4. Harmony with Human Nature

1 September 2558

4. Harmony with Human Nature

A motivation or state of mind that has a strong bearing and influence on the economy is greed or covetousness (lobha).

There are economists who claim that greed is a natural part of human nature and therefore there is no harm in having people engage in the economy with this state of mind.

Some even say that greed should be promoted, because it will drive people to be more industrious, intensify competition, and create a more vigorous economy, for instance by increasing output and yield.

It is true that greed is a part of human nature. The above claim, however, is faulty; it lacks logical analysis and is only a one-sided consideration. It reveals an inadequate understanding of human nature. It is an opinionated hypothesis and conjecture stemming from incomplete study and scholarship. It is a weak point that, if present, makes it extremely difficult for economics to truly solve human dilemmas.

Here are some observations on the flaws of the categorical claim that ‘greed is a part of human nature’:

A) Although greed is indeed a part of human nature, it is only one aspect of human nature. Human beings have many other qualities, including many that are diametrically opposed to greed, e.g.: kindness, compassion, generosity, and self-sacrifice.

B) Some people view human greed as identical to greed inherent in other animals, e.g. elephants, horses, cows, dogs, rats, pigs, cats, etc., but this is not true.

Greed in (other) animals is instinctual. When the basic desire to live, eat, reproduce, etc. has been satisfied, the matter is finished.

Greed in humans, however, is compounded by the power of thinking, thus escalating both in amount and in intensity. For instance, greed can greatly increase hostility; one person’s greed can cause him to exterminate a million others and create incalculable havoc in the world.

To satiate greed people may use elaborate subterfuge and duplicity not found in other animals. If not managed correctly, greed can thus create tremendous problems.

C) As mentioned earlier, some economists claim that greed is good because it makes people more industrious and hardworking. It is foolish, however, to believe that this is the prevailing view of most economists.

Many eminent economists, including mainstream economists, recognize that greed is bad.

John Maynard Keynes, for example, considered greed to be bad, but he claimed that people must rely on and utilize greed for the foreseeable future (‘at least for 100 years’). He thought it necessary for people to have greed—the desire for money and wealth—until the economy grows enough to meet people’s basic needs and is able to completely eliminate poverty.

‘For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.’1

(Some people have responded to this comment, saying that by using the present economic system, even if one were to wait 500 years, or the strength of the economy were to multiply 500 times, poverty would still not be eliminated.)

The next two factors are of paramount importance, namely:

D) Economists who promote greed do not truly understand the nature and implications of greed. Their overall understanding of desire is vague and ill-defined, and they fail to recognize that there are different kinds of desire. Basically, there are two kinds of desire, which are revealed in the following examples:

– Gloria sweeps and mops the house because she desires a clean house.

– Keith, on the other hand, sweeps and mops because he has been promised some cake as a reward.

– A scholar writes a book or conducts research on his specific field of study because he wants to impart knowledge to others, helping them to solve problems or promoting social development.

– Another scholar writes a book or conducts research because she wants a job promotion or a monetary reward.

Note the differences between these two kinds of desire:

1. The first kind of desire is a desire to produce or generate something, and it seeks the direct result of a particular action.

This desire is a direct cause for action, i.e. it is a desire for action and a desire for the fruits of action. (Here, positive action is implied: to act in order to bring about positive results, or to act well. One can call it ‘creative aspiration’ or ‘pursuit of development.’)

2. The second kind of desire is a desire to obtain an object, for which one is not yet eligible, in order to own or consume it. Moreover, there are preconditions or stipulations that one must do something else (i.e. an act separate and not directly related to the object) in order to obtain the desired object.

This kind of desire is not a direct cause for action. Rather, it leads a person to search for a way to obtain the object, subject to the specific precondition of being compelled to act in order to get something. One acts only because such action is a precondition. One does not desire the direct result of the action (e.g. cleanliness); instead one desires some kind of reward (e.g. cake).

Desire designated as ‘greed’ (lobha) is precisely this second kind of desire, i.e. the desire to obtain.

