Money is not the root of all evil

Why a common saying is misunderstood

Matt York/AP/File
Gold coins are shown at the Republic Monetary Exchange in Phoenix. Money, the author argues, is a medium of exchange, not a source of good or evil.

I just received an email from a concerned friend of mine who had never read The Simple Dollar before. I asked for permission to share this part of the email with you (with just a touch of editing).

I can’t believe you’re actually using your life and your energy and your mind talking about money and encouraging other people to accumulate money. Money is the root of all evil. It provides a path to greed and gluttony and cruelty. Why are you devoting your wonderful life to teaching people how to walk that path? What are you doing to yourself? What are you teaching your children?

I originally intended to respond to this email privately, but I realized that the answer was something really worth sharing on here, so I generalized it a bit and turned it into the article you’re about to read.

First of all, your comment that “money is the root of all evil” is a misquote. You’re referencing 1 Timothy 6:10 from the Bible, which is usually translated as “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” or simply “for the love of money is the root of all evil.” Not money itself, but the love of money.

That’s a key distinction. Money itself is neither good nor evil. It’s simply a medium of exchange. It’s a way for people to trade one thing – say, their money or their time or their energy – for other things, like food or housing.

What you choose to use your money for may be good and it may be evil and it may just be a big missed opportunity. You could use it to make sure your children eat very nutritionally balanced meals or you could use it to hire a hit man to take out your rivals. You could use it to help improve orphanages for extremely impoverished children or burn a million British pounds just for the fun of it.

How you use that money is a reflection of who you are and what you value. Whether it’s “good” or “evil” is as much your own judgment on how you spend money as it is a judgment passed on you by others who observe how you use it.

The entire purpose of this site is to help people become more efficient in their exchanges: to earn more money, to spend less on the things that they need, to avoid wasting their money on interest payments to lenders, and so on. Again, that’s neither good nor evil. It simply widens the door to the good and evil choices that people have with their money.

What that scripture is talking about is the love of money being the root of all evil. The argument is that when you begin to focus on the accumulation of wealth as the highest purpose in your life, you put a lot of other virtues below it. You value wealth accumulation over the welfare of others, in simple terms.

When you see other people as merely things that can be exploited to improve your wealth accumulation, that is evil, in my opinion. Companies that would knowingly sell toys to children that are covered in lead-based paint are evil. Companies that would sell known carcinogens for consumption and not label them are evil. Individuals who would exploit and steal from the defenseless are evil.

These are situations where, in that person’s mind, the love of money has trumped other virtues. I am explicitly opposed to these situations.

I regularly discuss ethical methods for accumulating money. I don’t even mention illegal acts or acts that would harm others and I encourage people to put human relationships first when it comes to things like borrowing money or hiring people. At the same time, I also look at ethical ways of spending money, highlighting charities that I personally know are doing good work and being selective on the things one buys for personal enjoyment.

In the end, it all comes back to your ethics and your character. It takes a bad person to intentionally exploit others. I also believe it takes a somewhat (although more debatable because of the various contexts) bad person to refuse to help anyone in need when they have the resources to do it easily without harming themselves in any real way.

Having money isn’t evil. Earning money isn’t evil. Exploiting people to acquire that money is, however, and spending it wantonly in ways that don’t bring value into anyone else’s life is probably also evil (though a bit more muddied).

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