See also: Islamic Economics Lecture 8: Legitimization of the Pursuit of Wealth
The Pursuit of Wealth
In nearly all cultures and religions, and for most of history, greed, avarice and pursuit of wealth have been considered harmful and evil. Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu writes: “Do not race after riches, or you will let slip the Heaven within you,” and similar sentiments can be found in nearly all scriptures. Children are reprimanded for selfishness, and taught share toys, cooperate, and be generous in nearly all cultures.
Modern Europe replaced the Biblical sentiment that “Love of money is the root of all evil,” by the wisdom of Bernard Shaw that “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” Many historians and philosophers have described the process by which wealth gradually came to be prioritized over other social considerations. In this essay, we will discuss some aspects of this historical change, and the incalculable damage it has done. Pursuit of wealth, luxury, and hedonistic lifestyles is being promoted by powerful media and this message is eagerly being absorbed by our youth, which bodes ill for the future. Creating an awareness of this broad historical perspective provides an essential basis for resistance to the onslaught of modernity, which threatens many of our precious traditions.
Interminable and bloody religious warfare in Europe led to the emergence of a secular system of thought which repudiates religion as a basis for social organization. In a secular society, it is necessary to find some alternative to religion as a basis for collective action. Starting from the assumption that the society is composed of individuals with different religions and irreconcilable conflicts, European political thought emphasized the diversity of human goals and the primacy of freedom to choose. Wealth was seen as an essential component of freedom, as it allows individuals to do whatever they desire. Thus the pursuit of wealth became a social goal and a means of obtaining maximum freedom in a secular society. The attempt to turn a vice into a virtue was initiated by Mandeville, whose famous “Fable of the Bees” described how production stops when bees decide to give up greed and become honest and virtuous. Adam Smith similarly argued that it was the selfish motives of the baker that delivered bread on the tables. Arguments that pursuit of wealth was socially acceptable and produced public benefits led to a gradual but radical alteration in the fabric of European society.
Early thinkers saw clearly that wealth was merely a means to an end, but considered it a necessary intermediate step to advance towards desirable social goals. Sociologist Max Weber writes that the “spirit of capitalism” is the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself, to the point of being “absolutely irrational”. Keynes wrote that the “accumulation of wealth” is a distasteful human quality, and even a disgusting morbidity; nonetheless, we must pretend that “foul is fair” so as to get out of the tunnel of economic necessity. Leading European philosophers (Capitalist, Communist and Socialist) were persuaded that the solution to all problems of mankind lies in the accumulation of wealth, and sufficient wealth would bring about heaven on earth. Later thinkers lost sight of the larger goals, and began to think of pursuit of wealth as a desirable goal in and of itself. Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman and followers very explicitly argue that businesses should only pursue profits and should not pursue socially beneficial goals. This reversal of priorities, and placement of money over social concerns has had tragic consequences in all domains of human existence. We will only be able to sketch of few of these in this brief essay.
Recent research on the classical question “Can money buy happiness?” has led to conclusions familiar to the ancients but startling to the moderns. It has been conclusively established that social relations play a decisive role in determining happiness. In contrast, after basic needs are provided for, money is of very little importance in creating a sense of well being and satisfaction with life. Many books like “Loss of Happiness in Market Economies” document the fact that tremendous increases in wealth have not led to corresponding increases in happiness in the West. Studies of terminal patients in hospices show that nearly all regret paying too much attention to careers and wealth, and wish they had given more time to family, friends and social relations. The idea that sufficient wealth would lead to improvements in all dimensions of human existence, and a Heaven on Earth, has turned out to be wrong.
The idea that poverty leads to crime is being replaced by the understanding that the crime of neglecting the poor and the oppressed, and legitimizing pursuit of wealth without regard to social concerns, is what leads to widespread poverty. According to recent surveys, 38 million households experienced hunger and food insecurity in the USA in 2006. This was not due to lack of wealth in the USA. Several trillion dollars have been spent on bombing Iraq back to the stone ages, when just one trillion dollars would provide health care for the 47 million Americans and make college feasible for every American student. Just the interest on a trillion dollars would, according to the World Bank, eliminate starvation and malnutrition or provide primary education for every child on earth.
The sentiments of Shylock, who was ready to take a pound of flesh in search of profits, were once abhorrent to all. Now however, the spirit prevailing on Wall Street is that all is fair in pursuit of profits. Books like “Liar’s Poker: Rising through the wreckage of Wall Street,” describe how deceiving friends and faithful clients for profits is not only commonplace but praised behavior. The current global financial crisis has been correctly attributed to greed by many who have studied the causes carefully. The spirit of the Islamic Law that one must describe any known defects in merchandise to be sold has been forgotten by Muslims and is unknown to those who promulgate the reverse ideology in the form of “Let the buyer beware.”
The worship of wealth has also transformed education into a means of acquisition of wealth, instead of the reverse. We have lost sight of the idea that education is a means of enlightenment, intellectual and spiritual transformation, and a path to wisdom. The sentiment of earning a profit from the misery and illness of mankind would have been considered despicable by our ancestors, but is now widespread among medical students. Instead of asking what kind of knowledge will be of most value to society, student ask about which degree will bring the highest salary. Both humans and knowledge are degraded when they are viewed merely as tools to make money (as in the economic concept of ‘human capital’).
At this time, we have the cultural resources to be able to battle these modern ideas which threaten to destroy valuable social institutions. It is essential to protect the family from the destruction caused by loose sexual mores. It is essential to teach our children to take more pleasure from serving and helping others than from the pursuit of luxury. The message of fidelity, virtue, nobility, heroism, and self-sacrifice is present in our tradition and literature, but is under severe attack from western media which glamorize and promote hedonistic lifestyles. We need to take an active part in this battle for the hearts and minds of our youth. I hope that this essay will serve as a part of the effort that is needed.