The second kind of desire, in Pali, is given the name chanda, translated as the ‘desire to act.’ This refers to a desire to act in order to bring about positive results. It can also be translated as the ‘desire to create’ and even the ‘desire for knowledge.’2

Because greed or covetousness is simply the desire to obtain, greedy people have no wish to act and do not aspire to the direct result of an action. They will only act when they are required to act in order to obtain a desired object. If they can get this object without exerting any effort, this would be ideal.

When they are forced to act, they do so begrudgingly and unwillingly, with hardship and a lack of enthusiasm. As a consequence, one must establish a system of control and regulation, which is often complex and corrupt.

If possible, these people will avoid working to get what they want; they will seek ways to get it without any effort. Such desire is thus the root of various forms of immoral behaviour and social ills.

Desire, in its various forms, plays a significant role in people’s lives, and it acts as a driving force in the economy. If economists wish for economic activities to truly benefit individual people and society, they must develop a deeper understanding of desire and learn to harness it. This is related to the next factor:

E) The Western outlook on nature is to see it as fixed or static. Contemporary economics has generally evolved from this way of thinking. It therefore views desire as uniform and invariable, and it doggedly aims to satisfy this perceived constant and uniform kind of desire.

Human nature, however, is open to change. This is a crucial point.

Human beings are unique in that we can be trained; we are responsive to spiritual development and cultivation. It is the responsibility of each individual to partake in such self-development, and it is the duty of society to promote it.

Spiritual education, training, and cultivation lies at the heart of people’s efforts to live a good life and to create a peaceful society. It is the express attribute enabling people to be noble and exceptional, and to create a prosperous and flourishing culture and civilization.

And in this context, desire, which has a direct bearing on economic activity, can itself be transformed and cultivated. This pertains to both forms of desire mentioned above.

Such transformation of desire brings about a change in behaviour, including economic behaviour. Moreover, it induces change on many other levels, including the development and increase of happiness.

This enhancement and development of spiritual qualities is precisely the development of human virtue, and it goes hand-in-hand with an economics of mutual conditionality and with genuine human development.

Take the example of work. If we develop desire and generate an enthusiasm for work, or if we can transform selfish desire (lobha) into wholesome desire (chanda), the entire meaning of work and our attitudes towards work will also be transformed.

Desire to Obtain (lobha) Desire to Act (chanda)
Work is a precondition for obtaining a desired object. Work produces desired results.
One works begrudgingly, waiting for the time to seek pleasure. One works with a sense of happiness, which is readily accessible, inherent to the task at hand.
One works out of a sense of hardship and misfortune, earning money in order to purchase pleasure (indirect course). One works joyfully; the money one earns only increases one’s happiness (direct course).
Work is a form of settlement and reimbursement within a profit-making system. Work is an act of creativity and solves both personal and social difficulties.

Although this matter has not been discussed here in detail, what has been mentioned so far is enough to act as an index for how economic administrators and government officials should manage the economy, by recognizing and acknowledging that at any one time people in the society exist at different levels of development. Not everyone is the same. We all differ in terms of desires, behaviour, disposition, intelligence, and ability to be happy. For this reason, social leaders and administrators should:

1) Regulate the economy by promoting various supports and services suitable to people of different levels of development, meeting their needs in a way that does not cause harm or compromise goodness and truth.

2) Encourage every person in society to progress to higher levels of spiritual development. In this way, people do not stay stuck in one place or regress.

It is implied here that such social leaders and administrators will also understand that at any one time, those people existing at higher levels of spiritual development will be fewer than those at lower levels.

Take for instance the area of desire. Social leaders should recognize that there exists only a small percentage of people in society who aspire towards understanding and innovation, who have a strong will to perform wholesome actions, and who delight in the search for knowledge and wisdom.

Although such persons are small in number, they exert a strong influence by developing themselves, fostering social betterment, and advancing civilization.

The majority of people, however, are less developed in virtue and lack an aspiration and enthusiasm for work and active engagement. They have greed as a strong driving force and primarily seek pleasure from sensuality. This makes them inclined to avoid exertion and work; they prefer to obtain their desired objects without any effort.

