Hope and greed

I don’t think it’s been observed that there is a close structural similarity between hope and greed. Both are directed to the future: we hope for something good to come; we are greedy for future gain. Both involve a striving after good things: hope is an expectation of good; greed is a craving for good.

But most importantly, hope and greed both involve, in some sense, the wish to get something for nothing. Through hope, we expect to receive something good which is given to us in the manner of a gift. That which we receive as a gift need not be repaid. There are no strings attached to a gift, no quid pro quo. Thus, it is something for nothing.

Likewise through greed, we expect to receive something good without work or repayment on our part. That is why the essence of greed is evident in fraud. To defraud another, is to receive money for some product or service which is promised but never delivered. Fraud gets you all of the benefits of work with none of the effort.

The similarity of hope and greed explains why the one so easily converts to the other. Jesus put us on guard against this. After the 5,000 were fed miraculously, Jesus warned that they were following him around more closely, not because they were hoping in eternal life and the resurrection, but because they were greedy for more bread. What perhaps began as hope ended up as greed. The greed then masqueraded as hope.

For contemporary example: imagine a couple starting a life together, who stretched to pay a first mortgage, with good hopes that their income would improve over time, but who then, during the housing boom, kept increasing their debt, acting as if the equity in their home would keep on increasing forever. They’ve now planned their lives around ever expanding income and credit and feel that things “should” continue to progress in that way. Here hope has turned into greed.

Because greed can masquerade as hope, a person’s self-description cannot be taken as definitive: he says he has hope, but really (perhaps) he is simply covetous for more in the future. Young people, with little experience in life, would be especially prone to confuse the two.

One might wonder, then, under what conditions what is described as hope really represents greed. The question may be posed in this way: Since hope just as much as greed involves the wish to get something for nothing, what saves it from being immoral? -- We presume that wanting something for nothing looks dubious from the start. It looks like a rejection of reciprocity and fairness, and therefore of equality.

The answer to our question is clear if we consider that the proper object of hope is God: “Hope in God;” “In you, Lord, have I hoped;” “Place not your hope in princes.” Hope carries along with it everything that one would ascribe to someone who is looking to God for a gift.

Hope requires, first, a belief in providence: we see our lives as falling under God’s beneficial care. Likewise it presupposes belief in an objective moral order, since no one who brazenly transgresses God’s law, or scoffs at the idea of such a law, may properly claim to have hope.

Again, hope implies a detachment and sense of unworthiness, since one cannot claim as a right the gift which is hoped for. Hope is marked by sobriety, and a certain chasteness, upon one’s receiving the gift -- since someone who has received something valuable from God will naturally have a certain fear of misusing or not appreciating it. Finally, hope shows itself in public acts of thanksgiving, in acknowledgment of those blessings already received.

All of these elements simply follow from what hope is by definition, and to the extent that they are lacking, to that extent we are justified in wondering whether what someone calls hope is actually greed.

It seems unlikely that there could be in Western culture presently a mass movement based on genuine hope. The most basic fact about the West is that it is withering away into extinction from a failure to reproduce itself -- an unmistakable sign of despair, not hope. And then compare contemporary assertions of autonomy and self-determination in public rhetoric, with the genuine expression of hope found, for instance, in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” etc.

Lincoln’s expression of hope in the midst of extreme adversity and suffering reminds us, also, that it is human nature for presumption and greed, not hope, to flourish in times of great prosperity. Observers rightly say that the boom of the last two decades supplied fertile soil for greed -- greed “on Wall Street and on Main Street.” How likely is it, then -- especially given the absence of anything like a national repentance or conversion -- that an attitude of “wanting things to continue going well” without regard to sacrifice or debt, is something other than greed?

In the end, the reason hope is not illegitimate, is that God is a creator: he can and does make from nothing the goods he blesses us with. Greed, in imitation of hope, pretends that the goods it seeks likewise come from nothing--when in reality they come from the uncompensated toil of others.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Mass.