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Reversing The Culture Of Greed

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A sense of helplessness prevails in America today. The country is more unequal than it was during the 1960s. Multinational corporations and wealthy individuals are getting ever better at dodging taxes and bypassing regulations, and they seem to have no qualms about enriching themselves at society's expense. Meanwhile, those in the middle class toil away, trying to make ends meet in an era of ever-rising costs (childcare for two children can easily cost $15,000 a year in coastal cities) and stagnant wages (the real hourly wage for a typical male worker fell from $15.76 in 1973 to $15.62 in 2005). Government, in thrall to special interests demanding ever lower taxes, is powerless to address the growing income gap.

On a more general level, the American political scene today is characterized by bitter partisanship, with brazen lies masquerading as election strategy, while the great majority of its businesses are engaged in the single-minded pursuit of profit, seemingly oblivious to all other human, social and environmental considerations. In the political realm, we have a major political party which apparently decided its only goal is to win the next election -- and has wilfully triggered one budget crisis after another towards that end. In the economic realm, we have a whole sector which, in its short-sighted greed, precipitated the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

A culture of greed and selfishness has somehow pervaded all levels of American society. How could the American elite ever allow this to happen? In our opinion, the main culprit was the widely held belief that pursuit of self-interest is the "rational" thing to do. Any other mode of behaviour -- say, a cab driver charging less fare to a blind woman, a phenomenon which is surprisingly common - was considered "irrational" and demanded an explanation based on selfish reasons (e.g. "ego motivation," meaning the cab driver just wanted to feel good about himself). Not only was the utilitarian calculation of self-interest condoned as the "natural" thing to do, but it was actively encouraged as the "right" thing to do - a philosophical stance known as rational egoism, coined by Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness. When we pursue this line of thinking to its logical extreme, we arrive at Gordon Gekko's famous dictum in the film Wall Street: "Greed is good." It was this kind of unquestioning belief in rational self-interest which slowly tore apart the fabric of Protestant morality, which had once upheld this great nation.

So what is to be done? If the cause of decline is primarily philosophical, then reversing it would require a radically new philosophy. Specifically, we must discard rational self-interest, a.k.a. the profit motive, as the prevailing model of human nature. Not only is it dangerously simplistic, but it is actively harmful. By openly endorsing utilitarian calculation of self-interest, it condones selfishness and greed; breeds a culture of money worship; exacerbates social competition; gives rise to contentious litigation; erodes loyalty and trust; and dehumanizes us to a point where we see one another as moneymaking tools (a means) rather than as fellow human beings (an end in itself). This may sound like dull moralizing, but the truth is that a society which prizes profit-making above all else is destined to decay sooner or later. The Great Learning, a Confucian classic from the Warring States period, ends with this astute observation, which was meant for the rulers of ancient states but still rings true today:

If a leader makes profit-making his chief business, he will end up employing the services of greedy men. His intentions may be good, but when such small men control the affairs, calamities from Heaven and injuries from men will befall the state... This is why a true leader must not consider profit-making his profit, but regard enacting righteousness as his profit.

The single-minded pursuit of profit is a dangerous phenomenon which can dull our sensitivities and gradually obliterate all other social and human considerations. While Confucians did not deny the validity of the profit motive per se, they held that it should be brought under control by a spirit of compassion, aesthetic sensibility and humaneness -- what Confucius called ren.

Nothing illustrates the collapse of American civic society more forcefully than our gated communities and bulging prisons -- standing in stark contrast to the unlocked front doors that used to be so common in large swathes of America. The decline in social cohesion is not due to some external economic shock such as globalization and IT. Nor does the blame lie with the liberation of women, minorities and homosexuals, as some right-wing commentators claim. The real culprit is an unquestioning belief in rational self-interest which gradually pervaded our classrooms, boardrooms and policy caucuses. Ironically, what our diagnosis implies is that the decline can be reversed, as the underlying cause is primarily philosophical. For this to happen, though, we must recognize that selfishness (even of the enlightened sort) is ultimately a poor basis for morality and introduce a new philosophy based on the values of compassion, aesthetic sensibility and humaneness (ren) instead.