The Cardinal sin of greed

The US Department of Justice revelations about 1MDB have shocked many Malaysians. All those transfers of public money belonging to the nation have left many Malaysians bewildered and upset.

Jul 28, 2016

By Anil Netto
The US Department of Justice revelations about 1MDB have shocked many Malaysians. All those transfers of public money belonging to the nation have left many Malaysians bewildered and upset.

While the identities of those involved seem clear, perhaps there is a larger force at work here — that of greed or avarice or covetousness.

Catholic tradition tells us there are Seven Deadly or Cardinal Sins. This list had its origins in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century monk, who listed eight: gluttony, lust, avarice/greed, hubristic pride, sorrow/despair/despondency, wrath, vainglory, sloth.

In 590AD, Pope Gregory the Great shortened the list to seven. He combined sloth and sorrow as well as vainglory and pride and added envy to the list.

In 2008, as the United States especially was rocked by a financial crisis, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in the Vatican, came up with a more contemporary list of seven deadly social sins, which took into account the forces of corporate-led globalisation.

The modern social sins are destruction of the environment, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, the creation of more poverty, drug trafficking, and immoral scientific experimentation, violation of the fundamental rights of human nature.

Whichever way you look at it, greed and obscene wealth are right up there. And we are all too familiar with it — thanks to the rampant corruption, unbridled greed, the relentless quest for corporate profits, and the exploitation of public assets for private gain in our midst.

Certainly, greed, a sin of desire, inspires an individual to hoard things, steal or rob by various means including through the manipulation or abuse of positions of authority.

Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the Church, in his Summa Theologica said covetousness “may signify immoderation” especially in the acquisition and hoarding of things that are more than what is due to the individual.

“In this way it is a sin directly against one’s neighbour, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them, for temporal goods to be possessed by many at the same time.”

So it is especially a sin if the acquisition of immense wealth results in deprivation among others.

What more the siphoning of state funds for personal gain — especially when these state funds were meant for strategic investments for the development of the nation and to improve the standard of living of millions of ordinary people.

It is especially scandalous if these state funds were raised through borrowings — leaving the nation heavily in debt — and then siphoned away and diverted to personal accounts elsewhere to enrich certain individuals.

Greed or avarice stands in direct contrast to one of the four cardinal virtues, i.e. temperance (or restraint).

The philosophers Aristotle and Plato regarded temperance as among the four most desirable traits (the others being wisdom, justice, and courage). In the early Christian era, this became known as the four cardinal virtues — while faith, hope and charity were added on as theological virtues.

Temperance implies self-control and proper moderation especially between self-interest and public interest (especially the right and needs of ordinary people).

In the case of political leaders, the failure to exercise temperance and justice leads to a culture of greed and avarice and the inability to distinguish between public property (which should be used for the benefit of ordinary people) and private interests.

Rampant corruption is the result.

This systemic leadership and institutional failure can lead to a situation where private, crony or corporate interests profit enormously from public assets. It leads to a situation where corrupt officials treat a public trust as a personal bank account, as the US attorney general put it.

If this culture is unchecked, it can lead to the ruin of a nation and even a loss of sovereignty to outside powers (think of bailouts by International Monetary Fund or other international banks and the stringent conditions attached to the nation.)

It is time for us to reset the moral compass of the nation and ensure that leaders have the highest integrity — who always have the public interest at heart — and institutions capable of serving as checks and balances are put in place.

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