LEADING ARTICLE : ANOTHER VIEW : Greed can destroy us

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The Independent Online
If there is an endemic sin which wreaks the greatest havoc within our society, it is undoubtedly greed. One could go back to the Biblical Ten Commandments and discover it as the climax of that moral code: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house ... wife ... or anything which is thy neighbour's"

From the very beginning, this created problems. Can one control one's feelings? One can keep the Sabbath; one can refuse to kill others - but how can we control our feelings and inner urges, particularly when they are encouraged by the society in which we live? We live in a materialistic world, in an acquisitive society, and the corollary of "spend, spend, spend" is "take, take, take!"

Nick Leeson, the missing Barings trader, is far more representative of our society than Mother Teresa and her vow of poverty. One might even say that he is much more of a role model for the new generation who view the market as a licensed gaming hall and see the rules as a challenge that the smart operator can and must evade.

Hacking is a children's sport; and losing a billion pounds becomes a trend-setting event which may not always maintain its place in the Guinness Book of Records. After all, it is the triumph of an almost uneducated and shallow operator whose greed may be unsurpassed but whose knowledge and ability may well be bettered in the future. On Monday, the financier Bernie Cornfeld died in a London hospital. In the sixties, he isolated the greed of our society in his slogan: "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" We have not changed since then.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, our world still accepts a pattern where other human beings are a means to an end, are expendable and not ends in themselves. The standard of judging others is that of rather tarnished gold, and in a world where the market has become the place of war, anything is permitted. Greed is an expression of the human ego which no longer recognises the rights of the neighbour. Where our vision has shrunk to the point where we only see ourselves, the amassing of wealth becomes our central concern.

It is not that we want things for themselves: how many yachts can we use, how many hand-tailored garments can one wear on one day? Possessions become our defence in a world we fear, our neighbour's greed attacks us as well. A legend reminds us of the people of Sodom, who marked each gold coin with their own name. When a beggar entered the city, they would hand him a coin - and the poor man discovered no one would change it or sell him bread. He would die of hunger, and the citizens then searched the body, and each would take his own coin.

Greed destroyed that world; and greed can destroy us, too, when we make it the virtue of the marketplace.

The writer is dean of Leo Baeck College, and rabbi of Westminster Synagogue.

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