Can the Greedy and Ambitious be Empathic?

Remember Gordon Gekko’s words in his infamous but interesting speech in the film “Wall Street”? The words, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, and knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind”, seems to catch the imagination of the time, and for many still stays there. It represented our age of individualism.

The title of my last blog was Greed is out, empathy is in, or is it?, has raised some discussion on the word “Greed” among a few readers. Perhaps the essence of the discussion, in my way of thinking, lies in the difference between Greed and Ambition.

Greed is a generic word and although it is normally interpreted negatively, it does not necessarily always have to have purely negative connotations. Some of Gordon Gekko’s speech does come true, but perhaps the word ambition is better suited. With ambition we have the satisfaction of achieving an end that we set out to accomplish, while, on the other side, excessive ambition can bring us to the point of personal destruction, indeed, to the point of our losing control as to how we use others, to the point where greed and ambition are synonymous.

Wall Street personalities like Bernie Madoff, personify this extreme form of greed. Madoff, now in prison, appeared to run his own life solely for his own benefit and at the expense of others, many of whom he had falsely cultivated as friends. Relationships for people like Madoff are not about give and take, but about take and take, under the auspices of giving friendship. Excessive greed is not just a modern phenomenon; even Dante in his Purgatory had special treatment for the avaricious penitents.

Greed has been defined as an inordinate or insatiable longing especially for wealth, status and power. It is the excessive acquisition of far more than we need. It is often associated with stealing, hoarding, plundering, and even treason, where there is a material benefit to be gained. The Oxford dictionary defines greed as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food”.

Greed cannot be satisfied, as Mr. Madoff has demonstrated, but ambition can. Merriam-Webster defines ambition as “a particular goal or aim: something that a person hopes to do or achieve”.

Ambition is usually associated with positive connotations, unlike greed. We can have the ambition to get a good education, start a business, become a medical doctor or be an academic: you have a goal and you wish to achieve it.

But not everyone agrees that all greed is necessarily a bad thing. Ivan Boesky, the convicted fraudster, defended his thesis that greed leads to progress and is part of the evolutionary spirit, in his famous Berkeley commencement speech. What Boesky omitted was that excessive greed results in only one of the parties winning and the other remaining parties losing.

To counteract this tendency we have the virtue of generosity. Personalities such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet donate huge sums to charity just as Andrew Carnegie had done decades before. They understand that the virtue of generosity acts as a brake on greed.

So where does empathy fit into this discussion? Can we empathise with an excessively greedy person; can we empathise with all types of people? These are interesting questions. The word empathy, as I have said from a previous post, comes from the Greek word ‘empatheia’ which translates as “in feelings” (‘in’ plus ‘pathos’). In general it means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So can we empathise with the feelings of a greedy or over ambitious person? The answer to this question is, I believe, yes. However, is the reverse true? Can the self-centred, the greedy and the over-ambitious person empathise? No, because they normally believe the world revolves around them.

Their excessively high ego is the impediment to empathy, I believe. Many people have proposed that the young should be encouraged to be more empathic, but is this a realistic proposition in such a materialistic society as ours, and with the examples of those considered successful who put a premium on individual success, wealth, beauty and fame?

Barack Obama encouraged Northwestern University graduates in a speech in June 2006 to cultivate empathy. He went on, “we live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture, that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained; a culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses”. But this was a culture Obama himself had succeeded in. Was it realistic for him to ask graduates to go against the cultural grain which all the successful personalities that they had read or heard about during their studies had thrived on? For many listeners or readers it was up to Obama to demonstrate his thesis by ‘walking the talk’.