In a famous scene from the film Wall Street the character Gordon Gekko says the following: “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” But is greed really good? And if so, is it good in itself, or merely because it “works”?
I think it would be hard for someone else than Mr. Gordon Gekko to use the word “greed” in such a positive way (as far as I know not even followers of Ayn Rand seem to use it). Later in his speech Gekko equates greed with the search for life, money, love, and knowledge; but this seems to be a misuse of the term. Generally the term greed is not defined as a morally “neutral” quest for the aforementioned things. It is rather defined pejoratively. One online dictionary defines it as “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions”; another one as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed”. The pejorative meaning is, in both cases, especially marked by the word “excessive”.
Thus, greed in itself can hardly be called good, even though we can all have different thresholds for when we would call someone greedy. An extreme egalitarian would perhaps call someone greedy just for wanting more money than anyone else in the world, while a Randian (or “Objectivist”) would perhaps only call someone who violates anyone’s libertarian rights (i.e., kills them of steals from them) in order to get richer greedy.
But can we, then, say that greed is instrumentally good, i.e., good because it “works” in some way? And would the world not “work” without it? If it is the case, for example, that entrepreneurs (who, among other things, create work opportunities for other people) are driven by greed – a selfish and excessive desire for more money than is needed – then perhaps we would all be worse off if they were to disappear. This conclusion seems to follow if we assume that most entrepreneurs are in fact driven by greed. But a world with non-greedy entrepreneurs would obviously work just as well – probably better, since more wealth would be spread around to those who need it more.
Thus, what Gordon Gekko should have said is: “greed is bad, but it works”. It works because we are in the hands of people who refuse to use their abilities for the benefit of other people unless they are excessively (i.e., demanding much more than what a relatively comfortable lifestyle would require) rewarded for it. If those people were less greedy (less bad or evil), the world would still work (and work better). So should we, then, make greedy people answer for their moral wickedness more often, or must we remain obsequious, in the way that a hostage might need to flatter his master in order to stay alive?