Saturday, June 04, 2011

Is there a distinction between what is legal and what is moral?

In the past several days there have been a number of radio interviews discussing the role of the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs in the recent financial crisis. A particularly theme has been the manner in which Goldman partners not only survived the crisis, but profited by simultaneously selling securities to clients and “taking bets” that those same securities would become valueless. In Congressional testimony, Goldman executives defended this as a practice that was legal and therefore perfectly acceptable. They seemed puzzled that questioners believed their could be a distinction. I was reminded of a question that Senator Sam Ervine often posed during Senate hearings on the Watergate scandal that lead to the resignation of President Nixon.

“I understand that you believed what you did was legal,” the Senator would ask, “but did you believe it was proper.” At the time, I remember querying a much-respected older friend and mentor, an attorney, about this. To my surprise his view was that there was, at least in the matters related to business and public policy, no distinction between what was legal and what was moral.

It seemed clear that the views of the Goldman Sachs Executives were similar. The adverse impact of their actions on clients might have given the executives their trust as well as their savings was not a matter of concern. A question comes to mind: In the domain of morality is there any real distinction between these executives and the much-maligned Bernard Madoff, except that the executives were far more clever?

The following is a May 31 excerpt from my “Insight from the Dalai Lama” calendar on the topic of greed.

When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing which is quite characteristic is that although it arises from the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining it. Therefore, it becomes limitless or boundless, and that leads to trouble. The interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction… even after obtaining the object of one’s desire one is still not satisfied. On the other hand, of one has a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether one obtains the object or not, either way, one is still content.

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