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Money - The Root of All Evil?

"Money is the root of all evil."

How often have you heard that said? Perhaps you mother or father offered this statement as words of wisdom to the young. Perhaps your Sunday school teacher or minister of religion or a trusted teacher would preach it at you.

You may have heard it so often that it is accepted with out question.

But like a lot of truisms it deserves to be questioned, because it suggests simplistic solutions to some problems, solutions which may be wrong if this basic statement is itself wrong.

Firstly that money is the root of all evil can very easily be shown to be false. Where was the money motivation for the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia, or to take a tragic event closer to home, the Port Arthur killings? If money did play a part it is not readily apparent nor does it seem to be the main cause.

Perhaps then money is the root of some evil. To say that money is the root of an evil act means that it is the first cause, you can not find any reason beyond that of the lust for money. Take the example of a mugging and theft of money from a person. Was the first cause or the motivation for this act money? I would answer a definite No to this question. If the mugger was a drug addict then the motivation was the addiction, the cravings of which could be satisfied in the short term by the purchase of drugs with the stolen money. Perhaps the initial addiction was facilitated by a drug seller increasing his market return and money income. But why does the drug dealer want more money? Surely not just for the sake of accumulating money.

Money in itself is worthless. It is only because society has determined to use money (rather than say barter) as the means of exchange, that gives it any worth. It is value neutral, it is nether good or evil. It is only what is done with the money, or the reason it is accumulated that determines whether it is good, bad or evil. The drug dealer of our earlier example does not accumulate money for the sake of money, it is for the house, the car, or perhaps the status that the dealer accumulates wealth. But again it is not just the accumulation of material possessions that makes it evil, it is the way that it has been done, the means to the end. The drug dealer has caused untold harm on the way to accumulating it. Other people have suffered for the sake of the dealer being able accumulate these goods for the satisfaction of personal desires, desires gained to the detriment of others. So the root cause of the evil behind drug dealing is not money (which is merely a means or a tool used to gain material goods for the satisfaction of desire) but selfishness.

So what I am saying is that money is not the root of all evil. It is in fact further up the tree, merely a component, a branch if you like. The real root of all evil is human selfishness.

The definition of evil which I tend to favour is “conscious selfishness by an individual (or a group) that intends harm to others (or other groups) or to gain significant advantage at the expense of others (or other groups)”.

The reason that I have included “conscious” in this definition is that this is what I believe separates an act that could be describe as “bad” from one that is evil. If a person is aware that what they are doing will harm others or unfairly advantage themselves, then this act has all the necessary traits of an act that is evil.

I think the conscious awareness is a vital ingredient of making a selfish act into an act that could be classed as evil. A lot of children act selfishly at various times, their acts could not be described as evil because at their stage of development they are not particularly aware of its selfish impact. Indeed the law recognises the requirement for awareness in its treatment of child law breakers or the mentally incompetent.

Similarly intention to cause harm is important. If I were to buy a bag of chocolates and then eat them I front of my little brother without sharing them with him, this act might be thought of as merely selfish and therefore bad rather than evil, because I hadn’t intended my brother harm (in fact I might have saved him from a trip to the dentist latter on).

One of the consequences of this definition is that some monstrous acts by people may not be defined as evil because of the mental state of the perpetrator, just as say death of people in acts of nature, while tragic, could not be thought of as evil due to the lack of conscious intention.

Selfishness(1) then is the trait in the human character which gives us the potential for evil. However evil is only perpetrated when we are conscious of the selfishness of an act and its harmful consequences on others but we proceed anyway.

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Notes:

(1) Selfishness is not necessarily always bad, even in the lesser meaning of the word. A number of emotions have aspects which are selfish, e.g. grief and love, but I could not describe these as bad.

(2) Please read my definition of Ethics.

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