7

Greed is a Real Sin

There is a lot of talk on the streets and in the media about a thing called “corporate greed.” This greed is supposed to reside in entities called corporations that are somehow exploiting people to make a profit by valuing profit over people. The only problem with this construction is that a corporation is a “legal person,” but it is not a real person. And greed, being a sin, can only be committed by real persons; it cannot be committed by corporations. Because they are legal persons, corporations can break the law and be punished by the law, by fines or judgments, but they cannot sin.

Sin requires human agency. Where corporations figure in this human agency is in providing cover for the sins of individuals and/or being a means by which the sin is carried out. So-called corporate greed then is just old-fashioned, seven deadly sin variety greed. And greed is a real sin committed by real people.

But it is not only the stakeholders — whether executives, stockholders, managers, or employees — of corporations that exhibit greedy tendencies.  Greed is not confined to any particular status or class of persons. A poor person may be greedier than his wealthy neighbor. And mere “profit” in the corporate bottom line is not evidence of greed any more than an individual’s paycheck amount is evidence that he or she is or is not greedy. A company that barely survives in the market place may have the most venal, dehumanizing scoundrels at the helm, while a board of kindly philanthropists might guide a company that makes money hand over fist. It’s complicated.

And it isn’t made any simpler by the fact that millions of real persons are invested through retirement accounts in legal persons whose identity and behavior – ethically and legally — is a complete mystery to them. It has become standard advice to average middle class American families that funding retirement will require savings in the neighborhood of a million dollars. Is it “greedy” to be aiming to retire? Is it greedy to be saving for retirement? Is it greedy to invest your retirement saving in funds that you hope will grow?

Despite these complexities we are assured that greed is real (CCC 2534-2537):

The tenth commandment unfolds and completes the ninth, which is concerned with concupiscence of the flesh. It forbids coveting the goods of another, as the root of theft, robbery, and fraud, which the seventh commandment forbids. “Lust of the eyes” leads to the violence and injustice forbidden by the fifth commandment. Avarice, like fornication, originates in the idolatry prohibited by the first three prescriptions of the Law. The tenth commandment concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law.

The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have, e.g., the desire to eat when we are hungry or to warm ourselves when we are cold. These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him.

The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbor in his temporal goods:

When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.”

It is not a violation of this commandment to desire to obtain things that belong to one’s neighbor, provided this is done by just means. Traditional catechesis realistically mentions “those who have a harder struggle against their criminal desires” and so who “must be urged the more to keep this commandment”:

… merchants who desire scarcity and rising prices, who cannot bear not to be the only ones buying and selling so that they themselves can sell more dearly and buy more cheaply; those who hope that their peers will be impoverished, in order to realize a profit either by selling to them or buying from them… physicians who wish disease to spread; lawyers who are eager for many important cases and trials.

Greed then takes two basic forms: avarice, an unbridled desire to accumulate material goods; and envy, the desire for what belongs to another.

We cannot see “greed” usually, anymore than we can see “lust,” as these are traits of the sinful heart.  They only become evident when they lead to actions that can be seen. When we see the adulterer having an affair, we assume lust motivated him. When we see the fraudster doing a perp walk, we assume that greed motivated him. We don’t “see” the lust in the heart of the “family man” or the greed in the heart of the poor janitor. It is not until some action reveals these underlying capital sins that we make the accusation.

When an oil company forgoes best-known safety practices in pursuit of profit, we know that someone has made a decision based on greed. When banks engage in predatory lending, then sell their bundles of sub-prime mortgages as derivatives under false ratings in order to bet against their own borrowers in the market place, someone has made a decision based on greed. When officers of a company get millions in bonuses while the lowest paid workers are laid off into a poor job market, someone has made a decision based on greed. But greed is rarely so obvious. The connection between wealth and greed cannot always be easily surmised; while some actions reveal greed with clarity, many others are ambiguous.

