Law in Contemporary Society

Greed, Justice, Law

Progress for the Sake of Progress

On a tropical-island beach, a fisherman relaxes in the sun, leaning against his overturned boat. Next to him, a single fish glitters in the sand. A few hundred feet away, under the palm trees, an American lawyer sips a Mai Tai while following the progress of a major deal on her Blackberry. After a while, she walks over to him:

- “Are you a fisherman?” the lawyer asks.

- “Yes,” the fisherman replies, reluctantly opening his eyes.

- “So why are you just sitting here?”

He points at the fish next to him: “Dinner is taken care of.”

The lawyer frowns and asks: “So why don’t you catch more fish?”

- “Why?”

- “You could sell it, make a profit, eventually buy a better boat, catch more fish, make more money, buy more boats, catch a lot more fish…”

- “Why?”

- “Well, ultimately you could pay other fishermen to work on your boats, and you would be so wealthy you could spend your days relaxing on the beach!”

- “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

The Relationship Between Progress and Greed

The story of the fictional fisherman is little but an aspirational illusion - an intellectual exercise that, at best, can force us to think for a moment or two about what we should value in life. In real life, we are all more or less obsessed with progress: We compete to build higher skyscrapers, engineer smarter computers, and extend life by means of science and medicine. As individuals, we strive for better jobs, fancier homes, more extravagant vacations. Yet when we attain the objects of our desire they invariably fail to bring us lasting satisfaction; an impressive paycheck, a bigger house, and higher status bring us pleasure for a fleeting moment - until a new goal takes shape on the horizon.

Within the confines of our global metaphorical hamster wheel, we pursue what we think is our individual desire for progress and success. Like proverbial gerbils, collectively and individually convinced that there is a destination at the end of our pursuit of happiness, we run too fast to recognize when we pass the unmarked border between progress and its next-door neighbor - greed. But who can blame us for crossing that line? History makes it obvious that always wanting more is an element of human nature; we are simply wired to constantly strive for more, better, higher, faster.

Even the ascetic life of a Buddhist monk is a constant struggle for the attainment of Nirvana.

Why is Greed a Problem?

A year ago, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, I met a potato farmer. Statistically, he will die at 44 and at least one of his four children will never reach age 5. His family starves if the crop fails, and their mud-and-straw house disintegrates in heavy rain. Despite my aid worker badge, however, I did not want to "help" this man. Why? Because once we have installed plastic irrigation pipes, replaced donkeys with cars, and built a courthouse in this remote outpost, the potato farmer will be blinded by the name tag saying "HELLO my name is Progress," and invite Greed in for a cup of tea among the comfortable crevices of his mind. Therein, I believe, lies the problem.

In a world of endless resources, there would be no need to distinguish between progress and greed. In a state of utopia, every Afghan farmer could plow his field using a tractor and every Russian twenty-something could have sushi for lunch every day of the week. In reality, however, peak oil is most likely behind us, and at the current rate we will have eaten all the fish in our oceans by 2050. These hard truths, combined with a skyrocketing world population and a steady deterioration of our planet, makes defining greed in relation to progress imperative. At some point, we simply need to stop wanting more. Both as individuals and as a civilization.

For Justice to Flourish, Greed Must Be Tamed

Justice, in its most basic sense, rests on the twin presumptions that all humans have a fundamental and equal right to resources and opportunities, and that all have a responsibility commensurate with one's advantage. In my opinion, justice requires a recognition among those born into privilege that their right to resources is no greater than the rights of those less fortunate. Regardless of religious and political creed, I believe that a true commitment to justice is a commitment to share: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Karl Marx’s utopian dream, however, has so far been the perpetual loser in the tug-of-war against human greed. Today, greed closes factories and ships jobs to countries with lower labor standards, it dumps barrels of toxic waste in the Arctic Ocean, and sells children into sexual slavery. Arms traders’ greed obstructs democracy and peace. Pharmaceutical companies’ greed lets millions die from curable diseases. And the lawyer’s greed effectively silences her gut, helping her believe that the game is fair as long as the law does not proscribe it.

Using Law to Draw the Line

If greed is part of the human condition, how do we attain justice? Do we channel Marx, proclaim that the causal relationship between material wealth and happiness is a misconception, and persuade billions of people to abandon consumerism? No. We attain justice by means of law.

When backed by intellectual and political forces, law has the ability to curb greed in favor of justice and the equitable sharing of resources. As socially minded twentyfirst-century lawyers, we can use advocacy, legislation and litigation creatively on domestic and international levels to reign in progress before it turns into greed and spawns further injustice. By enforcing human rights treaties, lobbying for taxes on egregious luxuries, and holding corporations accountable for their socially irresponsible practices, we can serve justice even in a world motivated by greed.

Human nature may be incapable of change, but as lawyers, we have the instrument to counteract some of its unfortunate features.

  • I think I'd have made more than the small revisions you've made. "Just more of the same" is a stopgap way of coping with the objection raised: it casts the burden of unimaginativeness back on your colleagues at the conversation, but it doesn't address the question whether that absence should really be thought a virtue, for example. I think there were opportunities to rethink, not just to rephrase, which were well worth the time and trouble to take, because the essay is a valuable one worth improving.

Eben - It took 6 months for the coin to drop: Now I think I understand what you meant when you said something along the lines of "given that greed and injustice are part of the human condition, now what do we do?" On my commute this morning I was marveling over the Dutch ability to combine social liberty with societal efficiency (I'm in The Hague), and something in that equation made me realize that perhaps the answer to the greed vs. justice issue is simply "law." That's how the Dutch maintain their equilibrium. You can't change human nature, but you can reign it in by means of the law. Now I think I can finally rewrite my paper.

09 Jul 2009 - 18:26:58 - AnjaHavedal?


Webs Webs

r10 - 08 Jan 2010 - 21:35:13 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM