Selfishness, greed, ignorance and sin
(Edexcel RS IGCSE section A)

The Edexcel RS IGCSE specification says:

Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about human selfishness, greed, ignorance and sin; selfishness, greed, ignorance and sin as the root causes of human wrongdoing; and whether they can be overcome. (Differing) views about human responsibility for hatred, injustice, violence and war in the world; and whether hatred, injustice, violence and war are inevitable features of a world inhabited by human beings.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about selfishness, greed, ignorance and sin, and the nature of sin.

Key vocabulary:

Greed: An excessive desire for things, such as wealth or food, which bears no relation to actual needs

Ignorance (in relation to wrongdoing): Not knowing or understanding the difference between right and wrong, or what makes actions wrong

Selfishness: Self-interest and concern with individual needs/wants which excludes considering those of others

Sin: Behaviour which is against the law of God

In this section you have a lot of scope for using your general knowledge, particularly when it comes to discussing what caused hatred, injustice, war and violence.  You could make a cross-curricular link to Geography or History or use examples drawn from the news.

Differing views on selfishness, greed, ignorance and sin:


Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:25-37)


Selfish people put themselves first and may do so at the expense of others.

Christianity teaches that selfishness is wrong because people should have an active concern for others.  The so called 'Golden Rule' (love your neighbour as yourself) makes this point very clearly.  Christians should show concern for others. 

The famous parable of the Good Samaritan could be used to illustrate the Christian attitude towards selfishness.  Jesus told the parable in response to a man asking him what he should do to get to heaven.  Jesus began by telling the man to love his neighbour and then goes on to explain what this means in practice.

In order to understand the parable you need a certain amount of historical knowledge.  At that time Jews and Samaritans did not get along with one another. The man beaten up by robbers was Jewish and the last person that Jesus' listeners would expect to help a Jew would be a Samaritan.  However, after the priest and the Levite have walked on past (possibly out of fear of attack or fear of being made unclearn by a dead body) a passing Samaritan

  • washes and binds the wounds of the injured man
  • puts him on his donkey and leads the donkey to an inn (by doing so he takes on the role of a servant by leading the donkey and puts himself in danger of attack)
  • pays for his care at the inn and offers to pay whatever else the inkeeper spares.

Jesus then says 'go and do likewise' so Christians are specifically told that they should go out of their way to help others.

There are many, many other teachings which could be used to suggest that selfishness is contrary to the Christian message.  The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (see death and life after death) could also be used.


Many non-Christians will also oppose selfishness especially when self-interest leads directly to the suffering of others.  However, one could argue that selfishness is natural and we have no reason to be anything other than selfish.  

  • The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that the most basic law of nature is to try to ensure our own survival and we are entitled to use others to achieve that means.  (Hobbes thought that ultimately we would realise that it is in our self-interest to enter a 'contract' with others and limit the extremes of our behaviour so that others would limit theirs so we would not actually do whatever we liked to others!)  
  • The theory of evolution is based on the idea of survival of the fittest.  Those that compete most effectively for the available resources will be more successful and pass on their genes.  We might argue that people are naturally predisposed toward selfish behaviour.


Distribution of the World's wealth:

A recent (2006) study conducted by the United Nations show that the world's richest 1% own in total 40% of the world's wealth.

If we look at the riches 10%  they own 85% of the world's wealth.

By contrast half the world's population together own just 1% of the world's wealth.

If the wealthiest take more than their share of the world's wealth and resources this leaves just a small amount to be divided up among the poorest.

Report here.

Greed is related to selfishness but is specifically concerned with the use of resources.  For Roman Catholics, greed is listed among the seven deadly sins because greed involves worshiping money and possessions rather than God.  

1 Timothy 6:10 is probably one of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible.  It says that 'the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil'.  Money is not itself bad, but loving money is.  

The Bible warns against making money your master for 'No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money' (Matthew 6:24).  Loving money is also associated with lacking faith in God to provide (see Hebrews 13:5).

'But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?'

(1 John 3:17)

Christianity teaches that the world is created by God for the use of everyone (see notes on the origin of the universe and of human beings).  Those who take more than their fair share at the expense of those who have less are not acting in the way God would want them to.  Christians are supposed to be STEWARDS of the world.  People who are rich are stewards of God-given wealth and many Christians would say that they should use their wealth for the good of others.

Jesus showed an active concern for the poor and was critical of the rich.  On one occasion a rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus told him that he should keep the law.  The man replied that he already did that.  Jesus then told him to 'Sell all you have and give it to the poor'.  The young man was unable to do that and went away sad. Jesus then said 'it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God' although he goes on to say that with God anything is possible (story in Matthew 19:16-26).

'32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.'

(Acts 4:31-35)

There are indications in the book of Acts that many of the early Christians shared everything that they had and whilst few Christians today will go this far most would argue that giving to charity is a Christian duty (although 2 Corinthians 9:7 specifies that charity must be given willingly).  Many Christians (and non-Christians) are concerned about the effect that greed for possessions among developed nations harms the workers in impoverished countries (more details below).

