(Royal Library in Copenhagen)
It has become fashionable in recent decades to assert that greed is good—or more accurately, that greed can be a productive force for good. This is not a new idea: As early as the 18th century, philosophers such as Adam Smith noted that vices such as avarice and vanity contributed to the advancement of society by spurring industry and prosperity.
At the same time, Smith was deeply aware of the social and psychological costs of a competitive market system—not least anxiety, inauthenticity, inequality, and indifference to the misery of the poor. He frequently observed how the relentless pursuit of wealth disrupts the tranquility and contentment necessary to human happiness.
Modern critics of free-market capitalism have long complained that it promotes economic growth at the expense of virtue and happiness. But does the capitalist model for alleviating poverty force us to choose between the useful and the good? Is some measure of unhappiness simply the price we pay for human progress?
Though it may seem an unlikely source, the Buddhist tradition offers us a useful conceptual framework for thinking about this question, asserts Steven M. Emmanuel, dean of the Susan S. Goode School of Arts and Humanities at Virginia Wesleyan University. He finds many places in the canonical literature where the Buddha speaks directly to the benefits and the dangers of wealth acquisition as it pertains to happiness. These texts describe an ennobling form of economic activity that is not only compatible with moral and spiritual growth, but promotes the conditions for a peaceful, prosperous, and happy society.
What we find here, says Emmanuel, is an account of human progress that values economic freedom while posing a robust challenge to the valorization of greed in Western libertarian accounts of prosperity.
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