Provided with this understanding, astute leaders will set up systems and attend to the citizens in society in line with the truth of this aforementioned diversity and disparity among people, for the benefit of all:

1. There are many people, if not the majority, who relate to things with greed. They want to acquire things, but they don’t necessarily want to work for them. They seek ways to get things using different methods:

A. Through prayer and supplication, waiting for divine blessings.

B. Hoping for a stroke of good luck, say by gambling.

C. By scrounging or asking, waiting for handouts and aid from others.

D. Through immoral behaviour, attempting to get things by way of deceit, duplicity, fraud, or theft.

E. By using force, oppression, and exploitation to take things from others.

F. By leading extravagant and lavish lifestyles, engrossed in consumerism.

Social leaders should respond to such greedy and covetous people in the following ways:

A. Establishing a system of terms and stipulations (a conditional system), requiring that people must perform some kind of work before they are given money.

B. Laying down supplementary measures, e.g.:

  • Establishing a system of inspection, regulation, and punish­ment for those individuals who transgress the rules and agreements set down in the conditional system.
  • Making earnest effort to stamp out corruption and to guard against intimidation, coercion and harassment.
  • Eliminating places of vice, places of fraud and duplicity, and places of temptation, which induce people to seek profit without needing to work.
  • Devising various strategies and methods to encourage people to steer away from indolence and heedlessness.

The following two methods are essential for the success of such a conditional system:

  1. The rules, laws, and regulations must hold power; they must be enforced decisively and resolutely in order to be truly effective.
  2. The terms and stipulations must be set down skilfully, in order to regulate and deflect greed. They will thus be as constructive and supportive as possible. For instance, greed will be offset by an encouragement to perform work; the more greedy a person is, the more inducement there will be to accomplish work—one of the chief objectives of the conditional system.

2. Although the number of individuals endowed with a dedicated will to act, with a longing and aspiration for knowledge and wisdom, may be few, they act as a force for building and nurturing society.

Leader should seek out, be attentive to, and promote such individuals earnestly and sincerely.

3. As mentioned earlier, an aspect of human nature is that we are trainable. Most people are endowed with a mixture of positive and negative potential. This is especially true in relation to desire, i.e. people harbour both greed (lobha) and wholesome desire (chanda), which has a strong bearing on economics.

If people have an enthusiasm for action (chanda), they will cultivate a love for their work, a ‘producer’s’ temperament, fortitude, and self-discipline.

If people have a lot of greed (lobha), however, society will face the problems of consumerist values, extravagance, corruption, indiscipline, superficiality, and overall deterioration.

If people are predominantly greedy, and the rules and regulations in society, or the conditional system, are powerless and ineffective, society will be very weak and shaky.

For this reason the state, or social leaders, ought to provide opportunities to the general public for education and spiritual training. People will thus learn different techniques for dealing with desire, e.g. to use greed as a catalyst for wholesome desire, or to reduce greed and strengthen the will to act. Most important is to promote and enhance this wholesome desire—this aspiration for knowledge—and to create a conditional system that is potent and effective, generating true development in individuals and in society.

There are other aspects to the dynamics of human nature in regard to spiritual training. For instance, when people lack spiritual develop­ment, their happiness is greatly dependent on consuming material things. But when they have undergone spiritual training, their depen­dence on material things to bring about happiness decreases and they experience a greater sense of freedom. Social management needs to proceed in harmony with this truth of human nature.

Another aspect of human nature is that, on the whole, when people are not oppressed by suffering or threatened by danger, living comfortably, they have the proclivity to grow idle and to become careless and indulgent.

It is therefore the duty of social leaders to set down measures for establishing people in diligence and heedfulness (appamāda), which is the chief factor for preventing social decline and creating true prosperity.

These are just some simple examples of how social management needs to conform to the truth of human nature.

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  1. Essays in Persuasion, ch. 5, ‘The Future’ (1931).
  2. At this point we will not discuss the related subject of necessity or ‘need.’

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