What causes greed and how can we deal with it?

Recent news stories have highlighted unethical and even lawless actions taken by people and corporations that were motivated primarily by greed.

Federal prosecutors, for example, charged 33 wealthy parents, some of whom were celebrities, with paying bribes to get their children into top colleges. In another case, lawyer Michael Avenatti was accused of trying to extort millions from Nike, the sports company.

Allegations of greed are listed in the lawsuit filed against members of Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, accused of pushing powerful painkillers as well as the treatment for addiction.

In all of these cases, individuals or companies seemingly had wealth and status to spare, yet they allegedly took actions to gain even further advantage. Why would such successful people or corporations allegedly commit crimes to get more?

As a scholar of comparative religious ethics, I frequently teach basic principles of moral thought in diverse religious traditions.

Religious thought can help us understand human nature and provide ethical guidance, including in cases of greed like the ones mentioned here.

Anxiety and injustice

The work of the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on human anxiety offers one possible explanation for what might drive people to seek more than they already have or need.

Reinhold Niebuhr. AP Photo
Niebuhr was arguably the most famous theologian of his time. He was a mentor to several public figures. These included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian who served in the Kennedy White House, and George F. Kennan, a diplomat and an adviser on Soviet affairs. Niebuhr also came to have a deep influence on former President Barack Obama.

Niebuhr said the human tendency to perpetuate injustice is the result of a deep sense of existential anxiety, which is part of the human condition. In his work “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” Niebuhr described human beings as creatures of both “spirit” and “nature.”

As “spirit,” human beings have consciousness, which allows them to rise above the sensory experiences they have in any given moment.

Yet, at the same time, he said, human beings do have physical bodies, senses and instincts, like any other animal. They are part of the natural world and are subject to the risks and vulnerabilities of mortality, including death.

Together, these traits mean that human beings are not just mortal, but also conscious of that mortality. This juxtaposition leads to a deeply felt anxiety, which, according to Niebuhr, is the “inevitable spiritual state of man.”