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An Understanding of Greed


The common usage of the term is ambiguous and used primarily in class warfare propaganda and/or with the goal of demonizing individuals or groups of individuals. However, despite the moral haze through which we usually view reality, people are still able to still able to catch glimpses or true moral issues that resonate with their moral intuitions and I believe greed fits into this category. Many of the individuals that people feel are greedy may actually be greedy and morally wrong; however, due to the haze the reasoning people use to justify their feelings is often wrong. This is due to the fact that they are basing their reasoning on empirical (based on experience) observations and not basic a priori principles. Their observations are skewed by personal bias and a “polluted” environment. I’ll explain the “polluted environment” after I try to form a less ambiguous understanding of greed.

I posit that greed is a behavior in relation to morals and actual people. I state this because it is not really possible to know another person’s “mental state” or intentions except in the literary sense where a character’s mind is the creation of the author. It could be argued that when judging one’s own morality you could apply greed to your own mental state but this has little philosophical usefulness since greed is simply a word to be used in external dialogue with others who can not know if you are accurately or honestly describing your state of mind. As for greed as a motivation, it has the same faults as previously mentioned for “mental states” and also allows for greed to be morally good, bad, or neutral (greediness for knowledge, greediness for privacy, greediness for respect). This negates greed’s philosphical usefulness to classify anything. Excessive or rapacious desires may incline a person towards greedy behaviors/actions but they do not absolutely and necessarily lead to greedy behavior. These desires and inclinations are more in the realm of psychology which is not required to seek “truth” but simply find patterns, trends, and positive explanations for phenomenon based on empirical observations and the scientific method.

What kind of behavior is greed? Greed may often be based on a hazy or skewed understanding of self-interest developed from “preconceived implications, imagery, and value judgments.” Is greed accurately perceived as the inevitable result of self-interest, in these cases? Most people who may mis-classify self-interest as greed are aware that there is a difference. They may believe that all greed is within the realm of self-interest but not all self-interest is greed. Most recognize that some degree of self-interest is necessary for survival and is biologically necessary. So if self-interest is not an immoral behavior and yet some behavior is necessary for greed to be immoral, what is left.

Greed is only possible in zero-sum interaction. If interaction or exchange is voluntary and free then none of the participants would be acting immorally or greedily. In order to make the interaction zero-sum would require coercion, the threat or use of force, either directly by one, or more, of the participants or indirectly on their behalf. If the participant(s) use direct coercion they are likely to be engaging in behaviors that would be classified as assault, murder, extortion, robbery, theft, fraud and/or greed. In our empirical observations of this behavior greed is likely to be an after thought of our classification or misapplied as a classification for the criminal aggressor’s mental state or motivation in relation to the more serious, or obvious, crimes. However, where we apply greed more readily is when the participant is acting through coercion applied indirectly on their behalf. This occurs when a representative assaults, murders, extorts, robs, steals, or commits fraud on their behalf so that they may gain some advantage in the interaction. This is most commonly done through statist intervention, which is coercive by definition and always creates a zero-sum interaction. The fact that statist intervention is assumed as a given and pervades all, or nearly all, human interaction creates the “polluted environment” where we are able to recognize phenomenon that resembles greed in our empirical observations but can not separate the phenomenon from its cause because we never observe interaction absent the context of state coercion.

Filed under Philosophy
Sep 25, 2012

Resources of Power: Fear, Love, and Dependency/ Machiavelli’s Prince and Modern Politics


Throughout chapters XV and XVII of “The Prince” by Machiavelli, it becomes apparent that power is the goal, to include increasing and maintaining power, as opposed to a means to achieve other goals.  Also, it is necessary to view “the prince” as power incarnate, so that what ever benefits the prince benefits the pursuit of power and vice versa.  This helps to make sense of troubling “principles” advocated by Machiavelli, such as the prince “need not make himself uneasy at incurring reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”  (Machiavelli, Chptr. 15)  If power is the only true goal for the prince then it would follow that anything that advanced that goal would be virtuous and that other moral guidelines or cultural views would be moot, and adhering to them would, according to this view, be considered a vice to the degree that they detracted from the goal of increasing or maintaining power.  In chapter XVII of “The Prince”, Machiavelli continues with another principle, that should be troubling for those not in power, that it “is much safer to be feared than loved” since “men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince” it would be wise for a prince to “establish himself on that which is in his own control” and not rely on that which is in the control of others.  The only limit Machiavelli puts on the prince in regard to using fear to establish his is power, is to “avoid hatred” as that may make “the prince” intolerable and lead to his ouster.

