Welcome to the sixth installment of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, you can find them here. New installments will be posted every two weeks, on Tuesdays.

hiroshi-fuji-recycled-toys-8In our quest to find a culturally applicable definition of greed, we’re examining nine common concepts that people inevitably bring up when asked “What is greed?”

Last time we looked at satisfaction, and learned that the primary reason we humans are very rarely satisfied with our money and possessions is because we compare ourselves to others, typically our self-chosen economic competitors – siblings, classmates, neighbors, peers.

From a material standpoint, greed is fundamentally and inescapably relative to what other people have. That is, greed cannot exist in a vacuum; it takes at least two people for the very concept to exist. Let me belabor the point with two extreme examples.

Fortune 500 CEO Chip slips on his Hermès lizard loafers while checking his three comma bank balance. He eases into his Lamborghini and speeds to his ten-bedroom beachfront vacation home. Assuming Chip lives on our planet, most all of us immediately think Chip is greedy. But Chip lives on a planet where everyone wears reptile shoes, has three commas, the Lambo and the mansion. Chip has no more nor no less than his neighbors. He’s not greedy; he’s “normal.”

Uneducated Ellen lives in a dirty cardboard box with a bank balance of zero. She has managed to hoard ten bread crusts to get through the imminent bad weather. In the comfort of our homes and offices, we pity Ellen and wonder why she subsists as she does – many of us instinctively search for someone or something to blame (Mental illness? Addiction? Obama? Dubya?). In 21st century America, socio-economically disadvantaged Ellen is the opposite of greedy.

But Ellen lives on a desolate planet. Her neighbors sleep under dead shrubs, exposed to the elements, and have only two crusts of bread. Some may not survive the bad weather. Ellen chooses to live alone in her box and she does not share her crusts. Given these relative circumstances, Ellen is greedy.


Back on our planet, this notion of relativity, an unavoidable piece of the greed puzzle, functions on two levels.

On a personal level, as explained by Professor Christopher Kaczor and discussed last time in relation to satisfaction, “at all levels of wealth, from modest to tremendously wealthy, people tend to compare themselves to those who are just ahead of them in riches.” We’ll further analyze this phenomenon in a moment.

On an impersonal level, we see greed as relative to the general living conditions of an area, whether it be a city or nation or continent. When I ask people “What is greed?” a common response is “It depends on where you live.” Geography is the controlling factor, seemingly.

But geography is, on second glance, irrelevant. The “it depends” response relies solely on the people living in the place, not the place itself.

Rose is a single mom with five young children living in a city-owned two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with running water and electricity. She has empty floor space in her living room, but Rose chooses not to invite any of the many homeless people on her block to sleep indoors. At the end of the week, all of her children fed and asleep, she has eight extra dollars, and she spends it on-demand, a new release. She chooses not to share her surplus with her hungry neighbor.

Despite her choices, would any of us label Rose greedy? I could not. Would you?


But what if Rose and her little ones live in Dar es Salaam, where 70% of the residents suffer in medieval slum conditions? Rose’s neighbors sleep on mud floors, gather rainwater and relief themselves in buckets. With two bedrooms, water and electricity, Rose is the 1% of her city and her nation, yet she chooses not to share her largesse with those less fortunate.

When I relay Rose’s two scenarios to groups, the verdict is unanimous: American Rose is not greedy. Tanzanian Rose is greedy. Her greed – or lack thereof – is relative to those people around her.

Whether we’re comparing ourselves to the Joneses next door or strangers living on the other side of the globe, the bottom line issue is deprivation, and it has long been recognized as an attribute, if not the very essence of, greed.

Roughly 800 years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught greed is “a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them.”

In 2004, Pastor Dwayne Westermann wrote “greed obtains unneeded wealth for one’s self at the expense of another.”

In his 2005 book Greed, Professor Julian Edney argued:

Greed is the acquisition of a desirable good by one person or a group beyond need, resulting in unequal distribution to the point others are deprived.

Oh, if only it were so simple! If only we were all now willing to proclaim, “Yes, Professor Edney! I am greedy. I’ve acquired a desirable good that my neighbor does not have!” Shall we form a line to confess our greed? Rhetorical question.

(Today we won’t delve into what is “needed” and what is not – that will be the sole subject of a future installment. Let’s maintain our focus on the relativity of deprivation.)

If, from a material standpoint, greed is relative to those people around us, we as a culture will never agree on with whom we should be compared. Acknowledging the truth in Professor Kaczor’s observation, I personally do not compare myself to my peers who possess less than I do. I don’t say to myself, “Well, my old buddy Bob lives in a studio apartment and can’t afford to go to Europe, but I can and my apartment is larger, so I’m doing great and I should give my surplus funds to those who are deprived!” (And, obviously, I don’t compare myself to Tanzanian slum dwellers, either.)

Therein lies a fundamentally important, disconcerting dilemma: When we compare ourselves only to others “slightly ahead of [us] in riches,” we can never be greedy. Somebody always has more.

In a recent article entitled “Weary of Relativity,” Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times:

When it comes to money, almost everybody looks up – not down or sideways – to determine how he or she is doing and what her or she might be owed. There’s always someone higher on the ladder and getting a whole lot more, always someone who establishes a definition of greed that you fall flatteringly short of.

So, where does this reality leave us, as a culture, as a nation, as a species?

It leaves us right back where we began, many weeks ago. Collectively, we are quick to say greed is a problem in both America and our world. (Nicely encapsulating today’s topic of relativity, “income inequality” is the issue du jour that evokes much hand-wringing … and pontification.) But individually, I, you, we are not greedy. My brother-in-law has more! My neighbor has more! My boss drives a Benz! Steven Spielberg just bought a $250 million yacht!

“Set the bar low enough and all blame is deflected, all shame expunged,” Bruni writes.

But what allows us to erase our shame? On whom do we deflect our blame? The other guy, of course! That horribly selfish and delusional other guy stands in the way of progress, in the way of equality, in the way of freedom and justice and truth. The other guy is greedy; I am not.

And how do we identify this convenient boogeyman, the omnipresent other guy?

Well, for many of us, the other guy is the person who votes for Republicans. Oops, so sorry, I mean for Democrats. No, hold on, I mean the wacky tea party folks, right? Or is it the bleeding-heart progressives? Help me out here: Whom should we blame today for the woman on the corner sleeping in the box, or the grizzled man at the end of the off-ramp begging for change? Surely, please, if I vote for [fill in the blank], I have demonstrated that I care, right? I am virtuous. I am excused. I am not greedy. The other guy is.

Join me next time and we’ll try to both unravel this all-too-common rationalization and examine how it has worked out for us over the decades.