A (modest) philosophy of greed

I have recently taken it upon myself to sit in on a philosophy class. I’ll get no university credits (who needs them?), but hopefully a chance to plug some of the large gaps I have in my philosophy repertoire. This may make me cleverer, or it may just make me a cleverer interlocutor. (Either way, it’ll surely lend a more interesting, perhaps even sophisticated, edge to kitchen conversations with the philosophe – my beloved husband, who also happens to be the teacher).

I suppose one of the reasons I chose not to specialise in philosophy is that I have a lay perspective (not yet uprooted) of a bunch of people making way too big a deal about the idea of life rather than getting on with it: just how fruitful can it be to question whether absolute truth exists, or how well you can trust your perception that the sky is blue? Still, these are some of the “big” questions, and I remain open to being convinced of their importance.

Another of the big questions is what makes you “you”. This is both highly subjective – what traits, stories, and impulses make you different from someone else (or why would someone choose to spend their life with you and not the neighbour?) – and much broader: what makes human beings different from animals (do animals have knowledge, or merely instincts? And given that so many of our instincts are actually learned rather than “instinctual”, is there a difference?).

One compelling argument for a difference between us and the beasts is that we all experience hunger but, as the philosophe pointed out, we can choose to ignore ours. It’s unlikely, in other words, that a hungry cat would turn down a bowl of food because she’s too busy to eat, saving her appetite for lunch, or because she has an eating disorder. (This argument of course rests on the fact that we don’t know what animals are thinking).

Following this logic, animals probably don’t “experience” greed either. Sure, we can see them being greedy – our little cat Mogwai has a seemingly monstrous greed for food from other cats’ bowls, not to mention for popcorn and the milk leftover from muesli – but I suspect that’s really a combination of a healthy appetite and the fact that she likes the taste of those things. Her “greed”, then, is still a biological drive or instinct, just an imperfectly regulated one.

Consider the stampede, another perfectly normal animal drive. Why do animals stampede? Normally out of fear. At least the ones in front are normally reacting to fear, the ones in the middle or back might well have no idea why they’re running, they’re just following the others and so represent the crowd or pack mentality, which I believe is another perfectly normal animal drive.

Why do humans stampede? Also often enough out of fear. There are countless examples, but I remember one particularly sad case of children being crushed to death in a zoo in Maputo years ago when someone thought it would be funny to pretend that the lions had escaped from their cages.

They also apparently stampede out of wilful greed. Like the crowd who trampled a man to death yesterday as they were trying to get to post-Thanksgiving bargains in a New York Wal-Mart:

‘Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”’ (from the New York Times)

Perhaps the only real difference between humans and non-human animals is our access to motivation. And sinister as that too often is, perhaps it’s better not to know at all.