Greed as a sin in the modern world

Peter Steinfels has an interesting essay in the New York Times about modern views of greed as a sin:

Greed is a notion, in fact, that comes positively bristling with religious and moral assumptions that modern culture does not quite know how to handle. Greed, a k a avarice, has long been ranked among Christianity’s seven deadly sins. In some accounts, it is the deadliest, the “root of all evils,” according to St. Paul. Similar judgments can be found in the other great religious traditions.

But in the 17th and 18th centuries, European thinkers in search of political stability and order looked beyond the religious strictures that had manifestly failed to repress unruly rulers’ passions for power, pleasure and possessions.

Perhaps, it was argued, these passions could serve as checks on one another — and soon passions were being viewed, well, dispassionately. That is, they were re-envisioned as more rational “interests.”

Finally, pursuit of commerce and economic interests were generally supposed to tame and channel the wasteful pursuit of glory and domination that had bred wars and royal display.

It was a remarkable mutation, described brilliantly by Albert O. Hirschman in “The Passions and the Interests” (Princeton, 1977): Greed disappeared and was reborn, domesticated, as self-interest.

Greed did not really disappear, of course; it just became the province of moralists and novelists, like Carlyle and Dickens, and of preachers and politicians to this day. Those who dealt with economics, practically or theoretically, have preferred another concept.

. . .

Despite all the current talk of greed, then, one wonders whether it is not a kind of specter, flitting in and out of sight, momentarily frightening and yet finally bereft of the religious and moral conviction that might give it body and weight in the nation’s deliberations.

In “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko may have sounded a bit like Milton Friedman when he said that greed “works” and “clarifies” and “has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

But he did not actually say, “Greed is good.” What he said in the movie was “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

Economics has given us a lot of better words, from self-interest to incentive to profit. They do not mean the same thing as greed, but they have displaced it, obscured it — and certainly demoted it from being a deadly sin.

Read it all here. So how do we really think about “greed” as a sin in our modern world?

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