It is a common maxim that money is the root of all evil. This seems to put the causal agent for evil on the exchange medium used to enable developed economies to leave barter (an earlier form of goods exchange). I will argue that this common maxim is wrong on two fronts. The first and most important error this common maxim makes is that it is not money (which is merely a vehicle of goods exchange) but rather the desire for money that is at fault. In the children’s story “The Fisherman and his Wife” desire for material goods is shown to increase even as each wish is granted. Desire feeds further desire. This, of course, is the central tenet of Buddhism. In my 2007 novel, The Extinction of Desire, it was shown that monetary windfalls are not necessarily good. They are bad if they incite greater desire. Thus, it is not money, per se, that is bad but the desire that is kindled for more and more that is evil. It is evil because people infuse actual value into the money and material goods when they do not possess any intrinsic value. Thus the person who is caught in this spiral makes a category mistake: he or she believes that they possess something of ultimate worth when they only possess a material transaction device. Since the most important goods in life: love, friendship, kindness and charity are not material, a flaw exists in the materialists’ logic.
Money by itself is thus a neutral institutional device that is more efficient than barter for economic transfers. Too much desire can create a logical error that can confuse the agent into infusing real value into something without any (but expedient value as an economic tool). This mistake can turn its adherents toward a series of errors in the direction of life. These errors can cause the materialist true believer into bad (evil) actions. But it is the desire and the illogic that can follow from it that is the real culprit.
A better candidate for “all evil” might be the illusion that those successful Mammon-following candidates might hold as a personal worldview: I am so powerful with my accumulation of money that I am The Master of the Universe. This is the sin of ultimate pride—assuming that you are god-like in your power. It leads to many subsequent errors in judgment which, in turn, lead to bad (evil) actions. Again, it is not the money, as such, but how one’s attitude about the money that leads people astray. In this case it is the acquisition of power (cf. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings) that causes the acquisition of false attitudes that lead to one’s downfall.
Money is not the root of all evil. Rather it is our attitudes about money that allow it to corrupt the human spirit.
Michael Boylan, Professor of Philosophy, Marymount University.