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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

Self Survey Fall 2011 Part 1


Click on a topic to expand a summary of my stance on it.

  • When approaching philosophical problems I prefer the method employed by the Austrian School of Economics, which is to start with “simple and evident axioms” and “deduce step by step” the various logical implications of those axioms. (Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State) This approach is in opposition to empiricism, or applying the methodology of the natural sciences to the understanding of human action. This is primarily due to the fact that the factors determining human action are too complex or are simply not able to be isolated and true control/variable groups can not be created as they are in laboratories. (For further information check out the Introduction to the 5th edition of “Americas’ Great Depression by Murray Rothbard.) I will attempt to clarify what I believe to be axioms, or self-evident truths, throughout this survey.

    The second part of my philosophical approach is the recognition of the limits of human reason. The limited nature of man’s ability to reason, the fallibility of man’s senses and his inability to fully observe and experience the world around him, or his obvious shortcomings in processing and retaining an infinite volume of information that is available should be acknowledged and humble our observations on the nature of man, in general, or even ourselves. By acknowledging this limitation I accept that it is possible, even probable, that I will fall prey to logical fallacies, make theoretical leaps without due justification, give in to bias or prejudice, improperly categorize experiences or phenomenon within my logical framework, or to put it simply….make mistakes. However, this also further justifies beginning philosophical inquiry with “simple and evident” truths to best avoid mistakes in the infancy of our thoughts. Also, it gives weight to “common sense,” traditions, and culture even when they are not fully understood by individual actors. I will explain this more in a later section.

  • The foundation of my philosophy is the belief that all things must be considered at an individual level. This contradicts theorists who rely on “general will” or the idea that amorphous entities such as “society” and “the state” can be analyzed separate from the individuals that compose them. Also, individualism is built on the axioms of free will, the inseparability of the will from the individual, and self-ownership and all of the logical implications that follow.

    • The level of debate over the concept of free will baffles me. The alternative to humans having free will is that we are equal to robots, programmed to perform certain actions based on the inputs provided to us. Every choice we make every day confirms that we have free will unless we make a deliberate effort to deny it. I am constantly aware of my consciousness, and thus my free will and being, so long as I am awake. Denying this seems like an exercise of philosophical futility and is pursued primarily by those who were able to see the “Emperor’s new clothes” or in more malicious cases by those peddling sheer intellectual dishonesty in order to advance their cause (the scoundrels who sold the Emperor the new clothes.)

    • This is concept is the key to libertarian ethics and natural law theory and simply states that each individual has 100 percent self-ownership over his own person, to include body, mind, and spirit. This may seem less than self-evident since there is a history of slavery, indentured service, and many examples of people acting “against their will.” However, if we stick to the simple and evident truths of self-ownership then these can be explained as submitting to the will of another due to coercion, but the individual’s person never leaves their ownership unless they are dead as body, mind, and spirit are inalienable from each other otherwise. Murray Rothbard demonstrates the fallacies of the alternatives to 100 percent self-ownership in “Ethics of Liberty,” as either “the ‘communist’ one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another.” (Ethics of Liberty, Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression.)

    • (Just trying to impress myself with big words) The opposite of an individualistic approach to philosophical or sociological problems is to attribute human characteristics to entities that are composed of groups of individuals abstractly. For example, attributing goals, actions, and beliefs to society, the state, or the general will as opposed to the individuals who actually took the actions or hold those beliefs. I refer to these entities as amorphous, a term used mostly in science to mean: “having no definite form;” “shapeless;” “being without definite character or nature,” because everyone discussing any of these entities will define them their own way to match their ideas or philosophy and this is possible because they have no definitive nature of their own. This makes them dangerous in philosophical reasoning because they can be “formed,” as a potters clay, to justify or match almost any conclusion or agenda. Ludwig von Mises said the following: “All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”

  • My journey into politics and philosophy actually began with economics. I came across an article on school vouchers that made an interesting argument that I had never considered (I had not considered much of anything at this point) and it cited Milton Friedman as on of the pioneers in the voucher movement. I was intrigued by the idea and decided to study it further so I picked up both “Capitalism and Freedom” and “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman, both had sections on education to include advocacy of vouchers. However, I was introduced to a whole plethora of new ideas in those books, most questioning the efficiency of government and making convincing “empirical” arguments as to why those inefficiencies exist and sometime offering convincing solutions to those problems. Most importantly it put capitalism and free markets in a positive light and I wanted to know more. Next I discovered a documentary called Commanding Heights that also seemed to put a positive spin on capitalism, mostly from Milton Friedman, but it introduced a school of thought that claimed even Milton Friedman and the Chicago School were not free market enough…the Austrian School headed by Ludwig von Mises and claimed by F.A. Hayek. Hayek’s name came up again as a source of counsel to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who both recognized the flaws of Keynesian economics and wanted to take their respective countries on new paths. This led me to Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty” which acted as a nice bridge between the Chicago School and the Austrian School due to the fact that it was more friendly towards the idea of the need for a state, which I was not ready to let go of yet. “Constitution of Liberty” opened new doors in mind and allowed me a whole new world view and made me a real pupil of the Austrian School. As a pupil of this lesser known school of economics I felt compelled to study Ludwig von Mise’s “Human Action” which demonstrated a very logical method of approaching philosophical and economic problems and introduced me to “praxeology,” the study of human action, of which he deemed economics part of. After “Human Action” I began reading material provided by the Ludwig von Mises Institute on their website ( and came to learn that Murray Rothbard wrote a book meant to be used as a college text book to teach the ideas of Mises in a more accessible way so I began to study “Man, Economy, and State,” which ended up being an economic treatise in and of itself. I found Rothbard much easier to follow and tended to agree with his analysis in the few areas where he differed from his mentor, von Mises. I have continued to study the Austrian School and the writings of the many scholars linked to it. Following are some of the key ideas that I have taken away but I encourage anyone who is interested to check out “Man, Economy, and State” for the fullest understanding.

    • “Human action is defined simply as purposeful behavior…The purpose of a man’s act is his end; the desire to achieve this end is the man’s motive for instituting the action…All human beings act by virtue of their existence and their nature as human beings. We could not conceive of human beings who do not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Concept of Action) “The first truth to be discovered about human action is that it can be undertaken only by individual ‘actors.’” (Man, Economy, and State, First Implications of the Concept)

    • “With reference to any given act, the environment external to the individual may be divided into two parts: those elements which he believes he cannot control and must leave unchanged, and those which he can alter (or rather, thinks he can alter) to arrive at his ends. The former may be termed the general conditions of action; the latter, the means used…[A]ll means are scarce, i.e., limited with respect to the ends that they could possibly serve,” so “the necessity for a choice among ends arises” and “action takes place by choosing which ends shall be satisfied by the employment of means.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) Further as it applies to time: “All human life must take place in time” and “a man’s time is always scarce.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) In other words, you can only achieve so many ends in a certain amount of time and time always marches forwards so that every second that passes is irretrievable making them scarce.

    • “A fundamental and constant truth about human action is that man prefers his end to be achieved in the shortest possible time…This is the universal fact of time preference…Time enters into human action not only in relation to the waiting time in production, but also in the length of time in which the consumer’s good will satisfy the wants of the consumer,” this is known as the “duration of serviceableness.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Time) In short, man wants his in the shortest time and wants them to last the longest time.

    • Often in economics or in common usage value is used almost interchangeably with price or refers specifically to monetary value. However, value in its most basic form refers simply to the perceived gain (psychic gain) that an individual expects. “In order for any measurement to be possible, there must be an eternally fixed and objectively given unit with which other units may be compared. There is no such objective unit in the field of human valuation. The individual must determine subjectively for himself whether he is better or worse off as a result of any change.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) Price on the other hand is a market mechanism that helps match the psychic value of the consumer to the [monetary] value of the producer or laborer.

      • “All action is an attempt to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory one…The psychic gain (or profit) and loss cannot be measured in terms of units, but the actor always knows whether he has experienced psychic profit or psychic loss as a result of an action-exchange.” Of important note, “leisure is a consumer’s good,” or an end that is valued in and of itself. (Man, Economy, and State, Factors of Production: Labor versus Leisure) Consequently, “people work only when they value the return of labor higher than the decrease in satisfaction brought about by the curtailment of leisure.” (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action)

      • “Human actors value means strictly in accordance with their valuation of the ends they believe the means can serve.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) “Each physical unit of a means (direct or indirect) that enters into human action is valued separately. Thus, the actor is interested in evaluating only those units of means that enter, or that he considers will enter, into his concrete action. Actors choose between, and evaluate, not ‘coal’ or ‘butter’ in general, but specific units of coal or butter. For example, “if one pound of butter was considered by the actor as of better quality than another pound of butter” then, “in that case, the two “butters” are really different goods from the point of view of the actor and will be evaluated differently.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

      • The “process of valuation according to the specific units involved provides the solution for the famous ‘value paradox’ which puzzled writers for centuries. The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when ‘bread’ is obviously more useful than ‘platinum?’ The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether ‘bread-in-general’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘platinum-in-general,’ but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a ‘loaf [unit] of bread’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘an ounce [unit] of platinum.’ That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising…Thus, for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases…[This] is the law of marginal utility, sometimes known as the law of diminishing marginal utility.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

    • If self-ownership is the foundation of libertarian ethics and natural law then property rights are the corner stone. They are the most direct logical step from self-ownership. Again, I turn to Murray Rothbard in “Man, Economy, and State” to offer the best explanation of property rights, which has a firm basis in Lockean principles:

      On the free, unhampered market, a man can acquire property in scarce goods as follows: (1) In the first place, each man has ownership over his own self, over his will and actions, and the manner in which he will exert his own labor. (2) He acquires scarce nature-given factors either by appropriating hitherto un­used factors for his own use or by receiving them as a gift from someone else, who in the last analysis must have appropriated them as hitherto unused factors. (3) He acquires capital goods or consumers’ goods either by mixing his own labor with nature­-given factors to produce them or by receiving them as a gift from someone else. As in the previous case, gifts must eventually re­solve themselves into some actor’s production of the goods by the use of his own labor. Clearly, it will be nature-given factors, cap­ital goods, and durable consumers’ goods that are likely to be handed down through gifts, since nondurable consumers’ goods will probably be quickly consumed. (4) He may exchange any type of factor (labor service, nature-given factor, capital good, consumers’ good) for any type of factor. It is clear that gifts and exchanges as a source of property must eventually be resolved into: self-ownership, appropriation of unused nature-given fac­tors, and production of capital and consumers’ goods, as the ulti­mate sources of acquiring property in a free economic system. In order for the giving or exchanging of goods to take place, they must first be obtained by individual actors in one of these ways. The logical sequence of events is therefore: A man owns himself; he appropriates unused nature-given factors for his own­ership; he uses these factors to produce capital goods and con­sumers’ goods which become his own; he uses up the consumers’ goods and/or gives them and the capital goods away to others; he exchanges some of these goods for other goods that had come to be owned in the same way by others. These are the meth­ods of acquiring goods that obtain on the free market, and they include all but the method of violent or other invasive expropri­ation of the property of others. (Man, Economy, and State, Types of Interpersonal Action: Voluntary Exchange and the Contractual Society)

Filed under Self Survey
Sep 6, 2011