The same ambition can destroy or save

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Monday, May 6, 2013 at 2:28AM

We're examining the cornerstones that define integrity. There are eight in all. The first four cornerstones pertain to relationships with parents, older siblings, superiors, and with friends. The next four cornerstones relate to personal conduct. We've discussed propriety and honor. Now we move on to -- incorruptibility.

Corrupt and dishonest behavior is the abuse of power entrusted to a person for his or her personal gain. Confucius said riches and fame are what everyone desires but should not acquire it they're attained in an unjust and illegitimate manner.

Covetousness is also denounced in the Bible, Torah and Quran. The common manifestation of covetousness is stealing and cheating. It ruins marriages and friendships. In the field of sports, covetousness is the cause of cheating to win, or even cheating to lose. It poisons entire organizations and governments, tainting them with corruption and fraud.

Covetousness, however, is but a symptom of a disease called greed, which few would willingly admit to. People who are greedy will generally not see themselves as being so. To illustrate my point:

A child at the dinner table eats his brother's portion of food when his brother is momentarily distracted. After he's chastised by his mother, he retorts that he was famished and hadn't eaten all day. His justification is that his hunger drove him to steal his brother's portion.

A CEO is unhappy with his $8 million pay. He feels it is inadequate compared to the CEO of a rival company who draws $10 million despite posting lower profits. The first CEO would never admit to envy but feels it is unfair that he should be paid less.

There are always reasons to justify one's greed. Hunger is a powerful force that fuels the human spirit to work hard. But "Hunger also makes a thief of any man," claimed Pulitzer prize winning author Pearl S Buck. To overcome greed requires nurtured principles and values. So that when is hungry, according to Confucius, he or she will still act honorably and not allow greed to turn one into a cheat and thief.

Napoleon Bonaparte echoed the same sentiment. "Great ambition," he said, "is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them."

This is elegantly summarized in the words of Alexander Pope: "The same ambition can destroy or save, and make a patriot as it makes a knave."

How do we know when having ambition is a bad thing? What does Confucius have to say about remaining incorruptible? And how does one diagnose and stem greed?