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English review - Between Sin and Virtue

Almost two hundred people gathered in LUX and filled up the room to its maximum capacity to listen to philosopher Jeroen Linssen of Radboud University. They attended this evening, organized by Radboud Reflects, to learn about the kind of greed that seems to plague our society today, or simply out of sheer interest in the historical development of greed. Jeroen Linssen would soon be unveiling greed as a sparring match, one between a sin to be condemned and a virtue to be cherished.

Greed

By means of a few examples, Linssen quickly made the bad side of greed tangible. He told the story of king Midas, who was granted the power of changing anything he touched into gold. The king was delighted with his new ability at first, but when he turned hungry, he found out that any food he touched would also be turned into the precious metal. In another example, the lead character of the 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street became rich through trade on the stock market, but his  extravagant lifestyle soon led to his demise. The moral of both stories is simple: greed appears to improve our happiness, but it can also ruin our lives.

During the Middle Ages, explained Linssen, greed was held to be one of the seven deadly sins. While firstly listed lower on the list, amidst other sins such as wrath and sloth, greed climbed to the top of the list when the monetary economy made its introduction in the 11th century. Even in recent history, bankers were blamed for their greed causing the 2008 worldwide economic crisis. The list goes on: greed is said to obstruct peaceful cooperation, causes distrust, and divides the world in rich and poor. However, this is only one side of the story.

Greed as a Virtue

If we look closely at history, Linssen stressed, we also find a positive view on greed. For instance, in the 13th century Antonio Loschi appointed greed as a cause of societal prosperity. After all, greed had prompted people to become rich; funding cities and kingdoms alike as the crowns of civilization. Another philosopher to defend greed was Bernard Mandeville, who argued that the eradication of greed would cause people to lose their economic focus, turning everyone into beggars. Their message: take greed away, and the world collapses.

By referring to Max Weber, Linssen explained that even the Christian condemnation of greed, originally informed by the opposition between God and money, faded away with Calvinism. Doing your job properly became the central focus, measured by one’s contribution to society. If God offered you the possibility of turning a profit, you were to take it. And so, the tables were turned: a choice for less profit was to stray away from the Christian path. Whereas money used to go against God, money would now be earned in God’s glory.

The positive view on greed grew to prominence when 18th century philosopher Adam Smith argued that common welfare could best be attained if everyone cared for themselves, Linssen explained. This symbolised a major shift in emphasis. The urge of greed was no longer considered to be destructive but was converted into a seed for collective prosperity. This is still the prevalent view today, recently carried out by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who argued that the best way for our economy to recover from its aforementioned crisis, would be to let consumers consume. Suddenly, greed became the cure.

Greed nowadays

The polar opposition between greed as sin and as virtue may never have been clearer as it is today. On the one hand, Linssen pointed out, our contemporary society expects everyone to be  an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship has become an ideal. Parents and educational institutions teach children to be innovative, to seek opportunities and, preferably, to become a little better at it than their peers. Profit is put on a pedestal and becomes the key to life. On the other hand, the political left stresses the unethical aspects of wealth, wants to redistribute it and aims to expose neoliberalism as a dangerous ideology.

Furthermore, our decaying natural environment confronts us with the need to reduce consumption. Asked if we could stop the entrepreneur societies, Linssen exposed himself a pessimist: “I hope that mother earth will stop us and that there will still be people walking this earth a century from now, because I do not have the impression that the opposition to climate change is sincere enough.” He continued: “Only sheer necessity will force us to change our consumption habits.”

Still, Linssen expressed his neutrality in the debate on greed and explained his focus as a thorough analysis of its history. This brought him to a second conclusion: regardless of whether the political system is in favour of or against greed, it has to acknowledge the financial regime as a new player that is no longer its puppet. Yet, this financial player is a powerful one and largely determines our economic behaviour. As such, in whatever direction the future will take us, the political establishment has to share its sovereignty with the very lair of greed.

This report was written by Daan van Barneveld, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.