Leveraging Greed and Vanity for Good

I’m not very good at subscribing to Christian orthodoxy. One thing in particular that’s annoyed me for a few years and I now have discarded entirely is the oft-repeated idea from the Bible that thinking about doing something evil (say adultery from Matthew 5:28) is as bad or somehow equivalent to actually doing it. This is harmful nonsense. It vindicates actually evil acts by implying that we are all on a spectrum where we’re capable of them and it makes people wallow in guilt about their lack of self-control when ironically their self-control is the reason they are thinking rather than performing an “evil” act. Instead of making everyone feel guilty about their thoughts I suggest we accept them and try and work out how to make our actions not negatively affect others.

One way I think this is done well is socially democratic capitalism. While I find Marx more appealing than those who suggest “free markets!” as the solution to every problem, it seems that the best political model is to be found somewhere between the two extremes. Rather than saying that the greedy bourgeois must be stopped so we can all live in harmony or that their aspiration will trickle down through society let’s accept that some people are motivated by money and some people are not. Let’s also accept that capitalism does not bring a lot of profit to those who wish to help the needy. Rather than saying those who wish to be rich need to be self-motivated to help the needy or the caring need to work out how to make more profit let’s let each party do what they are good at and support the needy through (as Marx proposed and democracy delivered) increasingly progressive taxation in which we can allow the rich to be rich and their tax to provide funding for the needy. Of course at least in the UK we have this already (albeit with loopholes e.g. corporate tax evasion and non-domiciled residents).

So far, so obvious. I was thinking about the above recently through a conversation with a friend about gym goers. He had some disdain for them as he felt they were going only out of vanity. Since becoming a gym goer myself I’m actually not sure this is a problem. The reason there are so many mirrors in the gym is probably because most people are there (at least in part) due to vanity. It’d be great if everyone went just for the health benefits but they are less of a motivator than feeling like you look good. I ask: what’s the problem with that? Like leveraging greed above can we not leverage vanity to improve public health? It feels more realistic and frankly successful to influence people through appealing to baser, short-term goals than a lofty, long-term ones. It also makes me wonder what other vices we can leverage for good rather than expecting moralising to transform society.