Taking ADvantage
The Sociological Basis of Greed


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

Greed has a strong biological basis. However, it has an even stronger social basis. This sets it somewhat apart from self-preservation and reproduction. To examine greed and how it fits into human sociology, we need to start from the beginning.

The definition of greed is an extreme or excessive desire for resources, especially for property such as money, real estate, or other symbols of wealth. Here we run into two problems: defining excessive, and defining wealth, especially in terms of human psychology.

In basic terms, "excessive" is possessing something to such a degree it's harmful. For example, excessive drinking leads to falling down a lot and hating yourself in the morning. Excessive eating leads to bellyaches and obesity. Excessive speed leads to cliff edges and telephone poles. These are aspects that most people would agree are harmful.

However, all these things are harmful only to the individual. How could a desire for wealth be harmful? Every person needs a degree of wealth to survive: you need to buy food, pay the rent, get clothing, transportation, haircuts, cable TV. Without money (a symbol of wealth, or rather a transportable symbol of resources necessary to survival) you could starve or freeze to death, something that is definitely harmful. In addition, the more wealth you have, the better the quantity and/or quality of the things it brings you can get. Again, how could a desire for wealth, and thus the things it gets you, be harmful?

The answer lies in the fact that humans are social and cultural animals, not just individuals. Although for the individual greed (a strong desire for wealth) is good, the social group that individual belongs to may think greed is bad for rher. Note I say "bad for rher" -- not necessarily bad for the society or the culture or the group, but for rher, which is as good an opening as I can think of for going into the history of greed.


Once upon a time there was a little single-cell organism. We'll call it Herman. Herman spent its life wandering aimlessly around its waterdrop, dreaming little one-cell dreams and searching for even littler one-cell food. One day Herman, who had been getting rather fat, suddenly felt itself torn asunder and became two Hermettes (meaning "little Hermans"). The Hermettes thought this was a good idea, and realized that getting fat would result in even more Hermettes. Thus the Hermettes strove to get more food and become fat Hermans, and become Hermettes, who also strove to get more food, and become fat Hermans, etc., etc., etc..

Soon the water drop, and surrounding water drops, and large chunks of ocean, were filled with Hermans and Hermettes, all gulping down (metaphorically speaking, since they didn't have throats) every piece of food they could find. In other words, they were greedy, ensuring their own survival and ability to reproduce by devouring everything they could find that would result in more Hermettes.

Herman, and its descendants, and their descendants, kept this up for a couple of billion years, greedily grasping for those resources that ensured personal and genetic survival.

Eventually, some of Herman's descendants discovered that they could cope with conditions better is they found a way to evolve faster and weed out mutations that got in the way of survival. They developed sex.

Finally, Herman's descendants were greedily gulping fruits, nuts, berries, and anything else that came to a paw that was becoming a hand. Several of them had banded together to form a mutual nonaggression pact. Among them were Oog and Ugh, who were hoping to have a little Ugly of their own. Reaching for another apple, Oog suddenly had her protohand slapped. Popping the offended member in her mouth, she looked askance at her attacker. Aagh pointed to her own little Yugh, who was looking thin and hungry. Oog looked, then back-protohanded Aagh off the branch, took the apple, and scarfed it down. The rest of the band, observing this subtle interplay of diplomatic reasoning, decided that such selfishness required discussion. However, since they hadn't yet evolved language, they simply beat up Oog, and for good measure Ugh, with a few swipes at Aagh for having started the whole mess. Then they sent Oog and Ugh forth to go and sin with some other group but leave us alone.

Such discouragement discouraged Oog and Ugh, but they knew deep down that the more resources they collected and kept for themselves, they better off they, and when Ugly came along, all three of them would be. They competed for resources better than others, passed on more of their own genes, and in general became human beings.

However, human beings are gregarious creatures, wishing to band into mutual admiration societies and avoid inbreeding. We get together for protection, for support, to share the work necessary for survival, and to have someone to talk to.

In addition, the resources important to humans changed. No longer was it simply food in order to get and keep the strength to procreate. Now there were other things, like land to grow food, and money to buy food, and pottery to store food, and methods such as ships and caravans and trading and military conquest to get food. Eventually, the food was not the end result desired -- the means to the end became the end itself.

The real problem arose when the population increased and the possible wealth became limited. There was only so much land and money and other resources to go around. Thus, for one person to amass a lot of wealth, rhe had to reduce what somebody else could get. This created conflict in the society between the haves and have-nots, the go-getters and the no-getters.

The purpose of a society is to reduce conflict between the members of that society. The society creates laws, religions, government, whatever will allow people to get along without fighting each other in response to their biological urges. Thus, there are laws and religious proscriptions against murder to keep people from killing each other and thus weakening the society's ability to support itself and the people in it. There are laws and religious proscriptions against infidelity to keep men from killing each other and enslaving women so men can be sure of their paternity (a biological imperative -- a male doesn't want to waste his resources and care on genes that aren't his (Daly, 1983), and men are male).

To reduce the conflict greed could create, societies, through their laws and religions, said that an extreme desire for wealth was harmful to the society since it concentrated too many resources in too few hands. Thus greed was decreed and decried as excessive and harmful, and proscribed.