Non-Christian views:

Again many non-Christians would oppose greed.  However, there is also a positive aspect to greed.  We could say that without greed there would be no incentive to work hard and try to do better.  If people did not want more then technology would not progress to meet that desire.  Society (particularly capitalist Society) depends on greed.  Arguably scientific progress is stimulated by greed. New drugs are discovered by pharmaceutical companies keen to make a profit. Many economists argue that sometimes charity can be counter productive as hand outs act as a disincentive for people to work hard and it can make people dependent on aid.  Free trade (and the greed that makes people try and succeed in a free market economy) is ultimately the best way to improve eveyone's standard of living.

In the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the character Gordon Gekko argues that greed is good.  Watch a clip his speech here.


The Edexcel RS GCSE syllabus is concerned only with moral ignorance. Ignorance is not knowing or understanding the difference between right and wrong or what makes an action wrong.  A person might be morally ignorant because they have never been taught right from wrong or because they lack the capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong.

According to Christianity, everyone has the capacity to tell right from wrong and generally speaking ignorance is not a valid excuse - although on the cross Jesus did say 'father forgive them for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34)

Thomas Aquinas' teachings about conscience are a good example of a Christian view on moral knowledge.  Aquinas' teaching is particularly influential for Roman Catholic Christians.

Aquinas' view:

Human beings are rational.  This God-given ability is the basis of conscience.  We can work out whether an action is right or wrong by thinking about it logically.  We are also naturally inclined to do good because we are created in God's image.

However, although the conscience is God-given and useful it is not infallible.  Aquinas believed that it can (and does) make mistakes. Often the conscience will think something is good when it is not. Aquinas said that this was mistaking an 'apparent good' (something that seems good) for a real good (something that is good).

For example, a person might support euthanasia because it seems good as it relieves suffering.  However, (according to Aquinas) one of the primary precepts is to preserve life so it is not an actual good at all.  Similarly, one might think that it is good to buy cheap things because that way you can get more for your family and make them happy.  However, if those goods are made by exploiting others then perhaps it is not a real good at all.

Aquinas said that we could minimise the risk of mistaking an apparent good for a real good by educating the conscience by reading the Bible and by going to Church.

From this we can see that it is a Christian duty to avoid being morally ignorant. You cannot get away with breaking the law because you did not know it was the law and in the same way you should not try to get away with acting immorally by refusing to think about right and wrong.

Non Christian:

Most non-Christians would say that it is important that people learn right from wrong and society generally expects that parents and schools would play a part in this. 


A sin is any action which goes against the law of God.  There are many different things in the bible which are said to be against God's laws and therefore count as sins.

Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant and so would say that everything that the Bible says is a sin is and should be avoided.  For example, they are generally opposed to homosexuality because in Leviticus it is described as an 'abomination'.

Liberal Christians regard some of the so called sins mentioned in the Bible (particularly those in the Old Testament) as reflections of the values of another age. In other words, they do not come from God but from the human writers of the Bible.

The vast majority of Christians regard things like the 10 Commandments and Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount [see religious community notes] as genuinely reflecting God's will and they would say that going against God's teaching would lead to problems in the world. Christians believe that God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all loving) so they believe that God can be trusted to have our best interests at heart and to know what is good for us. Therefore, Christians believe that the world would be a better place if everyone obeyed God's commandments and avoided sinning.

'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.' (1 John 1:8-10)

'Those who are well don't need a doctor, but the sick do need one. I didn't come to call the righteous, but sinners.' (Mark 2:17)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told people to try to 'be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:8) and to avoid not just sinful actions but sinful thoughts.  For example, he said that not only should you not murder but you should not even think angry thoughts.  However, it is important to make it clear that this is an ideal that Christians should try to live up to.  It is not expected that everyone will manage it! Jesus also told people not to criticise other people for falling short of his teaching. He himself set the example by forgiving the woman who had been caught committing adultery and he compared himself to a doctor who does not come to treat the well (the righteous) but who comes to heal the sick (sinners).

The causes of hatred, injustice, violence and war:

For contrast:

Buddhists believe that greed, hatred and ignorance are the three poisons.  This means they are the root cause of actions that lead to bad karma and keep people trapped in the cycle of Samsara.

Buddhism teaches that they can be overcome by following the middle way (the path between luxury and poverty).  Meditation is used by Buddhist to help them ensure that they have the right attitude to life and to help them develop qualities like metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion).  Buddhism teaches ahimsa (non-harm) towards all living things.

Generally most people would agree that selfishness, greed and ignorance do lead to problems in society.  

  • Greed causes injustice because people take more than their fair share of the world's resources.  Greed for cheap consumer goods can fuel exploitation, slave labour, child labour and poverty in less economically developed countries.  Greed for power, land and wealth can lead to wars of expansion.
  • Selfishness results in people ignoring the needs of others and refusing to go out of their way to help others.  Selfish inconsiderate attitudes lead to antisocial behaviour, tax dodging and unethical shopping habits all of which have an impact on the quality of lives of others.
  • Ignorance of right and wrong often seems to be a contributing factor in crime.  If a person is not taught right and wrong when they are young then they will not be able to recognise right and wrong when they are older.  The Edlington brothers case is a recent example of the results of moral ignorance.

