Monday, March 31, 2008

Greed vs. Covetousness

When my wife was on spring break, we went to Kentucky to visit family. We went and had dinner with the pastor of my church growing up -- Maranatha Baptist Church -- and his wife more because I was close to them from having been a close friend with their son than the fact that he was my pastor. They were keen on seeing our 15 month old baby, Melina.

We had a lot of fun talking about how screwed up everything is, but then my pastor made a comment in regards to the problem of greed. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but it triggered me to insist upon differentiating greed from coveting. I think too many people mistake the two, conflating coveting with greed. We typically think of greed as wanting more and more and more and more of something(s). Humans are, of course, naturally acquisitive. What matters is how we acquire. I gave my pastor the following scenario:

Suppose there was a man who came up to you and told you that they really loved your wife and that they hoped to marry someone just like her some day. How would you feel about that? Wouldn't you feel pleased with the compliment?

Suppose there was another man who came up to you and told you that they really loved your wife and that they hoped to marry her some day. How would you feel about that? Wouldn't you be insulted, angry?

The first person is greedy, the second person is covetous.

If someone wants the same kinds of things you have, they are being admiring and, yes, greedy.
If someone wants the same things you have, they are being envious and covetous.

The first scenario will set someone out to better themselves or work hard to try to get the same kinds of things.
The second scenario can only have success if you seduce the man's wife away from him, or murder him then marry his wife, or (in the case of material objects, including money) steal from him.

The first assumes the world is a positive sum game, where everyone can have what they value -- where value is indeed created.
The second assumes the world is a zero sum game, where if I'm to have mine, I must take from you -- for me to have more value, your value must be reduced.

The first scenario is ethical; the second scenario is unethical.

But too many think greed and covetousness are the same. When you profit at the expense of someone else, you are working in an envy-covetousness mindset (even if you are rich and the victim is poor). We mistakenly call such people greedy, when the proper term is covetous.
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