The ancient proscriptions were to avoid societal conflicts. The proscriptions were also often easy to follow when people were nomadic. They had to carry everything they owned around with them, and thus there was little desire to accumulate things that would simply increase the burden. For example, the !Kung people of Africa have lived this nomadic life for centuries and have few material possessions. (Leakey, 1978)


The desire for wealth is especially apparent in those cultures descended from or adhering to the Western European tradition of "progress" and "growth", a legacy of the eras of scientific discovery and world exploration. The former led people to believe that they could know everything, the latter increased what they knew and opened the world to trade.

Trade became a major factor in European life after the Black Death, a plague that killed three-fourths of Europe's population in the 14th Century. This massive decrease in the work force had three results. First, the end of the feudal system, since the serfs, their numbers now low and thus their value as a workforce now high, could now demand wages for their labor. Second, a surplus of goods and food since the number of consumers was so low. And third, a sudden increase in personal wealth as people inherited the belongings of all their relatives that had died. These three factors led to a greater sense of individualism and a decline in spiritual and intellectual interests in favor of material interests. (Burke, 1985)

With the new high-demand products, such as spices, tea and silk, made available by world exploration, trade and exploitation of markets became the goals of European societies and individuals in those societies. This continues to this day. The standard of living for the members of societies practicing such materialism gives them a major advantage over those people and societies that don't. They can gather more resources, live longer, raise more children in better conditions that can pass on their parents' and ancestors' genes, and generally outstrip any competition that doesn't practice greed.

Today, because of the standard of living materialism provides those who follow the idea that some is good, more is better, too much is just right, much of the world "goes for the gold". Thus, although legal and religious proscriptions against greed have been in effect and given at least lip service for millennia, the fact remains that, as it was for Oog and Ugh, deep down inside people believe "greed is good". It might be disguised as capitalism, expanding the range of possibilities, or enlightened self-interest, but deep down inside it's greed.(1)


Why then, if greed is not only biologically desirable but socially and societally desirable as well, does greed have such a bad name? It goes back to the fact that humans are social and cultural animals, not just individuals.

Remember that greed is a valuable trait for the individual. It makes rher fight for a larger piece of the pie, a good idea from a biological point of view. However, since humans are social creatures, and greed says that an individual should take more than rher own share, greed creates social conflict, as those who lose out resent those who win more than an even share. Those that are particularly greedy (read, particularly good at getting larger pieces of pies) are particularly resented. Recall Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley: many people cheered their downfalls. After all, who did they think they were? Besides successful, rich, competent, and capable. They were also manipulative, vain, egotistical and arrogant. However, how many people would, if they were honest, have changed places with them in a second, at least while the Donald and Leona were at their peak? Why are lotteries and sweepstakes so successful? Why do Reno and Las Vegas attract millions of people to their casinos? Because, no matter how much it is decried, people are greedy: they all want more than they have, the more more the better.

The thing to bear in mind is that "greed is good." That is, it's good for the individual, but perhaps not for the society in which that individual lives. Unrestrained greed in an individual can lead to callousness, arrogance, and even megalomania. A person dominated by greed will often ignore the harm their actions can cause others. Sweat shops, unsafe working conditions and destruction of livelihoods are all consequences of people whose personal greed overcame their social consciences.

However, even a society that bans individual greed can suffer. It is greed that makes people want to do things, since they will be rewarded for their efforts. Remove that reward, and you remove the incentive to work. The former Soviet Union provides an example of this: the collective farms provided no individual incentive to strive, and thus produced an insufficient supply of food. The individually owned and run truck farms, however, with the possibility of selling the produce and keeping the proceeds, grew a far greater harvest per acre than the collective farms. The "greed" of American farmers has allowed them to grow food for the world, since the more they produce the more money they make.

Nonetheless, however you regard it, unrestrained greed is detrimental to society; unrestrained disapproval of greed is detrimental to society. People attempt to find a balance between biological imperative and social necessity.


Although there is a strong biological basis for human behavior, humans are the most social creatures on earth. The societies and cultures we create have a major effect on our behavior, mollifying and modifying our biological reactions.

Self-preservation extends beyond the personal to the public, involving family, friends, and even strangers. What may help our personal survival may help others, who may help us in turn.

Humans, reproducing sexually, have all the biological urges that other animals have. However, our complex societies and cultures have altered our reproductive strategies. Social factors, in particular women's, have become so important that they are a guiding rather than an ancillary consideration in mate selection. Strength and fighting skill in men have taken second place to power, money, and status. Although the former may be necessary to success in the biological world, the latter are necessary to success in human society. And in the last several thousand years, society rather than biology has become the driving force of human life.

Equally, human social life has radically altered the need to gather resources to live and reproduce. The need for food, water or shelter is biological -- a lack results in death. However, human society has changed how and why resources are gathered. The biological necessity is the same: humans need to eat, drink, sleep, stay out of the rain. But society has developed a way to transport current resources into the future for use in that future -- money. Thus, humans seek money.

Appeals to the human psyche must take not only biology but society into account. Society is the driving force behind much of human behavior.


(1) This note is contained in the Comments Page -- Comments on Greed in the Modern World

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