03/28/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Pride and Greed: For What Purpose?

Swiss voters on March 3 overwhelmingly approved an initiative that requires the Swiss legislature to create legislation allowing shareholders of publicly traded Swiss companies to hold binding votes on executive compensation, prohibiting certain bonuses and requiring increased corporate transparency. Other nations have similar legislation; however, in the U.S. such shareholder votes are nonbinding. Such initiatives indicate an increasing dissatisfaction with perceived executive greed. Both pride and greed are considered moral failings in many religious and secular contexts. This comment briefly notes the ancient wisdom contained in the Bible about misdirected pride and greed.

Utilizing, the word "pride" appears 63 times in the New International Version translation. The word "greed" appears 25 times. While there may be other words used with similar connotations, this comment is limited to the words "pride" and "greed." In both the ancient and contemporary worlds we observe the destructive consequences of these attitudes. Pride and greed are mental states that may result in disastrous individual excess.

Proverbs 16:18 correctly observes: "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." Jesus in Luke 12:15 is quoted as saying "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions."

Pride causes one to have too high an opinion of one's ability to control circumstances as well as tragically producing the inability to appropriately analyze or retreat in the face of clear physical, financial or spiritual danger.

The Bible noted long ago concerning business plans:

"Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.' As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil." (James 4: 13-16)

The world of unknown and uncontrollable events is large and continually changing. No one can rashly assume that personal willpower or strength of personality can make the facts different. To think otherwise is to reach the edge of a cliff.

Greed causes one to become trapped by the supposed and unrealistic attempt to control resources to the exclusion of the humane treatment of others. The problem is that our life, our strength, and our resources are transitory. Jesus concluded in the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12: "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' "

Both pride and greed are moral failings to avoid. Individuals, businesses and even nations may be trapped by pride into reckless behaviors and by greed into catastrophic overreaching. The ancient wisdom that calls us to avoid these attitudes is still true. Sometimes we are unaware of how pride and greed have captured our psyche. That is why we all can profit from trusted and candid confidants that say "The emperor has no clothes!" Humility hears this statement. Having enough is an antidote to greed.

And yet, the avoidance of pride and greed cannot become an excuse to be lazy or fail to engage our best efforts in the workplace and in society generally. Colossians contains a shocking passage directed to slaves. "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters" (Colossians 3:23). Likewise it is written: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6: 9). Paul states that "...I take pride in my ministry..." (Romans 11:13). So it comes down to issues of attitude and objective. Is our activity for a noble cause that is greater than our personal advancement?

John Mackey and Raj Sisodia in their recent book, "Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business," state that "...companies that started as opportunistic, money-making enterprises need to discover or create their higher purpose beyond profit maximization in order to realize their full potential" (p. 65). This can be transformational for the world, the authors assert. Does the reader see this as unrealistic or a statement of the greater good beyond the all too frequent forms of personal pride and greed? What is too early to determine is whether there will be a long term change in attitudes concerning the purpose and role of corporations in society.

Consequently, while individually focused pride and greed may be destructive, the components of hard work and perfection for the greater good of society can be beneficial. Thus the question becomes: Pride and greed for what purpose?