Piven and Cloward, in their essay “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power”, tend to classify power as a means to achieving and individual’s or group’s goals through a series of “zero-sum” contests.  They cite Max Weber’s definition: “power is understood as ‘the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action” (Janoski, 2005, 35) and that of R.H. Tawney: ( power may be defined as the capacity of an individual, or group of individual, to modify the conduct of other individuals or groups in the manner which he desires, and to prevent his own conduct being modified in the manner in which he does not.” (Janoski, 2005, 35)  Their view of power posits that most, if not all, human interaction involves one dominant party who exploits the dependency of another party, or uses force as their source of power, in order to gain at their expense.  The authors seem to conclude, as a result of this view, that seeking power to exercise over those who have much few resources to exert influence through “social interdependence” is a vice, or social harm and that power should be diffused so that the degree that one party gains at the expense of another party is minimized as much as possible.  However, this is not to say that individuals or groups who did not wish to act socially responsible could not use Machiavelli’s principles to gain power and increase their exploiter status, it just is not the position advocated by Piven and Cloward.

When Machiavelli wrote “The Prince,” it was with monarchy in mind.  The advent of the modern state, new tools and resources of power have been developed and some of the principles found in “The Prince” have become outdated.  However, several tactics advocated by Machiavelli have been modified and carried over to the modern state.  One of the primary differences, though, is that politicians are not power incarnate since they are mere “caretakers” of the state and the expanse of its sovereignty.  Whereas the King was the state, politicians are seen as representatives, sent to enact their constituent’s wills through the state, or as employees of the state.  This “caretaker” position drastically reduces the incentive to seek “absolute power” or power as a goal in and of itself.  Since politicians are only temporarily in power and can not, necessarily, pass power that they gain to their heirs, they are more focused on using resources of power, or “political capital” accumulated by their predecessors or during their temporary terms to achieve more immediate goals that can increase their actual wealth or that of their heirs.  This divergence from the goal of “the Prince” will definitely have an impact on the strategies they pursue, as they will be more short term and consist of utilizing, or spending power, as opposed to building and maintaining it.

The state, itself, is seen as a more ambiguous and anonymous phenomenon that is supposedly created by the “collective consciousness” or “general will” of the people.  However, as Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises wrote in his book, “Socialism:”

“All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”
The modern state has achieved the illusion of dichotomy, being divided into one part consisting of some metaphysical representation of the “general will,” the State, and the other of individuals in the employ of the State , and thus theoretically subordinated to the “general will,” politicians and the bureaucracy.  However, as with anything supernatural or based on superstition, closer examination reveals that there is no real evidence of its existence, no actions that can be directly attributed to it, without use of its supposed proxies, no boundaries the demarcate where its existence begins or ends, or any other measure of reality that can be applied to it.  Instead, objective observation, reveals that the masses are still subjected to the coercive power held by a few elite individuals, who when the curtains are pulled back, like in the Wizard of Oz, are normal men acting in their own self-interest.

This illusion of a dichotomous state allows politicians and the bureaucracy to more easily achieve the ideal means to power, according to Machiavelli, fear and love simultaneously.  The ruling elite, presenting themselves as representatives of the masses, can gain the love of the people by advocating for favors on their behalf, while their losses and necessary fear can be attributed to the State.  This phenomenon is apparent in most polls where the American Public, usually, approves of their own Congressman but holds Congress itself in the lowest regard.  They view the system as working against them, and every favor achieved by their representative as being wrestled from the tight jaws of the fearful State on their behalf.  If the public ever realized that the individuals and the State are one and the same the illusion would crumble.

