2014-04-22

An Aside From An Aside: Greed

Stephen Williamson, quoting Tom Sargent, says something that made me think. First, the quote - and to be clear, the first paragraph is a quote from Sargent; the part in brackets is Williamson. The bold emphasis is my addition.
I remember how happy I felt when I graduated from Berkeley many years ago. But I thought the graduation speeches were long. I will economize on words. Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches. 
[I had to think about whether I agree with the "organized common sense" view of economics. If common sense is supposed to be what the average layperson possesses, then economics is not common sense, as it's sometimes (if not often) counterintuitive. For example, Adam Smith told us that greed can be a good thing. That's certainly not part of collective wisdom, I think. But Sargent was trying to put the Berkeley graduates at ease. He's telling them that doing economics is just a matter of putting pieces of straightforward logic together to come up with a coherent set of ideas.]
The word "greed" really just means "self interest," and self interest can be good or bad, depending on the circumstance. This is the revelation that Williamson credits to Adam Smith. His saying so made me think of another word that functions similarly: pride.

Like greed, pride is often disparaged as an unsavory characteristic. But unlike greed, and depending on where you grew up and how that word was used in your place of origin, pride can have a decidedly positive connotation, too. Members of visible minorities who are often subjected to bigotry, for example, are often encouraged to be proud of who they are. When a loved one does something that we greatly admire, we often tell them that we're proud of them. And even when we accomplish something very difficult ourselves, we don't mind too much describing it as "something we are proud of."

In the case of pride, it's not the pride itself that seems to be the problem, but whether our pride is expressed as an affront to others. Pride can be an act of disparaging other people, and when that's the case, pride is bad. In other cases, it's either good or at least harmless.

I'd suggest that greed works the same way. Self-interest in and of itself is natural, and positive, and results in our ability to survive and thrive. If you're not a happy person, I challenge you to make anyone else happy. You'll find it's impossible; only happy people make others happy. But when greed is expressed in such a way that it deprives others of their just desserts, that's when it goes wrong.

Why do I bother writing about this? Only to highlight the fact that language is often a very inadequate way of expressing things. Words don't perfectly capture the ideas we hope to express. The moral ambiguity of pride and greed is a good example of that.