A Point of View: Can you tell if you've got too much money?

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The leaking of the Panama papers exposed how far some rich people were prepared to go to protect their wealth. But can anyone be certain they wouldn't do the same, asks Sarah Dunant.

Last week I was working in the Pitti Palace in Florence, home of the Medici family from the 16th to the 18th Century. I was there to study the paintings, but after a few rooms I had trouble concentrating due to the level of bling around me. Twirling stone, swirling marble, tapestries, massive chandeliers, ceilings crawling with nymphs and chariots and layers and layers of gilt. I kept thinking, how much stuff does one family need? This is greed run riot. Did no one ever think enough? I packed up early and went home to the news of the leaks of the Panama Papers. Outrageous? Shocking? Certainly. But surprising? Afraid not.

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Image caption Inside the Palazzo Pitti in Florence

However you want to describe it, avarice, the original biblical term for man's appetite for excessive wealth, is woven into the human psyche. In his circles of hell, Dante gives it a harder time than lust, not least because it colludes with sins like envy and gluttony. Among the hoarders and squanderers who spend eternity attacking each other with huge boulders are both politicians and churchmen.

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Image caption In Dante's Inferno (illustrated here by the 19th Century artist Gustave Dore), the greedy are punished by pushing enormous money bags with their chests

Two centuries later, Machiavelli defines the central thrust of human nature as ambition, the drive for power bringing with it wealth and corruption. Looking on the bright side, you can argue there have been moments when avarice delivered as well as took away. Many of the greatest works of art or architecture - think most of the Renaissance, for instance - exist only because they were paid for by rich often corrupt figures, many within the church.

In contrast, many of those stashing it away now have no interest in using their fortunes to enrich the culture they milked it from. Instead they pay lawyers and bankers to keep it secret. But as we imagine boiling up pots of oil, I wonder how far any of us can be complacent. As has been made clear, many in those companies under scrutiny today have not done anything illegal. It is more that we feel their attitude to be immoral. Are we sure in their place we wouldn't have been a little tempted? To put it another way, when it comes to money, do we know when enough is enough?

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Image caption Palazzo Pitti, Florence

A few days after the scandal, a news report interviewed a financial commentator in China who suggested that though the culprits knew that exporting their fortunes was against the law, they had become increasingly anxious about the shaky state of the economy and how, if things went wrong, they might lose what they had. Frankly I didn't buy a word of it, but I suspect that was probably what they told themselves. Money and the stories we tell ourselves. It's not a pretty picture.

Time to get personal. Anything here strike a chord? I have no memory of "wealth" carrying any meaning in my life till secondary school when I spent the night with a new schoolmate in her extremely large house down the road from our council flat. Luckily, friendship triumphed over differences in square metres. After I finished university (no fees, so no debts, admittedly) the job I got was certainly not based on how much money it paid me. The men I met - and they were all men - chasing big bucks and buying flash cars were doing it to make up for the size of their reproductive organs (I offer no empirical evidence for this theory, I'm just telling you how it felt to me).

Somewhere around the age of 30, it started to shift. First the mortgage - yes, I know, but it was a long time ago - then children. Now I was anxious about money. After all, it wasn't just about me any more. Looking back on it now, I think this is when it got weird. I was earning more and spending more. But my parents' voices were still singing in my ear: "Save, save!" So I did. Gradually, along with paying my taxes and giving to charity - though clearly I could have given more - I discovered that I had more than I strictly needed. Except whenever I said that to myself I always had an answer - the rainy days, the less-than-sunny uplands of old age, and of course the children. Inheritance, the desire to pass it on. As natural as the story of every powerful dynasty in history. As I write this, I am even starting to plan ways to minimise death duties. Partly by giving to charity, but not just that. Nothing illegal here. But am I totally at ease with it morally? Clearly not. Or I wouldn't be bringing it up. So, even as we rail against Putin and all the others now exposed to greater or lesser public shame, I am not without a certain queasiness myself when it comes to need, greed and enough, even after I am gone.

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Image caption Associates of Russian leader Vladimir Putin were mentioned in the Panama papers

Perhaps what is required here is a more radical guiding philosophy to money and social responsibility.

Enter the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. You possibly know him as the man who in the past argued passionately for animal rights. In recent years he has become involved in an equally provocative movement - "effective altruism". Broadly based on utilitarianism - he argues that if our decisions about our behaviour and use of money were based on how to effect the greatest good for the greatest number, then once we had what we needed we would simply give the rest away. But not necessarily to the causes we might naturally feel closest to. His definition of altruism here is not interested in feeling - indeed he argues that empathy can be dangerous simply because it can be manipulated, but rather adherence to a guiding moral principle. It can be a challenging journey. If we have two kidneys but only need one, then why shouldn't we donate one to someone who would die without it (indeed, some people have)? Deciding between funding part of a new museum wing, or an operation to cure blindness in the developing world, 1,000 operations would rate higher than the pleasure of say 100,000 museum visits. In Singer's world the Gates Foundation's work eradicating malaria would be fine, (though has he kept more than he needs?) as would Mark Zuckerburg's recent 99%, though his earlier $20m intervention to help failing schools in America might be more suspect.

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Image caption The moral philosopher Peter Singer

You can tell from the way I'm phrasing it, this is not for me. It just feels too regimented, cold, mathematical, almost impersonal. Although Singer would like to get rid of the word "feeling", the truth is that our relationship to money is soaked in it. For some the only way to feel good - or not bad - is to have too much (and enough is never enough). For others the opposite. Every day, in every way, right? You walk past a homeless person on the street. Do you always give, or never, or only sometimes? And what determines which time that is? How you are feeling? When you don't give do you feel worse? And when you do, do you feel better or worry that you haven't given enough? Money - if not the root of all evil, then the breeding ground for hugely conflicted feelings.

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In some ways it was simpler (though no less corrupt) in the past. Around the time when those Medici were gilding everything in sight, there was the Great Moral Accountant in the sky. No Panama bank account was secret from Him, and while there may always be the poor, everyone knew that camels didn't pass through the eyes of needles.

The institution of the Church was crucial here. Of course it dispensed charity (many companies in the Renaissance automatically gave 10 per cent of their profits to the Church) and rich families and individuals gave directly, but often in the form of supporting nuns or monks who would pray for them or building chapels in the family name. In this way it seems the camels were massaged down to fit through the necessary gap.

Interestingly, some of the biggest caches of wealth exposed in the Panama papers come from ex or current - at least in name - communist countries. Might the founding ideology of equality explain why these - what shall we call them? Secular heretics? - are clearly desperate to keep their fortunes secret? Putin, who has no shame in so many directions, is not willing to admit that the money is his.

Probably they're aware that history has a tendency to repeat itself. That somewhere down the line there comes a point - be it the Catholic Church or French or Russian monarchies when corruption and gross inequality leads to revolution from within. In terms of social justice it's a cold long-term consolation. But then we don't seem to have grown any better at short-term ones.

This is an edited version of A Point of View, which is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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