The members of the State are also to achieve both love and fear through dependency, or the threat of withdrawing “love.”  Authoritarian parenting uses this technique to control children.  Children are made to believe that their parents’ love is conditional and can be lost if they do or do not act a certain way.  This method of control tends to be more effective at controlling behavior than fear of corporal punishment or overt reward/punishment schemes.  The State has realized the potential of utilizing this technique on its populations and so attempts to increase dependency and remove competitors of services it provides so that the threat of losing government services has that much more impact on controlling its citizens.  This also fits with Piven and Cloward’s theory of interdependence as a power resource, where the State attempts to raise the dependence of other parties while at the same time reducing its dependence on them so that it can more effectively exploit them with little resistance.

The reason for all the manipulation and illusion to maintain and increase power is because the ruling elite realize that their power truly comes from the people they rule and the legitimacy they grant them and that if the masses realized this, if they are not controlled by sufficient fear or love of the current power holders, they could take that power back at any time.  French philosopher, Etienne de la Boetie, in “The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”, explained it best:

He who thus domineers over [you]…has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves?  How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you?  The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own?  How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if had no cooperation from you?… weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and mightier to hold you in check. (1975, 52)

While Machiavelli’s principles may have been meant for monarchs, the techniques chosen by the modern holders of power should be no less unsettling and if Piven and Cloward are correct that the exercise of power leads to “zero-sum” contests with one party as the exploiter and the other the exploited, then we should recognize that the State is, or strives to be, always the exploiter and we should not give it a pass or make an exception for it in our agreed upon principles and ideas.

Works Cited:
Boetie, E. (1975). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. New York: Free Life Editions.
Machiavelli, N. (1916). The Prince. The Macmillan Company.
Mises, L. (1982). Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc.
Piven,F.F., & Cloward, R.A. (2005). Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (33-53). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Apr 2, 2011

Defining Power: Coercion vs Voluntary Cooperation


Recent Essay for political sociology class defining power:

Power may be better understood as coercion, to differentiate from natural, electrical, or even Bertrand Russel’s definition (as cited in Janoski, 2005) as “simply the capicity to realize ends” by the individual. To treat power as a synonym for coercion would fit the definitions provided by Max Weber (as cited in Janoski,2005) as “the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.” The other similar definitions cited in the text (Janoski, 2005) correctly state this kind of power leads to “zero-sum” contests and is “thus inextricably linked with conflict in social life”; however, the application of the definition seems overly broad to include any type of influence, dependence, or interaction between individuals. This view presents a very cynical take on human nature that casts every relationship and every type of coordination or interaction between individuals with the roles of exploiter and exploited. Not only is this overly broad application cynical but it also diffuses any analysis and makes extracting any concrete principles regarding the concept of power nearly impossible since this application makes power “sociologically amorphous” since “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation.” (Max Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005)

Coercion, the use of force explicitly or implicitly, is only one way individuals and groups interact with each other and will inevitably lead to “zero-sum” contests but individuals and groups can also interact through voluntary cooperation, in which case they will be mutual beneficiaries and cast off the doomed outlook that every relationship is that of “exploiter” and “exploited.” Even if a disinterested third party finds the interdependence of various relationships to be unbalanced, so long as it is voluntary each party involved in the interaction will be exchanging some good, service, etc that they value less for one that they value or more or else they would withdrawal their participation, absent coercion.

With this definition of power, it is clear that power is the very essence of politics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” (Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005) The state is power, or coercion, incarnate. The difference between state power and individuals exercising power, though, is that state power has been legitimized by appealing to divine sovereignty, historically, or popular sovereignty, by wrapping itself in the enigmatic “general will.” In all the examples of exploiter/exploited relationships provided in the text one can easily find evidence of explicit coercion of one individual or group over another, which would be condemned by most any observer, or with a little more effort be traced to the implicit coercion of the laws, regulations, influence, and support of the state lingering in the shadows of the interaction, choosing the winners and losers in relationships that are no longer free.


Janoski, Thomas. (2005). Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization. Cambridge University Press.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 14, 2011