modality, a depreciation of our humanity.

The realm of greed is a chimerical fantasyland, a spectral unreality. Greed agitates its victims towards a restless pursuit of phantasms, a grasping after a satisfaction that can never be reached. The objects of desire are just quanta of attraction, apparitions that vaporize upon contact. Greed lures us into a maze of self-delusion.

All of us are susceptible to greed to some degree (though the Dalai Lamas of the world may have developed some immunity). It can rise up like a solar flare, perturbed by some object, some memory, some mood. Then it feels like a compulsion, a felt impulse towards something.

For some, greed goes beyond being a transient phenomenon that comes and goes. For the Kim Jong-un’s, Shah Jahan’s, and Steve Cohen’s of the world, greed gets deeply embedded in their psyche. It becomes a central operating principle, a default parameter, a way of being in the world. It goes from being a immediate compulsion to an ongoing addiction.

As Leon Seltzer discusses in the Psychology Today article “Greed: The Ultimate Addiction”, greed, like all addictions, requires greater and greater doses to satisfy the craving. His analysis agrees with my thinking that greed isn’t really about the targets of desire, but becomes and end in itself. He believes that ultimately what drives this are underlying feelings of inadequacy with greed substituting for unfilled emotional needs & unsatisfactory relationships.

Biologically, addiction involves the dynamics of brain chemistry related to the reward system of the brain. The reward system is the neurology behind desire, connecting our survival needs to sensations of pleasure and reward. The way they are theorized to cause addiction is that “repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cell…to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it.”

The neurotransmitter dopamine is central to this process. Dopamine has been characterized as the pleasure chemical in media articles. The pleasure caused by “hits” of dopamine has been connected to things like gambling, internet addiction, and even the ills of capitalism. Dopamine has even been referred to as “the most evil chemical in the world.” But it seems that science has realized that the functioning of dopamine and the brain chemistry involving the reward circuit is a lot more complicated than a simple cause and effect relationship.

I’d like to go into the topic of desire and brain chemistry in more depth at some later date and share some thoughts on what it implies for being human. One good popular book on the subject is The Compass of Pleasure by neuroscientist David Linden, which explores the relationship between pleasure and addiction, and discusses some of the complexities of the neurochemistry.

I think that looking at greed as an addiction is the most useful way to consider it. We tend to regard greed as being a moral failure. This leads to playing the blame game, seeing the world as a conflict between the greedy and the rest of us. The blame game, in all its forms, envisions the wworld as a struggle between good and evil. Blaming only serves to produce more conflict.

The truths of greed are that it is an outgrowth of a natural process, that we are all susceptible to it, and that it operates like an addiction. As with other addictions (and also as with violence), greed harms everyone involved, not just those victimized by greed but also the greedy themselves.

The greedy are often portrayed as the winners in the game of life. Having secured excess portions of the scarce goods of the world, they are thought to be “living the good life” at the expense of others. But I think that to accept that image of the world means believing that the lives of the greedy are desirable lives, lives that would be satisfying and fulfilling to experience. It means believing that getting and having are the path to bliss, that the stuff of the world is the ticket to nirvana.

But if you see greed as an addiction, you see that it is just a corrupted way of being. The enterprises of the greedy aren’t the pursuit of true self-interest; they are a stalking of a poor simulation of it, a one-dimensional mirage. Greed doesn’t represent true self-cherishing but a constricted self-fixation.

The satisfactions promised by greed prove to be unsatisfactory. Because greed is unconscious, it isn’t based on any understanding of true need. Not alive to inner self or outer world, greed can’t provide the sustenance for real human flourishing.

Under the magnifying glass, greed is shown to be a flawed way of being in the world. Harmful to everyone involved, it offers no good for anyone. The spell of greed is powerful, insidious, and corrosive; a neurochemical trance that possesses the mind. Enchanting us with visions of sugarplums, greed blinds us to self and other, world and cosmos. Equating grasping with being, greed makes us oblivious to our true humanity. It prevents us from fully exploring the possibility space of being human.

The answer to greed isn’t to battle it, but to shine light on it, to reveal it for the conjurer’s trick that it is. Breaking the spell of greed requires awakening from its trance, awakening to our inner experience, awakening to the existences of others, awakeing to the world, the cosmos, and our being and unfolding within them.










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  1. Pingback: The Pursuit of Happiness | Unfolding Human

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