A Secular Take on the Seven Deadly Sins

Christianity, or at least the Catholic Church, names seven deadly (or capital or cardinal) sins from which others flow:  pride, wrath, gluttony, envy, greed, lust, and sloth.  Each is supposed to distance a man from the grace and perfection of God, but atheists do not give this belief any credence.  What, then, can a secular ethicist say about them? 

Simply, each vice is a type of attachment:

Pride is attachment to self and everything that one associates with self.  It can manifest as arrogance and unjustified certainty, but also as nationalism, ethnocentrism, or any other form of tribalism, which is preference for one’s own people or values over others simply because they are one’s own.  Insofar as pride blinds one to his own flaws, it is also a sort of ignorance.  This vice thwarts our good desires by dividing us and resisting change, since it regards the present self as best.

Wrath is attachment to the desire to harm or destroy.  It can manifest as offensive actions against others, violently defensive reactions, or vengeance, which has been legitimized throughout history as “retributive justice.”  This vice is frequently found with pride, since it serves to promote the self over others or silence valid criticism.  (In fact, pride without wrath would be much less troublesome.)  It thwarts our good desires quite clearly through physical harm, but also through the preservation of grudges at the cost of forgiveness.

Greed is attachment to power, wealth, or material things or to the desire to have any of these.  It is the most materialistic of the vices, since it seeks happiness through objects or the means of obtaining them.  While power, wealth, and objects can bring some happiness and are necessary for survival, greed is characterized by the desires to always have more and to hoard only for oneself or one’s closest loved ones.  Having more may not even increase happiness, but that is the nature of attachments:  they persist despite their ineffectiveness in producing happiness.  Greed thwarts our good desires by concentrating power and depriving others of their needs.

Gluttony is attachment to what one consumes or to the desire to consume.  As the overindulgence of the senses and appetite, it can manifest in many ways, including consistently eating too much (more than is appropriate for one person), obsession with art or music, and drug use.  It is characterized by a lack of restraint at the prospect of pleasure, the subjugation of reason and willpower to the senses and base desires.  Except at its worst, few people seem to really find fault in this vice, which is often found with greed because it thrives on excess.  Nevertheless, one can be gluttonous even if he lacks the means to fulfill his desires.  This vice thwarts our good desires through unfair consumption of resources and fixation on physical pleasure above all else.

Lust is attachment to other beings or objects in a sexual way or to sexual desire itself.  As the overindulgence of the sexual appetite, it can manifest either as promiscuity, sexual obsession with a single partner, or even relentless fantasy.  Like gluttony, it is characterized by a lack of restraint at the prospect of pleasure.  This vice is becoming more and more socially acceptable, except when it is “unsafe,” either because it might spread disease or because it might lead to pregnancy.  These problems, however, are consequences of unprotected sex, not problems with lust per se.  Lust thwarts our good desires through fixation on sexual pleasure above all else and interference with lasting love.

Envy is attachment to what other people are or have or to the desire to be or have these things.  In its most vicious form, as a preoccupation with a perceived lack and an unwillingness to work hard to fill it (sloth), it can manifest as wrathful tendencies against those who do not share the deficiency.  It is characterized not by the humility that some feel in the presence of those worth emulating, but by pride, which does not long tolerate being anything less than the best.  The envious seek not to raise themselves up, but to bring others down to their level.  However, attachment to particular individuals is its own sort of vice as well when it becomes idolatry.  Envy thwarts our good desires by interfering with personal and social growth and obsessing over what is not rather than what could be.

Sloth is attachment to an easy life or to the desire for one.  It manifests not only as an unwillingness to work to help others, but as an unwillingness to work to help oneself, even though a slothful individual might desire all of the fruits of the labor that he does not perform.  In its most vicious form, it is characterized by a total lack of motivation to do anything, which makes it unique among these “sins” because building up desires is more difficult than resisting them.  Even though sloth is given little attention, it is arguably as bad as pride:  where the proud are unable to see their faults, the slothful are unwilling to change them.  This fits well with the desire-belief theory of behavior, in which beliefs tell us how to act according to the desires that motivate us.  Sloth thwarts our good desires by preventing us from caring about or acting to fulfill them.

(Note that I have consistently made a distinction between attachment to a desire and attachment to the object of that desire.  Attachment to a desire means that the desire is insatiable and overpowering, since it never ends up producing real happiness and thus never seems fulfilled.  Attachment to the object of a desire is fetishism.)

When we are attached to something, we are no longer in control, which means that our ability to recognize and effectively pursue good desires is compromised.  All of the above “sins” interfere with our reason or desires in such a way.  To speak of overcoming attachment, then, is to speak of regaining control over oneself, which requires the cultivation of virtue.  Virtues, like vices, manifest not only as changes in behavior, but as changes in thought.  In this sense, religions that claim that both performing and thinking of an immoral action are sinful are on the right track, though it is important to recognize the differences in the degree of harm that they cause.  Atheists should not be quick to dismiss this as ridiculous or magical thinking, nor should they disregard the harm in the vices of sensory pleasure, like lust and gluttony, which can seem so innocuous.

However, our goals can be too idealistic, even mystical.  Humans are still imperfectly rational animals, not gods or machines.  Our minds are not disembodied and eternal, our wills not totally free.  We are subject to our genetics and our environment, to biological needs and chemicals in the brain.  Our virtues are no more transcendent than our vices, though they do free us to some extent.  They are simply desires that are better for us as a group, which is in turn better for us as individuals.

The most vicious of us are not caught in a struggle with demons, but are attached to base desires or misguided in their beliefs.  They seek pleasure and avoid pain in the simplest, most short-sighted ways.  In contrast, yet also in similarity, the most virtuous of us are not raised up by some deity, but are wise (or fortunate) enough to have cultivated good desires and beliefs.  They seek pleasure and avoid pain in more enlightened ways and recognize that happiness is greater still.

Aristotle claimed that virtues are a “golden mean” between two vices.  For example:  courage is the virtuous golden mean between rashness (an excess) and cowardice (a deficiency).  The Catholic Church has posited seven virtues that correspond to the seven “deadly” sins and match such a golden mean:  humility, patience, charity, temperance, chastity, kindness, and diligence.  Of course, these are all just terms.  Just as their precise meaning is unclear, so is what constitutes a proper virtue.  The key is to cultivate knowledge, self-awareness, and self-restraint.  From these should flow proper thought and behavior.


Filed under Applied Ethics

2 responses to “A Secular Take on the Seven Deadly Sins

  1. I have never really thought about how similar these are:

    I see this as two sin families: empowering oneself at the expense of others and needing power as the first, and being too lazy to empower oneself as the second.

    • Excesses and deficiencies, attachments, empowerment–they all fit together. But now I think it’s easier to find such discussion in self-help books than in churches or schools.

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