Will greed and self-interest always overpower compassion and cooperation?

If the current state of the world is anything to go by, the answer to the title question appears to be a resounding YES.  I sure wish I felt otherwise.

This post is my response to the third and final 2022 challenge posed to me in early January by fellow blogger John Persico at Aging Capriciously.  John’s #3 challenge question to me: How can we eliminate greed in the world?  Is it even possible?  Why or why not?

If I’d been asked to reply to this question earlier than, say, 6 years ago, I might still have pulled out my idealistic voice – which is now dead and buried – and talked about how it is possible if we all pull together.  I might have used my optimistic side – which isn’t quite dead – and spoken about how tolerance and understanding can win out, starting by reminding us all of what nearly the entire world professes to believe within their own cultural and religious bubbles:  Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.  But I’m sad to say that too many events in the world in the past 6 years have made it abundantly clear that writing such positive words don’t change the reality:  Greed and self-interest have overtaken any semblance of compassion in altogether too many instances.  It is self-interest over any concern for the common good.

Greed is defined in many sources as the intense and selfish desire for some thing, especially wealth, power, and food.  In particular, it’s the desire for more than one actually needs.  A more forceful definition, which makes it clearer that greed is not a good thing, describes greed as ruthless self-seeking and an arrogant assumption that other people and things exist for one’s own benefit.

There are so many recent examples on the world stage that it’s hard to know where to start:

  • Putin’s greed in thinking that because he wants Ukraine (and, perish the thought, other sovereign nations he may have in mind) to be part of his empire, he can invade it, killing 10s of thousands, displacing millions, destroying entire cities and infrastructure, historical treasures, and a major source of the world’s grain supplies. Putin’s greed and Putin’s greed alone has done this.
  • Rising inequality in the world, especially in the rich Western countries, where we should be working on reducing inequality, not increasing it. From Forbes.com in 2020 (and it’s become even more extreme since): According to the latest Fed data, the top 1% of Americans have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion (or 4% of all household wealth in the U.S.), while the bottom 50% of the population holds just $2.1 trillion combined (or 1.9% of all wealth).  Although the U.S. leads the Western-world pack by a large margin in measures of inequality, it has been increasing in most countries.  And there is one reason only: public policies that protect the rich and industrialists at the expense of worker protection (e.g., unions).  And that’s a direct result of greed and power of decision makers at the top.  Those policies attract/ensure large donations and keep the same politicians elected.  The old saying “Power corrupts” is, sadly, too often the case.  All because of greed for money and/or power over the good of citizens and country.  [From Visual Capitalist, and it’s become more extreme since this 2013 data.]Greed-WealthInequality
  • The increase in populism in many of our Western countries. For me this is an example of greed, the greed of “my way or the highway”, or either play by the rules of my “tribe” or expect violence/racism/discrimination/marginalization.  The resulting ethnic and social issues are all well known, so I won’t itemize them and create unnecessary controversy, but this increase in people feeling that they can publicly challenge others to behave according to someone else’s” norms” when these others are doing absolutely nothing that’s hurting you is greedy, selfish, and cruel.  It’s not the world I want to live in.
  • I could go on, but I’m sure you can fill in the remaining virtual blanks with examples of your own.

Gandhi was once quoted as saying, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.”  He was referring to the fact that Earth cannot sustain a “western” lifestyle for all of humanity.  That is a greed that all of us who are so privileged must work on.  It is true for most of us who live in the western world – we could do with less, but we could start by looking at the extraordinary greed of owning multiple mansions, superyachts (!), and multiple private airplanes.  The fact that such obscene excesses exist is not only a prime example of greed but also something that would not have had a spotlight shone on it if Putin hadn’t started his criminal assault on Ukraine.

I would desperately like to have a positive resolution to this challenge, something to counter the response that, no, it is not possible to eliminate greed in the world … because human beings are just too damn susceptible to situations in which they can benefit from greedy actions.  Too self-serving.  I’m not sure I can have a positive resolution, but I’ll give it a try.

Research into human behaviour has suggested that we are wired with both a greedy proclivity and an empathetic proclivity.  It appears that in hunter-gatherer societies and other sparsely settled societies, people have come to understand that it is to their advantage to work together – to cooperate and collaborate – in order to make their lives work better.  So it is possible; we do have it within us.  If we want to live in a world where all people are treated with respect and all reciprocate accordingly, that is the path we need to follow.  From what we have experienced recently, this is a very, very tough challenge.  We can only live in hope and do our part to make the positive changes.  Take advantage of opportunities to walk the talk.


Yesterday, July 27, was Multiculturalism Day in Canada, established to celebrate the many diverse cultures within our communities across the country.  In 1971, the Canadian Parliament passed the Multiculturalism Act, which strove to promote diversity and inclusion, acknowledging the multitude of cultures that make up the fabric of our country, increasingly so as immigration increases and enriches us further.  For me the policy of multiculturalism is one of the most significant definers of our country, one of which I am extremely proud.  And it is one that I think exemplifies the kind of world I’m talking about. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister at the time, and in describing the intent of the policy of multiculturalism, he spoke of the very attributes we must embrace in order to eliminate or at least overpower greed: compassion, love, and understanding.



