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Greed, and its part in our downfall

In his new bookGreed: From Gordon Gecko to David Hume Philosopher Stuart Sutherland explores how Unconstrained greed is the heresy of our times. Gordon Gecko’s high-octane creed, ‘Greed is good’ went from the financial periphery and moved centre stage as the philosophical mood music of contemporary life. 

Obviously, it would be too simplistic to see a human motivation, greed, as simple cause of the post-2008 perturbations and near financial collapse. However, a return to business as usual is myopic. In Greed: From Gordon Gecko to David Hume philosopher Stewart Sutherland suggests that the shape of the incentives, rewards and even forms of admiration which are dominant in our society have a profound influence on human behaviour. The looser the social constraints on greed the greater the loosening of the essential ties, which lead from primitive self-assertion to civilised engagement in society. There comes a point where justice and equity are constitutive of what civil society is, and their absence is destructive rather than merely regretful or demeaning.
Greed takes a Humean approach to society and relationships that endorses Hume’s conclusion that avidity is the most destructive of the vices and asks how are the constraints of self-discipline to be given place over the natural energies of self-assertion and self-gratification? The type of society we inhabit is formative of much of who we are and what we do. At the core of this, according to Hume (and Sutherland), are the concepts of justice and equity. Not so for Gekko. Justice, he might think, like lunch, is for wimps. In the context of greed, justice has to do with the fair and equitable application of law to every citizen. This is a matter of practicality as well as high principle. Of course, greed can be practised within the law, and sometimes on the fringes of the law. The uncertain eddies which flow between tax evasion and tax avoidance raise many questions critical for the nature and sustainability of the society which we inhabit.
Sutherland’s solution to the toxic societal effects of greed would be the oxygen of publicity. Greed recommends an open publicly accessible register of, “all tax returns, individual and corporate, a matter of public record – possibly within two, three, five or even ten years of submission.” There is no doubt that public awareness of the tax contribution which corporates like the Amazons of this world make to this country is a good starting point for a discussion of proportionality. Equally the more sensitive area of publicly-available information about the individual contribution made by some to the tax revenues of the nation would in some cases dispel myths, but in others raise fundamental questions of equity. After all even the Queen is subject to significant intrusion here!

Greed: From Gordon Gecko to David Hume by Stuart Sutherland is available from Haus Publishing. Published in the UK on 7th October 2014.

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