Greed: From Gordon Gekko to David Hume, by Stewart Sutherland

Martin Cohen on a brief but powerful look at the history of avarice in society and what can be done to temper its more extreme elements

November 27, 2014

Haus is to be congratulated for its courage in dusting off the political pamphlet format and publishing a series of essays, short enough to be read in one sitting, in the internet age. Where other publishers have sought to make their products bigger, glossier and more colourful, Haus has headed determinedly the other way, launching its series with titles including Peter Hennessy’s Establishment and Meritocracy and Jonathan Shaw’s Britain in a Perilous World: The Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need. I gave the approach a tasting via Stewart Sutherland’s mini-book, a whistle-stop tour of David Hume’s ideas about greed and its role in society, with a nod at those of Hume’s great friend, Adam Smith. There is very little reason for Gordon Gekko, the villain of the film Wall Street, to be here, other than that it seems to offer some contemporary relevance.

Hume’s view, certainly as a reader would get from this short work, is that the excessive pursuit of self-interest is damaging to society and should be discouraged. “Hume’s insight”, says Sutherland, “is that greed minimises the claims of others, and absolute greed minimises absolutely the claims of others” – depriving them of their shared humanity, no less.

It seems there are three good means for combating this unfortunate social tendency, which Sutherland enumerates. The main one is through socialisation – for example, that of an infant within a family. This, I suppose, would be something like telling Junior that he may not have any more chocolate mousse. Then there is education, in which “one of the key messages is to re-think the place of the education of the emotions”; and finally there is language. What has language got to do with combating excessive greed? Sutherland, pace Hume, suggests that a shared language is a key part of breaking down the barriers in society that greed can put up.

But enough theory – what does Sutherland’s pamphlet actually propose by way of action? Because surely in a pamphlet a policy recommendation should be made. Sutherland’s comes in the closing pages, and is one that he calls apologetically “a rather blunt instrument” and a “doubtless outrageous suggestion”. The tape spools at MI5 begin to whirr, perhaps. After all, if Capital, Marx and Engels’ magnum opus, was more than 500 pages long and probably had no influence on anything, their pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, at about 18,000 words and 23 pages, went on to shake the world.

However, Lord Sutherland is, as the publishers put it, “one of Britain’s most distinguished philosophers”, and, as they don’t quite say, a pillar of the educational establishment, so perhaps we should not expect his advice on social policy to be anything too radical. And indeed, I don’t think his proposal will scare the horses, because it turns out to be simply that income tax declarations should be made public (within “two, three, five or even ten years of submission”). I, too, think this would be a good initiative too, but would trace its philosophical origins back not to Hume but to Adam Smith, who speaks of society as holding a mirror up to the individual, which restrains our worst impulses – such as greed.

Brevity is not to be sniffed at. Indeed, it is to be cherished. As Pascal once wrote apologetically to a friend, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Sutherland’s book is an elegantly written aperitif at a rather refined banquet of political ideas.

Greed: From Gordon Gekko to David Hume

By Stewart Sutherland
Haus Publishing , 80pp, £7.99
ISBN 9781908323798
Published 7 October 2014

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