Previous 2022 challenge responses:

#1: Knowledge, wisdom, truth, and trust

#2: If I could turn back time – for peace, for love, … for dinosaurs

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30 Responses to Will greed and self-interest always overpower compassion and cooperation?

  1. “the desire for more than one actually needs” …is a problem we (humans) are not programed to accurately assess. We evolved to solve immediate problems of survival, via our five senses, in groups (cooperative), because that gave an individual its best chance also. To this day still, it’s impossible to predict how much is enough. Because we anticipate tomorrow and the possibility of scarcity, “especially wealth, power, and food”. Yes!
    In conversation with a clinical Psychologist regarding insecurities, I disclosed I was most insecure about “money”. She dismissed that as banal with the comment, “There’s never enough.”
    So to say “Putin’s greed” as if it is unique to him? Perhaps not.
    I think you are spot on with your now more realistic perspective on human nature. Recall that “God” was a very jealous God. Christ, Buddha, and so on? Okay, but their counsel to live by “the golden Rule” has been with us since, forever? And still we can’t. But we do try.
    The world we live in today is vastly different than the one we are programed for – one of chaos, hostility, uncertainty and insecurity. Or is it?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      So many excellent observations, Mark. Thank you. Perhaps our world now isn’t so vastly different from the one we were “programmed for” in some ways, although so much of our environments and their threats are ones we’ve manufactured ourselves now. But money insecurity isn’t the same as greed, unless you already have 12,000 sq. ft. mansion and think you deserve two of them. Money insecurity is plain old insecurity, which, as you say, we’re programmed for for survival. I’m not saying Putin’s greed is unique to him at all, just that it’s a compelling example of its destructive power when there’s both the will and the way. It sounds like we both think it will never be eliminated, even though I personally wish that weren’t the case.

  2. heimdalco says:

    Sadly, I agree that this dream seems far out of reach. I think about all that is transpiring in America … in just the LAST MONTH, as a heart-wrenching example .. & I cannot for the life of me envision a positive way forward or positive outcome for us. But I do have a sliver of hope, as you do. Your timeline was right on target with mine for when this all began – approximately 6 years ago. My heart aches for us all & I wonder where all those positive things about loving each other & helping each other & caring that my mom taught me are today.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’re usually the one trying to convince me of the power of hope, Linda! 😥 I think for the time being (war, economic struggles globally, etc) concentrating on local successes is the best way to keep hope alive. Maybe even occasionally thriving? 😊

      • heimdalco says:

        That IS the BEST hope. I’ve often said, as tragedies & weather devastation overwhelm us, America’s People … & there are still some amazing people & I believe they are still in the majority … step up & we take care of our own … rallying around each other with love & physical & emotional support. We do this when governments & trumpian leaders have failed & responded by only tossing rolls of paper towels into the crowd of suffering people. Thank you SO much for reminding me that there is still HOPE, for which I am a champion.

        The Supreme Court just smacked down another step forward this morning & sent us tumbling back years by reversing vital environmental regulations. I suppose ‘WE THE PEOPLE,’ at the local level will just have to strike out independently for the good of all & to maintain HOPE. Like you, I believe we can … & will.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          There is no doubt that the US Supreme Court has lost its way, and having a country (rightly) lose faith in one of the pillars of their democracy is really dangerous. Hopefully, this will right itself. It can’t happen soon enough. Sending vibes of hope.

  3. I understand where you’re coming from, and I fear that things will get worse before they get better, perhaps. Change will be slow and it will take a grassroots revolution country by country. I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime, but I still cling to hope for the future. But it’s going to be a rocky ride for many.

  4. ShiraDest says:

    Greed cannot be eliminated, but better governance and economic systems can be designed that encourage less greed and more contribution.

    “We fight … against the death of hope.”

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’re nailed it, Shira. That’s what we need all right, in every country. There are such controls or guidelines in place in many instances, but there always seem to be workarounds found. There need to be incentives that make it advantageous for decision makers to collaborate and cooperate, and to have fairness in mind. Wonderful quote.

  5. Roy McCarthy says:

    Well written Jane, depressing and true. As always, I hope that the generations who follow us will see – if it’s not too late – that cooperation and sharing of resources will make for a happier world. On a micro level, I’m happy to record that Jersey’s recent elections have shown a lurch towards leftist candidates, and (gasp) a feminine majority 🙂

  6. Morning Jane; just getting to this today and have to say that as you are one of the thinkers who inspire me, it’s hard to read how discouraged you are. Although, as a woman of similar vintage and persuasion, I confess to having become pretty jaundiced over the past few years as well. Initially, I simply refused to watch anything Trumpian, but that quickly wasn’t enough. It spread to pretty much anything American and then by 2022, I didn’t have to go south of the border to find what part of polarized, self servicing society looked like… The history behind the truckers convoy is chilling and then there are several of the CPC candidates… as you say, I could go on.

