Bert Fingerhut, a prominent Aspenite who was sentenced to two years in prison for “cheating banks out of $12 million,” made a profound confession when he pleaded guilty last week: “What I did was wrong. This was purely an act of selfishness. This was a crime of greed. I had all the material wealth I needed. This was purely to satisfy my ego.”Fingerhut’s admission is both laudable and edifying. He scrutinized himself honestly and took the blame. He also posed a huge moral question to others who allow selfishness, greed and ego to rule their lives.Fingerhut’s case is complicated by his civic participation and philanthropic generosity. He was involved with numerous nonprofits, and he contributed to them with largesse. In this he was a civic-minded citizen who applied his wealth liberally.Fingerhut’s benefactors include the Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club and the National Outdoor Leadership School. The fact that Fingerhut gave to conservation groups whose work I support makes his crime personally disheartening. He was supposed to be one of the “good guys.”Most disturbing, however, is that Fingerhut’s confession to selfishness, greed and ego speaks to a cultural norm. The same motives and skill sets that put Fingerhut in jail contributed to his success as a Wall Street investor. He was smart and he wanted more, more, more. His downfall came from choosing unscrupulous ways of getting it.Fingerhut failed himself by breaking codes of ethics and morality that bind us to individual acts of conscience. Where he failed as a citizen was in his violation of the laws of the state which define protocol, albeit nuanced, for the ways investors can profit. The question I take away is this: How do the moral and ethical constraints of conscience square with a society that rewards selfishness, greed and ego? These dubious traits are not being impugned by the law; but only the means of satisfying them.When Fingerhut told the judge that he had all the material wealth he needed, the weight of his crime shifted to full culpability. There was no utilitarian reason for him to cheat society, no practical need. His ego and a prevailing sense of entitlement prompted his illegal acts.Fingerhut’s crime was perpetrated for sins allowed, even encouraged, to run rampant in our capitalistic culture. Fingerhut was merely pursuing pure, libertarian capitalism for the copious rewards it could provide. He sought excess gratification at any cost.The notion that many Americans today are motivated by what Fingerhut no doubt decries in retrospect as deep personal flaws reveals the value deficit our culture nourishes and defends as a national strength and global identity. Plenty of selfish, greedy, ego-driven people give money to their favorite charities, as Fingerhut did. But if their egos furnish the motivation, then they are diminished and so is the culture that showers rewards upon them. Selfishness and greed are weak underpinnings for individuals and societies in a world that wants unity.How much material wealth does a person need? This is a critical question as we observe how selfishness, greed and ego combine to kill the natural world by consuming the very basis of our existence in an orgy of personal gratification and glory. Are there no limits? Is there no humility?”We are the haves and the have-mores,” quipped George Bush during a speech that will haunt a presidency flawed by selfishness, greed and ego. As long as we abdicate moral authority to blatant self-interest the line between success and immorality will be indistinguishable.Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays.
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