Greed is just a clue about the real problem
Business ethics professor John W. Dienhart says that greed is not the cause of the financial crisis, but a symptom.
Special to The Times
AS a professor of business ethics, I often hear students say that greed is the cause of our current financial crisis.
These students are in good company. President Obama and Warren Buffett blame our current financial crisis on greed. Plato and Aristotle said that greed causes unfair behavior and even harms the greedy person himself. The Torah, the New Testament and the Quran all denounce greed.
OK, greed is bad. But it can be difficult to identify the causes of greed. And if we can't identify these causes, how can we combat them?
A well-accepted definition of greed is wanting more stuff — usually money and things — for ourselves than we should.
Take a simple case. You go out for pizza with a friend you have not seen for years. The pizza is delivered and your friend goes away from the table for a few minutes. Ignoring your friend's interests, you eat all but 2 pieces while your friend is gone, but insist you split the bill 50-50. Your friend says, "Why are you so greedy?" You apologize and explain that you have been out of work and haven't eaten today. You were motivated by hunger, not greed. But you're sorry and offer to pay your fair share of the check when you get a job.
What about executives who get incredibly large pay packages? In America, according to The Economist, the ratio of executive pay to that of the ordinary worker is 231-to-1. Surely this group is motivated by greed!
But let's look at it from the point of view of one of the executives — pretend this is you. You made $60 million last year, but your counterpart at another company made $80 million and had similar stock price gains. Does that mean he is a better executive, a better person than you? You demand a $20 million raise. It is only fair.
If you are this executive, you are motivated by fairness, not greed. If others could read your thoughts they would have to agree. Greed never entered your mind.
But from our point of view it looks as greedy as greedy can be. How can this be?
These examples show we can be greedy without feeling greedy. So how can we tell if we are being greedy when we are not feeling greedy?
One way to test for greed is to ask ourselves questions based on Aristotle's insight that greed prevents others from getting their fair share. The executive could ask: Where is the $20 million coming from? Will dividends be eliminated? Will research and development be reduced, harming the company and the owners? Will employees be laid off? If yes, the behavior is probably greedy.
Another question, based on Plato's insight, is whether the quest for more stuff is harming oneself. Am I spending less time with family as I lobby for this salary increase? Is money the major or only way I define my worth as a human being? If so, I am probably greedy even if I never thought of myself that way.
Asking these questions might lead our executive to cut his pay. Maybe even as low as James Sinegal, the former CEO of Costco, who requested a 38 percent pay cut in 2011, or Peter Rose, the CEO of Expeditors, whose salary is just above $100,000 per year.
As citizens, we need to identify the root causes of greed if we are going to combat it. One thing we can be sure of is that most people who are greedy do not think of themselves that way. If we wail against greed, these folks will think we are talking about someone else.
The most effective thing we can do as citizens is to encourage people, including ourselves, to ask the right questions about what we want and why we want it. While the executive might think his pay is fair given his peer group, he is also a member of communities that include diverse groups with many different needs. If our executive thinks about and empathizes with these groups, perhaps he will follow the lead of Sinegal and Rose.
Greed is not the problem, it is a symptom. The root cause of greed is thinking of ourselves in isolation from others or as members of elite peer groups that define what we should want. We are members of larger communities with many kinds of people, on whom we depend and who depend on us. If we act with this in mind, what we do will not feel greedy to us, nor will it look greedy to others.John W. Dienhart is director of the Center for Business Ethics at Seattle University.