The Glorification of Greed
Lately, I’ve been struck by a dramatic decrease in kind-heartedness that seems to have permeated much of the American landscape. It’s as if the tough economic times have exposed a core vulnerability in the human fabric of what we thought was our resilience, resulting all too quickly in a posture of collective resignation and/or a laissez-fare attitude. If I were kind I might describe this core vulnerability as the exposure our collective naiveté. Somehow, in spite of 9/11, we continued to believe that we were (or ought to be) infallible and impermeable. If I were not so kind, I might describe this core vulnerability as the exposure of our collective grandiosity. We ought to be impermeable? We ought to get what we want when we want it? When did ‘I wish I could have’ turn into ‘I deserve to have and have it now’?
What do we think will eventually happen when the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots creates a greater divide around what it is that we think we’re owed? For example, what happens to Billy when Johnny gets a new iPad and Xbox and Nike sneakers and he doesn’t? And why does Johnny suddenly think he’s better than Billy because he can get anything he asks for? What makes Mary so mean, getting her friends to bully Sally because she doesn’t have a new designer handbag? And what makes Johnny and Mary’s parents rush to their defense threatening the school system when Billy or Mary’s mother complains to the teachers about the bullying?
Do things have to reach such an extreme before we come back to a more humane center? What will it take to crack the illusion of over-idealized materialism and greed gone amuck? As with any illusion a tension begins to build when the shared assumptions around our idealizations begin to be challenged. Initially, we often see a more extreme insistence on what is our due. Ignoring other potential balancing mechanisms or mid-course corrections, we charge ahead hoping that whatever is threatening our expansive ideal is only a temporary blip on the screen. Once the grandiose illusion begins to shatter, however, we often see a rise in hopelessness coupled with an increase in cynicism, fatalistic passivity, and unbridled and irrational cold-heartedness.
Sometimes I wonder if we have lost our bearings in some way that has become irreversible, allowing greed and grandiose entitlement to become the norm. How is it that we got to the point that it is acceptable to justify and extol human greed and all of the mean-spiritedness that attends it? In 1957 Ayn Rand wrote her best-selling book Atlas Shrugged. The premise, as many of you remember, highlighted “objective” reason as the only true route to advancement as a society. The notion of ethical altruism, Rand purported, ought to be rejected and replaced with free market capitalism that she believed would usher in a new moral philosophy, one where rational self-interest would prevail. Coining this as “the virtue of selfishness”, Rand declared that capitalism and altruism are incompatible. Framing the path to success in such either/or terms, Rand made it possible, even acceptable to pair the idea of being “moral” with caring only about oneself. For a generation this permission was intoxicating, helping to shape much of corporate America and the current political landscape as well.
What does all of this have to do with a column written by a psychologist, you might ask? Plenty. The role of any therapist is to help penetrate blind spots and illusions that threaten the wellbeing and safety of its citizens. It is also our role to act as a barometer or a mirror, reflecting back to us inconsistencies in our beliefs and our behaviors. How will the choices that we make impact the next generation? As a culture, when we define success and failure in either/or terms, measuring success by the accumulation of wealth, the glorification of greed coupled with a rhetoric of absolutes are soon to follow. I wonder what happened to the notion that with privilege comes responsibility. In 1957 Ayn Rand would have pointed to my comment an example of weakness, labeling it as “the folly of ethical altruism”. In 2012 I’m wondering how well her philosophy and new morality have stood the test of time.