The bottom line is that greed — as a condition of the sinful heart — cannot be controlled or punished. Only actions can be judged and only crimes can be punished. I make this point because the mood, or sentiment, that “the rich” must somehow be punished for “their greed” is gaining more and more currency. We have to count on the law to protect us from others’ actions, but we cannot count on the law to protect us from sins in the hearts of people.

Take lust for example. The Taliban see lust as a serious problem. To protect their society from lust, they cover women from head to toe.  That is the kind of thing that happens when a society tries to outlaw and punish a capital sin instead of dealing with the actions that sin precipitates. We can outlaw pornography, adultery, and rape, but it would be a fantasy to think we could outlaw lust.

By the same token, we can outlaw fraud, blackmail, bank robbery, certain levels of interest on loans, breaking and entering, false advertising, etc. but we cannot outlaw or even punish greed. If we try to, we end up constraining freedom so much that we damage our society more than we help it. In the interest of “punishing greed” by taxation for instance we end up constraining generosity and we tend to forget that government can be just as guilty of “corporate greed” as any corporation.

Greed is a real sin and it is not fought by law or by taxation. Like all capital sins, it is fought by real virtue. The virtues opposed to greed are generosity, munificence, solidarity, and stewardship – all of which virtues, along with the actions they prompt, require freedom. In fact, apart from freedom they are not virtues. If we want to see generosity abound, we have to stop thinking of how we can “force” those who are “greedy” to give more by taxation and instead free those who are generous to have more control over their own goods and wealth. Instead of focusing on controlling the wicked, let’s focus on freeing the good – on giving the good and generous man the maximum control over his own goods and wealth. Instead of worrying about whether some greedy corporate worldly capitalist pays his fair share of taxes, let’s worry about making sure our munificent wealthy brother in Christ keeps the maximum control over the goods he desires to use for the common good and building up the Church.

Trying to force the world to take care of the poor and sick is setting the Church and the government on a collision course by squeezing religious freedom. Instead of trying to force the world to take care of the poor by increasing taxes on the rich, let’s maximize the freedom of action that the Church has and maximize the goods and money under the control of the children of light. I believe it will be the better strategy.

(© 2011 Mary Kochan)


Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is Editor-at-Large  of CatholicLane.com.

Raised as a  third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996.  Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at kochanmar@gmail.com.

  • http://www.schefter.org PrairieHawk

    We have to cultivate our own virtue if we are to have hope for changing society. The Wall Street protesters should do their own work first.

    “What’s wrong with the world? I am.” –G.K. Chesterton

  • goral

    Mary, you amaze me with the breadth of your knowledge.
    Take for example your statement that, “The bottom line is that greed — as a condition of the sinful heart — cannot be controlled or punished. Only actions can be judged and only crimes can be punished.”
    This is rather basic yet it escapes people who have vengefull and envious hearts.
    Common sense is a gift of the Holy Spirit and you are well endowed.

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  • fishman

    I do think that law has a place in this situation.
    We have put up too long with legislators who create unsound policies that benefit a select few rather then society as a whole.

    A simple example is that every time Micky Mouse has come up against the deadline to go out of copyright the limit on copyright has been raised.

    more over though, corporations are no longer required to have a meaningful charter and to stay within it. The effects of which have been horrible.

    It is one thing to get a medium sized corporation to notice public outcry over some immoral or unethical practice by not buying from them , but it nearly impossible to boycott mega-conglomerate corporations.
    Say Kraft Foods owner of Cadbury, Jacobs, Kraft, LU, Maxwell House, Milka, Nabisco, Oscar Mayer, Philadelphia, Trident, Tang.[3] and 30 or so more.

    Such conglomerates exist for one reason only, to accumulate wealth. Make stock prices go up so those who invest can sell and resell. Product quality or even type of product is only of interest withing the framework of how well it helps accumulate wealth. Greed is built into their fabric and their employees are required by policy to be greedy.

    So , although I do not disagree with anything you wrote, I think the society as a whole really needs to have a discussion on corporate law it’s impacts on the general populous.

