Is Greed Amoral or Immoral?

Greed seems to rule the day.  A Google search shows tens of millions of “greed in news” stories, using greed to “explain” what is not working in political-economic systems today.  I suggest that to be able to do something about this greed that so preoccupies us, we need to understand it a little better.

In that vain, I ask whether greed is intentional (cause) or unintentional (effect).  Is greed the cause of the behavior, meaning the greedy want to be greedy and act accordingly, or is greed the effect of the behavior, meaning it happens when people act out normal behaviors within certain contexts?  If it’s a cause, then we need to address the intentional cause.  If it’s an effect, then we need to address the unintentional cause.

From an Ecosynomics perspective, I suggest that some of what people call “greed” is intended or chosen, and most of that perceived greed is unintended, a resultant of not paying attention.  Here I want to nuance two subtleties, the level of reality perceived and the level of moral awareness.

Level of reality perceived.  In earlier blog posts, I have made a distinction between the things-outcomes level of reality of here-now and the development-motion level of reality over time.  At the things-outcome level, what is available in the moment seems to be scarce.  Greed at the things-outcome level covets what it does not have.  This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition of greed, an “intense or inordinate longing, esp. for wealth or food.”  At the development-motion level, what is available over time depends on net effect of the ebbs and flows in the network of resources.  Greed at the development-motion level manipulates the consequences over time and space to achieve one’s own ends.

Level of moral awareness.  To oversimplify a complex field of inquiry, philosophers suggest three broad approaches to morals-ethics.  Morals-ethics, in general, invoke a development-motion level of awareness or reality, suggesting that one must look at the intentions in one’s actions and the consequences of one’s actions over time.  Three broad approaches have evolved in moral-ethical philosophy: virtue; deontological; and teleological.  Virtue-based approaches focus on the importance of one’s intention or character in the moment of decision, asking, “What person should I be?”  Deontological approaches focus on how well an action conforms to a set of duties, “What should I do, in this role?”  Teleological approaches focus on the consequences of an action, asking “What should I do, to maximize the net positive impact of my actions?”  These three approaches all look at the intention and character I bring to my actions, looking over time.

One last distinction, between immoral and amoral.  Immoral is directly not moral, being contrary to established moral principles, to the fundamental agreements in one’s context.  Amoral is non-moral, neither moral or immoral, simply lacking moral sensitivity.  So a person can be aware (immoral) or unaware (amoral) of acting contrary to accepted morals.

Putting these three distinctions together, greed can be a cause or an effect, at the things-outcome or development-motion levels of perceived reality, in an immoral or amoral fashion.  If the three morals-ethics approaches (virtue, deontological, and teleological) invoke the development-motion level of perceived reality, people perceiving reality only at the things-outcome level must not be aware of the development-motion invocations, thus acting amorally, without sensitivity to the moral framings of intention and consequences over time.

What to do.  This rather abstract framing, suggests a practical approach to dealing with greed.

Differentiate whether one is dealing with someone who is:

  • aware of their behavior (they are conscious of it and have chosen it) with contextual clarity (they understand the context of intentions and consequences)
  • unaware of their behavior (they are unconscious of it and have accepted it as the only given possibility) with contextual obscurity (they do not understand the context of intentions and consequences)

Engage with the one acting greedy.

  • If they are aware, then they are acting contrary to moral-ethics, an immoral greed.  In this case, one must address the greedy behavior of the individual.
  • If they are unaware, then they are acting with insensitivity to the moral-ethics, an amoral greed.  In this case, one can bring awareness to the individual, believing that awareness might shift the behavior, or address the context, changing the agreements in the system.

This differentiation of awareness of levels of perceived reality and levels of morality enables us to see whether what seems to be greedy is an intentional, fully aware behavior or an unintentional, fully unaware behavior.  In the first case, the individual knows what they are doing and that needs to be addressed directly with that individual.  In the second case, the individual does not know what they are doing, and this opens up the possibility of increasing their awareness or changing their context.

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3 thoughts on “Is Greed Amoral or Immoral?

  1. Pingback: Why science, philosophy, or religion cannot determine morality | SelfAwarePatterns

  2. Pingback: Does your business travel the high road? | Robert Medak

  3. Pingback: On Morality… | The Former Angie Fox

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