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.