The extent to which sin is responsible for the world's ills is a more complex question not least because there are so many different things that could count as sins.  However, if we limit our discussion of sin to the 10 commandments then it is clear to see that things like murder and theft do result in injustice and violence.

Greed case study: Consumerism

Most people in the west have far more clothes than they need and there are many shops that sell cut price cheap clothing.  However, for clothes to be available to the consumer at a cheap price they need to be produced as cheaply as possible.  The best way to keep prices down is to pay the workers who make the clothes as little as possible.  It was reported in 2012 that up to a third of cotton workers in India may be children.  Most are not paid a fair wage, they do not work in safe conditions and they do not get an education.  Read the BBC report into child cotton workers here. There are many other examples of the effect that western consumerism for goods and raw materials has on less economically developed countries.

Selfishness case study: Apartheid

The case above could also be used to illustrate how selfishness can cause injustice.  A different example would be the way in which the whites in apartheid South Africa (or segregated America) turned a blind eye to injustice that did not directly inconvenience them.  Selfishness leads people to ignore the needs of others if they themselves are fine.

Ignorance case study: Edlington brothers

In 2010 two young brothers tortured and attempted to kill two cousins.  In the ensuing trial their defense lawyer argued that they had a 'toxic family life' with a drug dependent mother and a violent father who beat their mother and them.  They watched pornographic violent films. Child psychologist Dr Eileen Vizard said that they had no apparent ability to empathise.  Brought up without boundaries and with no one teaching them right from wrong the brothers moral ignorance certainly contributed to their crime.  Guardian report here.

These (and many other examples) could be used to illustrate how ignorance, selfishness and greed can lead to injustice and violence.  Use your own general knowledge to consider how these three vices could lead to war.

Is all suffering caused by these factors?

However, although ignorance, selfishness, greed and sin do contribute to hatred, injustice, violence and war they are not the only possible contributing factors.

Injustice is caused by many things, a lot of which are out of human control. Economic injustice is certainly partly caused by human selfishness and greed but things like drought, famine and prevalence of disease also play a part. Many people in the world are born into lives of hardship caused at least in part by the harsh environment that they live in.  To a certain extent God appears to be responsible.  (See section B topic of the problem of evil).  

Violence can also be a response to a particular set of circumstance.  It might come from greed, selfishness or ignorance but we could equally well say that a lot of violence is alcohol related.

War also has many different factors.  Wars can be entered into for ideological reason.  The crusades were wars motivated by religious beliefs.  Countries might go to war out of self defence or defence of the weak.

The causes of hatred are not so easy to identify.  It might come from upbringing with prejudices and dislikes being passed from generation to generation. Perhaps hatred should itself be seen as a 'root cause' rather than as something caused by other vices.  Within Buddhism hatred is one of the three poisons that lead to bad karma.

Another approach to the question would be to consider to what extent are people capable of choosing whether or not they will be greedy, violent or selfish.  See section on free will, determinism and predestination.

Finally, to attribute all suffering to greed, selfishness, ignorance implies that hatred, injustice, war and violence are caused by accidental thoughtlessness. One could argue that sometimes people deliberately try to cause suffering to others and go out of their way to do evil things.. The mass murderer Ian Brady has said that he murdered to gain an 'existential experience' (Daily Telegraph).  However, Brady is a paranoid schizophrenic and therefore we might regard him as 'ignorant' in that he is incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong.

The inevitability of hatred, injustice, violence and war:

It is inevitable:

It sometimes seems that hatred, injustice, violence and war are inevitable as long as the world includes human beings.  History shows that they do seem to have existed throughout history.  We can pick any century and find examples of prejudice, bad feeling, unfairness, war (and many other evils besides).

A pessimistic view of the future would be that this is likely to continue.  It might be a fact of human nature that we are prone to violence and will turn a blind eye to injustice provided it does not affect us.

It might be that as the world becomes more over-populated resources will become scarcer which will lead to more wars and more injustice.

The Christian view contains the idea that human beings are fallen and inclined toward sin.  See notes on human nature and the human condition and recap Augustine's beliefs.

It is not inevitable:

However, we could take a more optimistic view.  Society seems to have become more tolerant and less likely to support injustice.  Mass media means that injustice tends to get noticed and people are less likely to get away with hate.  Tolerance is perceived to be more important and society becomes more civilised.  Perhaps by looking back at history we can learn from our mistakes and make the world better in the future.

We might also argue that as technology develops we can make better and fairer use of the earth's resources.  We won't need to fight over them because we will be able to use them in a way which means that there is enough to go around.  Better infrastructure means that aid can be more effectively taken to those that need it.

Christians would say that with God anything is possible.  Jesus said that he had come to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.  If everyone followed Jesus' teachings about loving their neighbour then this might spell the end to all the various evils that exist.

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