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Greed and the philosophy of wealth
When does a healthy desire for wealth morph into greed? And how can we stop it?
- It's common wisdom that most things in life are best in moderation.
- Most of us agree that owning property is okay but are hard-pressed to say why and when it has gone too far.
- Greed dominates your life if the pursuit of wealth is a higher priority than charity, kindness, and solidarity with others.
The great Greek poet, Hesiod, wrote, "Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things." It's a wisdom that finds support across all ages, stages, and aspects of life. Drinking water is a good thing, but drinking too much is dangerous. A shot of vodka won't kill you, but a gallon probably will. Working hard is good, but burning yourself out is not. Being nice is great, but a sycophant is creepy. Moderation in all things.
But, it's not always easy to determine where that line falls, and a great example of this concerns property and wealth.
Most of us agree that owning things, or at least having the right to own things, is good. It's okay to buy a phone, to own a car, or to have your own clothes. But equally true is that most people feel uneasy about a world which has both billionaires in vast mansions as well as children dying malnourished. Greed, avarice, envy, and venality are considered vices. To be obsessively driven for material things is still, in the main, considered to be either misguided or, at its worst, utterly immoral. So, when does wealth become greed?
John Locke and the philosophy of property
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when humans first called a thing "mine," but the philosophy and law of property is much easier to track. One of the biggest names to consider the issue was the 17th century English philosopher John Locke.
Locke's political philosophy is famously cited as a major influence on the U.S. Declaration of Independence but also fed heavily into the French Revolution and the Great Reform movements of Britain. His work on property is perhaps one of his most important contributions.
Although subject to a fair bit of debate — what isn't in philosophy? — it's generally accepted that Locke adopted a "fair usage" view of property. He argued that one can hold any property that meets the following criteria:
- It can be used before it spoils (e.g., we don't have huge stores of food that just rots).
- It leaves "good and enough" for everyone else (e.g., one person cannot own all the land in a country).
- The property must come from your own work and effort or what he calls "mixing your labor" with that thing (e.g., if you farm a field, the field and its produce become yours).
If we were to follow these rules, it seems hard to envisage a world of greed and inequality. Everyone can have and get what they want, so long as enough is left for everyone else to get what they want, as well.
But, there's a lot of ambiguity in these rules, and money rather changes things. Money, especially modern money in the form of digital numbers on a screen, does not spoil. And, thanks to modern banking, there is no limit to the amount of money there could be — a bank can, and does, literally create money each time they give you a credit card or a loan (although, in practice, few countries allow this and place limits on money creation). So, no matter how many billions someone creates, there will always be "good and enough" money for others, too.
(Of course, in practice, constantly creating huge new pools of money will lead to hyperinflation, devaluing the money for everyone. Yet, even if we were to ban all new money creation today, a Lockean could argue that there's more than enough already for a generous distribution around the world.)
So, money changes things for Locke's account. It won't spoil and there will always be at least some money for everyone else. It's even been argued that Locke, far from advocating an equal and distributive philosophy, can easily support rampant capitalist accumulation of wealth. Locke wrote that, because of money, "Now one man could have… a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth… and fairly possess more land than he himself can use."
It's the philosophy of greed.
Too much greed
The idea that greed is an essential part of being human (or at least an animal) goes back at least to Plato and has a rich philosophical history from there. Today, it often takes the form of evolutionary psychology or genetics, exemplified by Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.
It's when we think of little else than increasing our experiences and material possessions. This is the point at which greed has come to dominate your life.
One thinker who has challenged this is Peter Singer. Singer acknowledges the fact that evolution does work on a certain competitiveness, that is, the fittest will pass on their genes. But he also believes that it's wrong to associate this wholly with greed or selfishness. Cooperation and productive relationships are just as vital to survival.
Singer argues that the desire to do good, to work hard, and to succeed are admirable parts of the human condition, but when they are taken to excess, they turn into greed. That line comes when the want of more — particularly, the desire for material wealth — becomes the sole focus of a life. It's when working late or constantly looking for that promotion is prioritized over family, friends, and common human compassion.
The fact is that, in the West, most people have enough. Even poor people generally have TVs, smartphones, and automobiles. The average person in the West lives far better than royalty did for millennia. Singer asks us to get a sense of perspective. We spend more on bottled water than some families in developing countries live off for a day. We're so fixated on our current day-to-day condition, that we lose sight of how much we really have.
Greed über alles
Singer's argument helps us identify the point at which drive and success insidiously morph into greed: It's when we are loath to spend our money and devote all of our waking lives to determinedly accumulating more and more at the expense of our relationships. It's when we think of little else than increasing our experiences and material possessions. This is the point at which greed has come to dominate your life.
But it's also when greed replaces our common sense of compassion. It's when property and wealth become virtues greater than charity, kindness, and solidarity with others. It's when dollar signs and fast cars matter more than people dying in the street. It's when getting a pay raise matters more than someone else getting fired.
Nobody likes to think of themselves as greedy, but if you examine yourself closely, you will probably find some aspects of your life that are at least tainted by greed. We should all check ourselves from time to time.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.