On Greed

Sinem Hürmeydan
12 minutes

The Arabic word “hırs (ﺣﺮﺹ)”, which is defined in the dictionary as an excessive desire  or an irrepressibly strong will, is translated as “greed” or “ambition” in English, although “ambition” has a more positive connotation than “greed”. Hırs(ﺣﺮﺹ), in the sense of “greed”, can also be considered as a kind of ambition that harms both its subject and its interlocutors and has negative repercussions on both individual and social scales. In the context of this article, we will try to examine the concept of ambition in its negative sense, comparable to greed

Greed is a concept that thinkers from different disciplines have contemplated throughout history and still continue to ask questions. Is it an integral part, or is it a dark side of human nature that has been added to it through historically metamorphosing economic and social developments? Is it possible to define the measure of greed? How much effort should one put in to get what one wants? Aside from the discourse that greed is the main driving force for the socioeconomic development of societies, when the recent economic history of the world is taken into account, the various forms it has taken with indicators such as social power relations, the classification of societies based on their level of development, and the striking imbalances in the distribution of income and wealth point to the large-scale reflections of this concept. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the richest 10% of the world’s population currently earn 52% of world income, while the poorest half of the global population earns only 8%. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, the gap is even wider: the poorest half of the global population owns only 2% of global wealth, while the richest 10% owns 76% of all wealth.

Since it is the dominant personality elements in a society that determine social paradigms, when we move from the social scale to the personal scale, isn’t there an aspect of unrestrained ambition that, on the one hand, multiplies endlessly, and on the other hand, reduces, exhausts, frustrates, and crushes the human being under the burden of his material and spiritual size, which grows larger with what he is constantly encouraged to take in? Indeed, while such ambition conquers the person from within like a Trojan Horse, the people may not even be aware that they carry such excess within themselves;when they are awakened, they may have already become addicted to greed, as they have fallen under the yoke of that impulsive temptation making them demand more. Speaking of addiction, it is worth remembering that we are not only referring to addiction metaphorically; wealth, money, assets and the accompanying desire and craving for power activate areas of the brain that regulate the reward mechanism. Studies show that, as in drug or gambling addiction, when areas of the brain that modulate the reward system are repeatedly overstimulated, increased dopamine release raises the threshold for pleasure and reveals the neurophysiological correlates of greed addiction, which is experienced as an irresistible desire for more of the same.

It is unthinkable for a human being not to have ambitions, desires and wishes. In one way or another, in whatever form or content, human beings are on a “quest”. After meeting the needs for food, shelter and basic security in Maslow’s hierarchy, this orientation continues to climb towards the increasingly tapered end of the pyramid. Therefore, the fact that individuals have ambitions for self-actualization that transcend their physical and security needs is a natural and expected state of affairs as much as it is a consequence and perhaps a cost of being human as a subject of pursuit. For when a person loses the desire to be involved in any aspect of life, loses the interests that encourage them to get out of their warm bed at daybreak, and withdraws from everyday experiences, this may indicate a kind of apathy or mood disorder. Each individual strives towards goals, sometimes with defined boundaries, sometimes not, in line with their tastes and orientations. Working diligently and focusing passionately can be considered as adopting justice towards the potential that humans are endowed with and, in a way, fulfilling the responsibility of this endowment by nurturing the talents and skills they possess. While this responsible passion is a value that people labour for as they make their way along the path they are intended, when it turns into a goal that must be achieved at all costs, an absolute benchmark of existence, it manifests as a kind of drift, physical and mental exhaustion, and finally burnout. 

Exertion is an active and healthy effort towards the realization of a particular goal. However, with the visual perception blurred by ambition, which dulls one’s inward gaze and makes one a voracious observer of the outside, the original purpose of ambition has been forgotten. With the desire to make life more beautiful, more liveable, more enjoyable, the desire to be more or to gain more evolves into a goal devoid of meaning in itself. No matter how tempting it may seem at the beginning, the unrestrained passions fed by it transform everything it comes into contact with into golden statues, like the touch of Midas, and make its owner a prisoner of a vicious circle. Desires nourished by diligence and perseverance are like a candle burning inside a person, a slightly burning impulse that illuminates his inner world and sheds light on what he wants to realize. At the other extreme, greed is like a fire where the flames are all around and the smoke is so thick that you can’t see your eyes; the flames grow bigger and bigger, eventually destroying the person who ignited the fuse. 

Speaking of price, indeed, the price paid for unrestrained ambition is often greater than the satisfaction of the goal achieved. Let’s imagine a successful young person who has just graduated from the university. He started working in a multinational company that he had dreamed of, progressed in his career over time, was appointed as the responsible manager of the department he worked in, and in the meantime, he established an enormous  network in the company. But even though he is now working in the job he once dreamed of as a university student, and in a managerial capacity at that, he feels uneasy inside because there is a vacancy in the company’s deputy general manager position and he believes that he is the best candidate for the upcoming appointment. This insistent desire consumes not only the hours he is at work during the day, but also a few hours he gets home in the evenings to spend with his wife and children. His ambition encourages him to remove all obstacles in order to achieve his goal; he pulls strings at the company, distances himself from his colleagues with whom he has lunch, lobbies against a colleague whom he sees as a rival for the position of deputy general manager. Finally, his ambition pays off and he achieves his goal. When he learns that he has been appointed deputy general manager, he feels utter joy at his new office filled with flowers with notes congratulating him. Now everything will be the way he wants it to be, he has come to his rightful place. But over time he realizes that something has changed radically. The pressure to perform increased, and his evening shifts became so long that he was almost unable to see his family, with whom he had previously enjoyed spending time. Every time he lies in bed in the evening and closes his eyes, the intensity of the past day flows through his mind like a movie, making it difficult for him to fall asleep. Over time, the dizzying allure of status ambition gives way to unrelenting fatigue, a headache that won’t go away, loneliness and, moreover, a restlessness that secretly gnaws at him even though he avoids showing it around. This scenario can be varied within the discretion of our imagination, but I think the main idea is clear: Unrestrained ambition overshadows one’s true purpose, and may even lead one to miss one’s goal altogether, even though it is supposed to help one achieve it. 

