"Greed is Good." Is it always?

Emerging Christian Ethics
Part 1: Modern Approaches to Ethics
(a) Ethical Egoism

Ethical Egoism, according to most ethicists, is the foundation of American Capitalism; Utilitarianism is the foundation of American Democracy (I'll blog on this tomorrow). So, as Americans, we obviously like and trust these approaches to ethics at some level. But a critical analysis of these two ethical systems will help us to discern what may be the strengths and weaknesses of these consequential systems.

Ethical Egoism

When Adam Smith, “The Father of Modern Capitalism,” wrote The Wealth of Nations, he laid the groundwork of our contemporary economic life. He said that in economic life, each person must seek his or her own good, unfettered by government interference. He argued that self-interest was the highest good (especially in economics) because it benefits all of society.

Michael Douglas’ character in the movie “Wall Street” explains his take as to why “Greed is Good.” (see video clip here).

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Ayn Rand (a Russian immigrant to America in 1926 at age of 21) began writing in 1943 that society functions best when we all pursue our best interests. Rand was both influenced by and became a large influencer of American capitalism. She wrote, “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself.” She came to this conclusion based on REASON: she believed that we rationally understand this as the reasonable nature of things. Rand said that altruism actually weakens society: It creates people who are dependent on others, instead of being responsible for their own well-being. Rand's ethical framework, an elevation of self-interest and a skepticism of altruism, has found its home in the business practices of today's corporate America, and in the consumeristic hearts of many in USAmerica.

I wonder how American Evangelicalism has capitulated to an ethical egoism ethic. Has Christianity become too combined with the “American Dream” of individualism and capitalism? Though we won't admit it in pleasant conversation, have we emphasized personal responsibility to the point of denegrating altruism (that it is mostly enabling people to become too dependent)? Has the Gospel in modern American Evangelicalism become too highly individualized (Do we preach a message that says, “Accept Christ as your personal savior, and you will find personal peace, personal happiness, and [for some evangelicals] personal prosperity”)? Are we peddling a Gospel that has more in common with Ayn Rand and Adam Smith than Jesus of Nazereth?

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Anonymous said...

Speaking as an atheist, I can honestly say... yes. It'd be a lot easier to relate to Christianity if its most active members didn't promote an economic system that celebrates exploitation and poverty, something Jesus would have despised. Good for you for questioning the dominant capitalist ideology.

lyricano said...

Consider however, if one believes in Original Sin and the Sinful Nature of all humans and that we are all destined to Hell but for the literal Grace of God, then why not embrace an Ayn Rand competitive free-market individualism? If people cannot be Good, it is naive to be hopeful in this life. The conservatives are consistent on this point--people are Bad/Sinful so being nice just enables their Badness. (Sidebar: being a stickler for intellectual consistency is also a sign of weakness and a failure to recognize that life is nasty, poor, brutish, and short.) Ergo, the ideas of alturism, community, and society are naive and destructive. Self-interest is the only thing that'll get you into Heaven, so why waste time doing anything else?

Bob said...

I agree that capitalism fosters self-dependence. Our society honors the self-made man. Christianity is based on grace which can only be accepted as charity. The two are polar opposites.

But, as the recent recipient of a unmerited gift, I recognize in myself how easy it is to help others and how difficult it is to ask for or accept help in return.

(BTW, did you know that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is a disciple of Ayn Rand?)

lyricano said...

Christianity is based on God's grace. It is in the individual's self-interest to utilize this charity in the individual's self-interest. Individuals, however, have no rational interest in practicing grace or charity, except to the extent it benefits them (in which case it no longer is grace/charity but calculated self-interest). That is, leave Grace up God and look out for yourself in the here-and-now.

Jesus may be a gracious bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder, but it does not logically follow that we should be. Accepting charity is a self-interested act. :-)

Bob Robinson said...

Lyricano gets to the meat of the issue: The Gospel according to Christ is less individualistic and more communitarian in essence. It is love for God and love for OTHERS. "Competitive Free Market Individualism" can run contrary to "Kingdom of God."

Bob Robinson said...

Bob's point about grace is spot on. The same evangelicals who embrace the concept of "grace" can have trouble embracing "charity" (which is the same word).

Scot McKnight said...

I'm with you on this. In Embracing Grace I say something like "when cracked Eikons get together to devise a system the system itself gets cracked." Permitting capitalism to run its full course is harmful to humans and the world.

Bob Robinson said...

Capitalism and Socialism...which is good and which is evil?
That is how it is usually painted--we have to choose one or the other, no middle ground.

In American politics, we have Left v. Right (Blue v. Red). As Brian McLaren has said, and many in the Emerging Movement have affirmed (including yourself, as I've seen on your blog), we need to look for positives from both sides and discern that which is not helpful from both sides, and create a PURPLE politic, a PURPLE ethic, a PURPLE faith.

Byron said...

Bob Robinson suffered an aortic aneurism in the wee hours of Thursday night/Friday morning. Emergency surgery went well, but this is a serious thing. A fuller report is on my blog, www.byron-harvey.com. PLEASE PRAY FOR OUR BROTHER AND FRIEND.