    How I keep myself going and maintain some of my ‘outlook’ is by regularly doing things that are consistent with it. I remain connected to several of the Syrians who I sponsored nearly 6 years ago and just yesterday attended the middle school graduation of one. Best graduation I had ever attended, upbeat, egalitarian, inclusive. Each of the 56 grads spoke on briefly onstage introducing the next grad behind them in the queue, the school band and their conductor gamely played Ode to Joy, a longtime parent volunteer was lauded by a couple of graduates, awards were given for sports and citizenship, a wide-ranging video showed dozens of school events over the past 3 years. The principal addressed Covid and what the kids had had to contend with and yet, I saw a vibrant, connected and supportive group of adolescents of whom my young friend was an integral member.

    I left feeling uplifted!

    So I still think globally and despair about Ukraine, the USA, the environment, poverty… but I tend to act locally and often find in my little community of Wolfville NS rays of hope.

    Hang in there, Jane; the world needs observers/bloggers.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, Jill, thanks so much for this wonderful example of diversity and inclusiveness at work. You’re right, it’s much more possible to stay optimistic when we think locally. And we are blessed to live in this little corner of the world.

  7. Rose says:

    “Research into human behaviour has suggested that we are wired with both a greedy proclivity and an empathetic proclivity.” Is the best way to create a more empathetic society, to figure out when/how to steer this wiring? Some people seem to be extremely empathetic, while others seem extremely greedy. When/How did their wiring decide which proclivity to choose? There are many examples of people with the same genetics, raised in the same home, who end up being opposite in character. We’d expect them to be the same or similar, yet they aren’t. Why?
    I’d also like to think our compassion is expanded by the wider variety of people we interact with, or are friends with. The more diverse a group can be, the more we’ll have experiences of compassion from many different types of people. Maybe greedy, rich people seem less compassionate because they only associate with other greedy, rich people, therefore reinforcing their greedy proclivity? Maybe if they had a broader diverse network of friends, they’d really understand how their greed affects others?
    As long as people divide and isolate themselves, greed and self-interest may continue to overpower compassion and cooperation. Maybe the simple answer is making friends with people who are different from us. Imagine you and I being friends with Putin, or Musk, or other powerful greedy persons? Do you think we could bring out their empathetic proclivity? Or would we instead follow their examples of greed and power?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I love this response, Rose. That’s the big question, isn’t it. How do we increase tolerance and respect within our increasingly diverse populations, thereby decreasing greed. It’s not just the rich who want to be richer, it’s all those who want society to obey their intolerant rules only. How do we turn around this increase in intolerance on the part of too many? It’s not a society I want to be part of. I’m pretty sure neither of would be able to bring out the best in Putin or Musk, but they couldn’t change us either!!! 😳😂😂

  8. Forestwood says:

    “Public policies that protect the rich and industrialists at the expense of worker protection….a direct result of greed and power of decision makers at the top. Those policies attract/ensure large donations and keep the same politicians elected. The old saying “Power corrupts” is, sadly, too often the case.”
    I agree and think they delude themselves thinking they are supporting the economy of the state/nation.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for commenting. I agree that many of them do believe they are supporting these policies to help the economy, and in some cases they have indeed moved jobs to their states from other states (thanks to the “right to work”/anti-union) legislation. But these policies often hurt workers while increase profits for management and stockholders. Also, even Warren Buffett complains that he should be paying more tax in the U.S. Some of the politicians know precisely what they’re doing.

      • Forestwood says:

        The Warren Buffets are the feudal overlords of today- why do they get away with tax fraud and write offs? The middle class do the heavy lifting, (at least here in Australia.) Ironically all those hard fought for workers rights are slowly being eroded in the name of productivity or economic restraint!

        • Jane Fritz says:

          This isn’t so much the case in Canada, but in the U.S. it seems that the loopholes and tax dodges for the rich are knowingly built into their policies. I remember Clinton saying something about Trump not paying taxes during one of their “debates” and Trump replying that he was just smart. And he became president!!! I’m sorry to hear that this is true in Australia as well. I think this whole thing about productivity and de-unionizing is just an excuse to increase profits. Greed. 😥

  9. Oh, Jane. We must hold out hope for cooperation and compassion to prevail. I believe in the inherent goodness of people…and the ability of travel to open our minds and hearts to learning, empathy, and hope.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, Natalie, I know. I agree. But why do so few of the people elected to public office exemplify this? They’ve travelled, they know the difference between right and wrong, compassion and self-interest/greed, but they choose self-interest/greed over compassion far too often in many jurisdictions. The past few weeks in the U.S. are a case in point, sorry to say. Hope alone’s not going to do it.

  10. Wynne Leon says:

    What a thought-provoking post, Jane! I love how you take us into the heart of the question with some examples and statistics and then throw down a rope to offer a way out. Yes, cooperation and collaboration are possible for our societies and are a wonderful part of the solution. I think of education as another method – and our young activists like Malala and Greta Thornberg show great promise of how the next generation may lead.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Wynne. Oh my goodness, what absolutely perfect examples of what and who we need more of in this world. Courage, integrity, and the ability and willingness to put the need of the many before your own needs. It tells a tale that these extraordinary examples of leadership are so young … and are women.

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