On the other hand, uncontrolled ambition, while virtually requiring its owner to achieve his goal at all costs, indirectly gives the person the idea that he is in control of everything. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, prejudiced by the “illusion of control” (Langer, 1975), which indicates our tendency to overestimate the control we have over events or situations in our lives. Whether real or not, a sense of control can be useful for maintaining our internal stability, but in times of uncertainty that accompany natural disasters, sudden losses, or even simpler unexpected events, an exaggerated assumption of control is neither realistic nor useful. For example, a person may draw a precisely planned road map to achieve the goals they set according to his or her temperament, locking his or her eyes on the goal and making a tremendous effort to achieve it. But neither human aspirations nor human potential can be guaranteed. A very simple or a very complex but unforeseen event can render all plans and elaborate road maps meaningless. Greed, which reinforces and feeds on the illusion of control by suggesting that we must realize our goals and desires no matter what, has the potential to make us more fragile and helpless in the face of events by reducing our resilience and flexibility, which are the keys to well-being.

The human being is not an individual who folds into himself, isolated from time and space, but a social subject that cannot be conceived apart from his social context. In this respect, he finds himself in different social environments with different dynamics from early childhood. One’s perception of “self” must be related to how one positions oneself in relation to others, how one evaluates the qualities of others and how one sees oneself through the eyes of others. So, theoretically speaking, can one’s wants and desires in a situation where no one exists except oneself be the same as one’s wants and desires in the presence of others? In such a hypothetical situation, one’s first desire would probably be the existence of another, a counterpart, through whom one would experience the idea of “oneself”. Thus, in the case of greed, social comparison has a considerable power of influence. Especially nowadays, with the active use of various forms of social media by many people, the number of others to whom people can compare themselves on different scales such as beauty images, opinion sharing, number of followers, popularity rates, etc. is increasing logarithmically. But if we think about it in a straightforward way, these endless comparisons will not serve any meaningful purpose, nor will it provide any benefit in terms of increasing our well-being from the competition for “more”, which can be followed by a series of adjectives. In fact, it reinforces the opposite, an unsatisfied sense of inadequacy that constantly feeds on itself. But it is always possible to meet a woman or a man who is more successful, richer, more charismatic, more knowledgeable or more beautiful. For example, while we witness that the perception of aesthetics is shaped by aesthetic operations, we see that the excess in this field, as if it were some kind of obligation, rasps and uniformizes what is intrinsic to human beings, the characteristics that make them unique with their intrinsic differences and perhaps with vague flaws. Likewise, we are witnessing a kind of aphorism competition in which people, instead of thinking for themselves, pass what has already been thought through the filter of the popular, sprinkle in a few fancy words and then share them on social media. Because thinking, maturing a thought, or an emotion demands time and patience, while greed, which prefers short-term pleasures, does not have such time… Of course, those who have no time have no timelessness… I think this is what İsmet Emre is talking about when he says that “what is done with greed beats time, and what is done with passion beats time”. However, whether we realize it or not, we yearn for the one that is sincere, diligent, original and passionate, not for words, eyes, glances and self-presentations that are uniform and unexciting as if they came off the assembly line of a mass production factory.

It must be more than a coincidence that two of the three pillars of the virtue of moderation that are known to be inscribed on the entrance of the Temple of Apollo, are the phrases “Know thyself! (Gnothi seauton!)” and “Do not overdo it / Be moderate in everything! (meden agan)”. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines virtue as the tendency to find the middle way between two vices of excess and deficiency, which is a form of success and is praiseworthy, as opposed to excess or deficiency. Similarly, “greed” is a malign excess, “lack of ambition” is a malign inadequacy, and “moderate ambition” is the virtuous mean. Throughout history, religious traditions also speak of the harm and suffering caused by excessive desire or desires motivated by purely selfish goals. From early Christianity, one of the seven deadly sins is referred to as greed. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts of the Hindus, the three gates of the self-destructive hell are defined as lust, angerandgreed. In Islamic literature, especially in early Sufi sources, we see that the moral, spiritual, and social harms of greed are frequently emphasized and treated in comparison with the concepts of austerity and zuhd (ﺯﻫﺪ).

Although it is possible to increase these examples through many philosophical and sociological texts, I believe that the questions that need to be answered should be emphasized instead of repetitive observations. How should we deal with the presupposition that greed is an indispensable and inevitable part of individuals and especially of modern societies? How can we transform the essence of greed, which seems to guide individuals and societies in the internalization of values and concepts such as well-being, peace, virtue, happiness, justice, politics, business and ethics? In his article “The Greed Syndrome”, Kets de Vries seeks answers to these and similar questions, arguing that we live in a society that praises “having more” over “having enough” and that given their inability to set limits, greedy people can never have “enough” of anything. While it is not easy to change the discourses and practices that guide our perceptions and are assumed non-negotiable through repetition, we can start by being a critical observer of our ideals, goals and values, by rewriting our own story as we review our assumptions and explore what might actually render us more “present”.

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