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Greed Motivates and Destroys

We have money. We want more.

We have money. We want more.

The Two Faces of Greed

Greed has two faces—one that can spur us to great achievements and the other that can turn us into avaricious graspers without a moral compass.

Spiritual Warnings About Greed

All the world’s religions warn against falling into the clutches of greed.

The Islamic scholar Imam Abu Dawud cautioned: “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it.”

The New Testament says: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

The Old Testament tells us: “He who is greedy of gain destroys his own house, but he who hates gifts shall live.” (Proverbs 15:27)

Buddhists believe that greed is one of the Three Poisons (the others are hate and ignorance) that lead to evil.

The person controlled by greed can never have enough. Satisfying the drive for greed pushes some people into appalling behaviour.

[Greed is] a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

— Erich Fromm, German social psychologist

War Profiteering

Young men and women sometimes sacrifice their lives in defence of their homes and nations. Other people sacrifice their morals (if they had any before) to exploit the chaos of war to make massive profits.

During World War II, some American pilots were sent into combat with unsafe aircraft. The Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Corporation built engines that were used in several aircraft, including the single-engine P40.

The company knew defective parts were being installed in the engines. Government inspectors also knew the engines might conk out at any time. Testing was falsified and the engines passed as good to go. Planes crashed and pilots died. Curtiss-Wright made money.

In later testimony, it emerged that government inspectors who passed all engines were wined and dined by the company. Those who found fault with poor quality parts were fired because the company had connections in high government ranks.

P40s at Guadalcanal in 1943

P40s at Guadalcanal in 1943

More recently, private corporations made vast amounts of money out of the Iraq War, none more so than the Haliburton Company. One of its subsidiaries, KBR, received government contracts worth more than $31 billion to provide services usually performed by the military.

Politifact reports:

“Government officials have raised many questions about KBR's fulfillment of its contracts, everything from billing for meals it didn't serve to charging inflated prices for gas to excessive administrative costs.”

The Defense Contract Audit Agency says the overcharging amounted to $553 million.

Contesting Wills

Something seems to snap in some people when Grandma dies and her estate is divided up. Old resentments among family members come to the surface when one or more feel they have been cheated in the will. Estate lawyer Howard Black told The Toronto Star that in such cases: “There is jealousy. There is greed. There is envy.”

The entertainer Prince died in 2016 with a net worth of $156 million. With no will, the money was to be shared equally among his six half-siblings. But there was squabbling; some family members thought they should get more than others.

It took until 2022 before the will was finally settled, by which time $3 million had been swallowed up in administrative fees.

There’s the sad story of John Kaptyn. He settled in Canada from Holland in 1954. He died in 2007 at the age of 81 having amassed a $75-million fortune in real estate. He left most of his wealth to his grandchildren, bypassing his sons Henry and Simon. The brothers, who do not get along, contested the will.

The case was handed to Justice David Brown of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice, and he clearly found it troublesome. He warned the brothers their battle had the makings of a repeat of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (see Bonus Factoids below).

By 2012, the legal costs had risen to $6 million and the issue was still not resolved.

Even modest estates can create family feuds that destroy the value of the will.

Grandpa liked me best.

Grandpa liked me best.

Rewards at the Top

There are many examples of corporate leaders carrying off immense amounts of money while their employees struggle to feed their families.

Here's Doug McMillon, Chief Executive of the giant retailer Walmart being paid annually about $23 million—that's 1,188 times more than the company's median worker.

And here's U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders explaining in 2021 what that means:

“Walmart made over $15 billion in profit last year alone, and yet ... Walmart pays wages so low that tens of thousands of their employees are forced to rely on public assistance in order to survive.”

Walmart is not alone. In 2022, the Institute for Policy Studies reported on a study of 300 companies and found that:

  • The CEO-worker pay gap at low-wage corporations grew even wider in 2021.
  • At 106 of the 300 firms, median worker pay did not keep pace with inflation.
  • The average gap between CEO and median worker pay in our sample jumped to 670-to-1, up from 604-to-1 in 2020. Forty-nine firms had ratios above 1,000-to-1.
  • CEO pay at the 300 firms increased by $2.5 million to an average of $10.6 million, while median worker pay increased by only $3,556 to an average of $23,968.

Earlier, the institute noted that the CEO of the Mattel toy company received “3,408 times as much as the company’s median employee ... Joseph Hogan, the CEO of the company that makes Invisalign braces made 3,168 times as much as his firm’s median employee, an associate engineer in Mexico earning $13,180 ... [and] other companies' pay gaps above 1000 to 1 include McDonald’s, Walt Disney, T-Mobile, and more.”

Peter Drucker was the guru of management science. He taught that the healthy ratio of CEO-to-worker pay was in the region of 25-to-1.

Greed is Good

Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, recognized that greed drives economies, only he called it enlightened self-interest. He used the example of a butcher to illustrate the point.

Butchers don’t sell meat because of some goodness in their souls; they sell meat to make money. The more meat they sell the more money they make. So their self-interest guides them to sell the best meat they can at the best price. As a result, society benefits.

It turns out that most humans prefer to live in an economy that rewards innovation, ambition, and hard work.

The carrot of making more money prompts many to put in extra effort. Productive activity is unleashed by the prospect of greater wealth. Societies that have ignored that principle have failed.

Without greed, a person, community, or society may lack the motivation to build or achieve, move, or change―and may also be rendered more vulnerable to the greed of others.

— Psychiatrist Dr. Neel Burton, Psychology Today, October 2014

A century ago, some nations experimented with communism. The theory was that everybody worked for the good of the state, which ensured that nobody suffered from want or neglect.

But the theory was tripped up by human nature. If everybody received the same rewards whether they busted a gut or goofed off, then most people chose to take it easy. The result was an economy that could only make poor quality goods and services very inefficiently and could not properly feed its people.

Self-interest overcomes this but can turn toxic when it becomes selfish interest. This is where we meet psychiatrist Neel Burton. He writes in Psychology Today that “While greed may be good for economies, it may not be so good for individuals.”

Some people become consumed by greed and will do anything to gather more of what they crave, whether it's money, admiration, power, or something else. Such a quest overcomes compassion, love, and humanity, and destroys families, communities, businesses, and entire economies.

Bonus Factoids

  • Charles Dickens created the fictional court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in his 1853 novel Bleak House. The case centres on a large inheritance that is fought over by members of the Jarndyce family. Dickens based his story on real lawsuits that were taking years to settle in Britain’s Chancery Court. In the end, Jarndyce and Jarndyce is resolved but the winner receives nothing because every last penny of the estate has been consumed by legal fees. It bears a remarkable resemblance to Jennens and Jennens. William “the Miser” Jennens died in 1798 with a fortune of around $427 million in today’s money. He did not have a will, so proceedings began to determine who should receive his riches. The case was finally abandoned in 1915 when legal fees had consumed everything in the estate.
  • The fear of money is known as "chrematophobia."


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor