Greed has been the star of the Seven Deadlies over the last few years. The insatiable desire to accumulate wealth has resulted in Ponzi schemes, real estate bubbles, and banking crises.
But J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says greed still has some redeeming qualities. “When it spurs people on, as it does within capitalistic systems, it has positive value,” he notes. “And greed for knowledge … What’s wrong with that? So it depends on the type of greed you’re talking about.”
Even materialistic greed can have positive effects. Research shows that when you’re pursuing and acquiring what you desire, you feel great. This has the potential to benefit not only you personally, in the form of happiness and health, but also those around you, including family, friends, and, depending on your business, shareholders and society. And in the end, even if you’ve acquired great wealth—admirably or not—others’ resentments are often forgotten if the proceeds are used altruistically. Murnighan points out that Andrew Carnegie and even Warren Buffett took advantage of economic situations in their respective eras, when “they were able to acquire enormous resources for a whole lot less, because others were at a disadvantage.” But Carnegie is remembered more today for being a great supporter of the arts, and Buffett is widely admired for pledging the bulk of his $44 billion fortune to charity.
“It’s basic human nature to feel greed,” says Murnighan. “Whether it’s a sin depends on the limits we place on it.”