Pleonexia and Human Nature



  “Money is just a way of keeping score.” H.L. Hunt

      Pleonexia is an ancient Greek word referring to a very old human problem. The word describes an obsessive desire to possess considerably more than one’s fair share of a limited resource. In this context, a “fair share” of a resource typically implies a share that is proportional to the number of others who need, or would like access to, that same resource. In a world of 20 people a “fair” share would normally start at 5% of the whole resource, e.g. 5% of the giant pie, or 5% of the combined wealth. If every one of those 20 people controlled 5% of some resource then there would be total equality with respect to that resource. But of course a certain amount of inequality could also seem completely fair. For instance if many of those same 20 people were quite satisfied with a nice 2% of the pie, and if no one wanted more than 6% of the pie, then everyone could have “enough” pie without exhausting the resource. The problem starts when some members among the group of 20 seek more than 40% of the pie just for themselves.

     Depending on the context, pleonexia often implies an obsessive desire to posses considerably more of a resource than does anyone else. It implies a degree of selfish intention producing levels of inequality that pass well beyond the limits of what seem “fair” or acceptable to most members of a group. Pleonexia describes a level of greed for which there is no longer any concept of “enough,” a greed that recognizes no limits on monopolistic excess.

      Pleonexia has sometimes been translated as avarice, covetousness, or “a passion for more.” Originally, pleonexia implied a form of greed centred primarily on obtaining much more money than anyone else. For many people who are already very wealthy, the importance of further increasing their wealth appears to be motivated by the increased social status that follows, both from their increased levels of wealth per se but also from the number of unique and desirable possessions, titles, and powers that additional wealth may provide to them. Status in the eyes of others, status tied to envy of one’s wealth with all its attendant powers and comforts, appears to be a key factor behind the inability of many of today’s extremely wealthy individuals to conclude that their existing wealth has become more than “enough.” And yet, the extremes of wealth that exist today have for some time reflected much more than is enough for anyone.

      Another key factor behind a pleonetic compulsion for acquiring yet more wealth can be seen behind H.L. Hunt’s assertion that “Money is just a way of keeping score.” At the end of a game, the high score “wins.” But the margin of victory is also experienced as significant. Games of sport almost never stop early, even though one competitor has already achieved an insurmountable lead. The size of the gap between the winning score and the losing score still carries psychological significance and perceived value, at least for winners. And often for losers as well. “A close game” carries a completely different meaning for a loser than does a game that has been lost by a large margin. Marked inequalities hurt.

      Life experienced as a game, as an arena where the purpose is to become the biggest “winner,” and particularly to avoid becoming “a loser,” leads to high degrees of social inequality. Those inequalities create deep problems for a society. Yet too many people have already decided to turn life into a competitive game. Too many people are encouraging too many others to believe that winning and losing, even just keeping score, is the way life must be understood and lived.

      For almost everyone in the “game” of life, “keeping score” (i.e. comparing oneself to relevant others) generally plays a deep and largely unrecognized role in determining personal satisfaction and happiness. Yet money becomes not just one way of keeping score. Money is often treated as if it were the only sure means for pure keeping: keeping respect, keeping in control, keeping safe, keeping comfortable, keeping every option open, and in particular, keeping ahead. With that psychology and its pleonetic ethic, having “only enough” becomes a likely trigger for considerable anxiety. Once the wealthy person is used to enjoying fifty times an income that is surely “enough,” then a 20% “loss” of income, to a level that is “only” forty times what is “enough,” feels like a terrible and threatening event. Yet the considerable “enoughness” of this huge remaining income is all but invisible when seen through pleonetic eyes.

      Inequality and pleonexia are mutually reinforcing: each helps amplify the other throughout a society. Modern economic life and culture, with its growing inequalities of corporate size and scale, with its emphases on more and more consumption, with its celebration of winners and its promotion of anxieties over becoming one of the “losers,” help to maintain a society where fewer and fewer people can recognize what is “enough.” This blindness creates a social danger that no society can afford to ignore.

      Whatever may be claimed in its defence, greed is not good. Nor is greed an inescapable part of all human nature. Greed is a form of social infection, permitted by modern elements of western cultural and economic architecture, elements that restrict sufficient awareness of, and support for, common fairness and justice and social compassion. It isn’t fair that so many have so very much more than what normally would be enough, while so many others have so much less than their fair share of access to social goods and social resources. It isn’t fair, but a society that permits and even celebrates pleonexia cannot achieve anything better. Such a society has lost a moral compass without which it cannot long survive.

      Society has offered to us all, and particularly to the very wealthy, the possibility of enormous benefits and opportunities. Society has provided resources, including the education, the inventions, the infrastructure and the laws without which wealth cannot be created and enjoyed. It is only fair that societies and governments require a return of some portion of the extremes of wealth made possible by the earlier loan of these resources from our common pool. Thus, once a family has accumulated more than enough to live very well, most of their surplus wealth deserves to be returned to society, to be held in trust and invested to benefit all future generations. Otherwise, enough will never be seen to be enough.

© J. Barnard Gilmore     Kaslo, British Columbia      May, 2014

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