    Some application of solid catholic social teachings about subsidiary and helping people have personal responsibility while sharing limited risk , as opposed to simply being ‘employed’ would help a lot I suspect.

  • fishman
    • Mary Kochan

      fishman this comment appeared under that article you linked to:

      Is it any wonder that the list so closely mirrors the top 100 largest asset managers? No, because through pension plans, 401k/403b plans and individual funds, they manage trillions in assets — assets ultimately belonging to individuals who are predmoninantly not in the “1%”.

      Furthermore, the inclusion of the DTCC — the Depository Trust Clearing Corporation — is riduculous. It’s a CLEARING HOUSE that all large, self-clearing firms participate in. Securities held in brokerage accounts in “street name” – negotiable form, but still owned by the individual account holder – get book/computer entry notation at the DTCC…but are neither owned, custodied or controlled by the DTCC. The DTCC merely acts as an intermediary, the same way your bank does when you deposit a check Joe Smith writes you — Joe’s check (and the currency it represents) is not owned or even controlled by the bank, merely processed by it.

      I won’t even go into detail on the mutual insurance companies on the list except to say that these companies are 100% owned by their policy holders.

      Finally, there are a list of ‘custodian banks’ on the list — companies who hold the assets of asset managers to ensure timely and accurate processing of things like foreign dividend and bond interest payments, name changes (as in the case of mergers), foreign currency conversion and the like. Again, they do not OWN or CONTROL the assets, they merely HOUSE the assets on behalf of a third party. And several of those custodian banks (like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of New York Mellon and Citibank) have very large custody businesses AND very large asset management businesses, further obfuscating the issue to the uninitiated.

      A better list would be the actual asset *owners*, rather than the vendors who manage, invest house and clear said assets on behalf of third parties, including (primarily) the general public (Mon Oct 24 16:33:01 BST 2011 by Dan Ogden).

      Showing connections between entities is interesting, but I don’t know what it is supposed to prove. I do think that the big entities are really too big, since their failures can bring down so many others and for that reason they should probalby be disconnected, additionally their may be subsidiarity issues when it comes to how decisions are made, but the connections in themselves don’t establish greed, if that is your point.

  • fishman

    “but the connections in themselves don’t establish greed.”

    I don’t know if ‘greed’ would be the right term, as these entities are not human beings but function more like machines, with each person having only small culpability for the ‘sins’ of the entity.

    Most of these entities exist ENTIRELY for the purpose of consolidating and controlling wealth, they are not generating products themselves only hold and control other companies for the sake or pure profit.
    So, in a way ‘greed’ is the definition of what they do and how they do business.

    The problem is systemic and codified in existing law.
    The real problem is not so much the existence of these type of business but their very small numbers, which give them inordinate influence in the world and cause a slanting of the morality of ‘corporate’ entities towards short sighted and greedy behavior, codified in their policies.

    It is the nature of businesses to generate money ( as they are a means to employment and tools to allow those they employ and who invest in them to eat, meet their needs and desires etc.)

    However, as an ideal we should strive towards businesses who have dual purposes, one being the creation of wealth/employment the other being the genuine service and good of the community and customers.

    The current structure greatly discourages the dual purpose and the proper solution would be minor adjustment of and proper enforcement of corporate law.

    One would be to require corporate charters to reflect that dual purpose and specify in what way the corporation will benefit the society they are part of ( what products they will produce etc.)

    The next would be enforcement those charters of staying within that charter.

    why should the government grant special tax and liability protection to persons or groups who refuse to commit to the betterment of society?

    Corporations should not be allowed to own brands other then their corporate name , so everything produced by Kraft food should be required to be labeled as such. This would cause corporations to truly care about their corporate image and reputation. Right now many corporations carry a ‘low end’ product that is poor quality and a competing ‘high end product’ under a different label, with total disregard for what is actually of benefit to the customer and nearly zero concern about the poor quality of the ‘low end’, both simply being means to capture a larger market share. In short they basically deceive people about who they are and what they do. Accountability would go a long way to correcting the problem.