Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Morality of Money

Today was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  For those who aren't familiar with Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the last day of what are known as the 10 Days of Atonement.  From the beginning of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) until Yom Kippur, Jews are called upon the reflect upon their actions and deeds from the previous year and ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoings they may have committed.  This introspection is intended to improve oneself and so that one can become a better person.

As a Jew, I have spent some time thinking about what I have done over the past year, and the subject of money came into my mind.  The purpose of this website is to educate and empower people to look at their personal finance using reason and logic, rather than emotion.  The goal, of course, being to increase ones wealth.  The question is whether this goal is a constructive one.  Is the pursuit of money something good and desirable, or is money truly the root of all evil?

On the one hand, money and its unbridled pursuit has lead to much destruction in our society.  One only has to look to the recent economy troubles to see that.  The leaders of our financial institutions pursued profits at all costs.  They risked other people's money on investments that were dubious at best.  When this house of cards came tumbling down, not only did it take these institutions down, but it had a ripple effect of taking down the entire economy.  Millions of lives were affected because these greedy people were willing to risk everything for another buck. 

On a smaller scale, there are young people in the inner city who become drug dealers.  These people are seduced by the allure of quick and easy money.  They sell these drugs to the people in their communities who become addicts and this creates downward spiral of despair in these neighborhoods.  Their greedy is terribly destructive, and it has a very high human cost.

I could go on, but suffice to say that there are countless examples of the how greed has caused misery.  I'm sure we all know of examples of how money has caused strife in our own lives with our loved ones.  The question becomes whether or not the goal of this web site, to increase ones wealth, is a noble one.

In the course of researching this article, I wanted to find out who said "money is the root of all evil" and find out its context.  It turns out that this famous quotation does not exist.  It is a misquote of a passage from the New Testament of the Bible (1 Timothy 6:10):

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows

I am by no means a Biblical scholar, and I particularly am not a scholar of the New Testament.  However, my interpretation is that money itself does not lead to evil.  It is loving money.  If the pursuit of money becomes your focus to the exclusion of all else, then that is where evil comes into play.  However, if you view money is a tool - as a means to an end - then it can be a power for good, too.

In the movie Wall Street, the main character said that greed is good.  In a limited sense, there is truth to that.  Monetary rewards provides the motivation to work hard, improve oneself, and achieve great things.  It is the means by which we can quantify our skills, our drive, our determination.  It's a way of keeping score, for lack of a better word.  Now the idealist might say that achievement itself should be its own reward.  Unfortunately, human nature does not work that way.  Humans are motivated by the promise of wealth and this force has been harness in a positive way. 

Consider the trust fund kid who has more money than he knows what to do with, so he wastes his life on inane pursuits, not contributing anything to society.  He never had the need to put in an honest days work because he never had to.  Now consider the kid from a poor family who had nothing handed to him.  Because of this, he could either work hard or starve.  This kid got through school studying while working two jobs to help support himself and his family.  The work ethic he was forced to learn developed into a drive to outwork and outhustle everybody else.  He was motivated by the promise that, through his hard work, he would have the means to better himself and his family.

Money can also provide the means to provide for one's family and one's community.  Like it or not, idealism doesn't put a roof over your head or food on the table.  Money does.  We all want to provide our families with a certain amount of comfort and safety in this crazy world, and money does just that.  Money can also be used as a force to change lives, through charity and good deeds.  Consider that Bill Gates, one of the richest men on the planet, is now one of the biggest philanthropists.  His foundation is doing amazing work around the world in so many different areas of need.  What allowed him to do this?  Money. 

Even though Bill's commitment is great, there are literally millions of people around the world who are also practicing philanthropy on a smaller scale through contributions to those in need.  When there is a disaster, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, it takes money to provide comfort to those who are affected.  Money gives us the power to help those who need our help to to improve the world.  Money gives us the power to make those choices.

So is money good or evil?  Like all things, it is both.  Pursuit of money at all costs reveals the darker side of human nature.  However, a restrained pursuit of money can be a positive force, as it gives us an incentive to improve ourselves, and it gives us the power to shape both the lives of our loved ones and our communities at large.

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