On the Seven Deadly Sins and Relative Preferences

The Seven Deadly Sins aren’t very deadly — and that’s a very good thing if you’re in the public policy business.

Apologies to Andy Rooney, but have you ever noticed that none of the Seven Deadly Sins are particularly bad?  Think about it.  The Seven Deadly Sins are (in no particular order): Anger, Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride.  All of us have large dollops of them.  Maybe that’s why they are considered deadly: we have them, and we die, and thus these are the Seven Deadly Sins.  But that seems too pat.

If we were really serious about bad character, I’d replace at least three of them with: Cruelty, Deceit, and Malice.  Perhaps I run with a particularly good crowd, but none of the people I know have any of these really in more than negligible amounts.  In any event, these three are far worse than the traditional Seven.

Now, maybe the whole point of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they are so normal — they are our “ordinary vices,” a phrase that Montaigne coined in his essay “On Cannibals.”  They eat away at our character because they are part of our everyday existence, and before we know it, we are terrible people.  That makes sense.  In other words, it is their very mildness that makes them so devastating.

I couldn’t help thinking about this upon finishing Bob Frank’s wonderful book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class.  Bob has been writing for years about “positional goods,” that is, goods whose value depends upon on how much of the good other people have.  The classic example is that lots of people would rather have a $200,000 house when everyone else has a $150,000 house, instead of a $300,000 house when everyone else has a $400,000 house.  In Falling Behind, Bob is at pains to show how this is not the result of that Deadly Sin, Envy: people want houses priced relatively highly not because they are envious or snobbish, but rather because this means they will be in better school districts.  Reality is not Lake Wobegon: not every child can be above average, and so everyone wants to be in the highest cohort.

All true.  But it seems to me odd that the central critique of the theory of positional goods and relative preferences is essentially, “we can’t have public policy cater to people’s Envy, because Envy is bad.”  Virtually the entire classical theory of economics supports policies that appeal to people’s Greed: they will produce more if you pay them more for it.  I find Bob to be completely persuasive that taking account of positional goods is not about Envy, but if it is, so what?  They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.  And if you object to any public policy that caters to the Seven Deadly Sins, that doesn’t leave you with many arrows in your quiver.

Last thing: I was first introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins by, of all things, the Muppet Show.  The Muppet Show’s 1974 pilot, “Sex and Violence,” featured the “Seven Deadly Sins” competition.  Midway through the show, a Muppet appeared to Kermit and told him that she was “Leafy Green Vegetables.”  After some confusion, Kermit explained that she wanted the Seven Main Food Groups competition down the hall.  Then Lust started chasing after Leafy Green Vegetables.  All good fun.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

32 thoughts on “On the Seven Deadly Sins and Relative Preferences”

  1. Your observation about the "deadly sins" is so categorically true as to suggest a classification error. They're all about the internal state of one's own mind or soul, arguably in relation to God but not in the first instance to one's fellows. Sexual behavior, for example, is not on the list — instead there's Lust, which can be strong or weak, good or bad for your mind, independent of any object. This may not serve your purposes, but it's not due to oversight. The list from Proverbs on that Wikipedia page is closer to your mark, listing deeds and manifest attitudes toward others alongside soul-states.

  2. "But it seems to me odd that the central critique of the theory of positional goods and relative preferences is essentially, “we can’t have public policy cater to people’s Envy, because Envy is bad.” Virtually the entire classical theory of economics supports policies that appeal to people’s Greed: they will produce more if you pay them more for it."

    That's because greed is the desire to have more yourself, while envy is the desire that others have less. So, while greed can be channeled into modes that result in a net increase in welfare, envy is more or less always doomed to lead to actions which reduce net wealth.

  3. I always thought that Catholic theologians believed that despair was a worse sin than any of the seven.

    Gluttony sounds like a joke-sin today. But in the context of the old Malthusian world, it was really bad. Remember, there really wasn't much food to go around back then–a glutton was the worst kind of thief.

  4. "In Falling Behind, Bob is at pains to show how this is not the result of that Deadly Sin, Envy: people want houses priced relatively highly not because they are envious or snobbish, but rather because this means they will be in better school districts. Reality is not Lake Wobegon: not every child can be above average, and so everyone wants to be in the highest cohort."

    This strikes me as exactly backwards. Surely, to be in a better school district, you want everybody else's houses to be worth more, since higher values should correlate with higher school taxes and (usually) a better school district. On the other hand, you'd want your own taxes to be lower, so you're better off with a $300,000 house among $400,000 houses (you pay the least amount to get the best schools) than having a $200,000 house among $150,000, where you are carrying an outsized portion of the school tax burden.

  5. Brett,

    Could you hum a few more bars? Couldn't envy increase net wealth when some other person's greed creates externalities?

  6. That's the "properly channeled" part of greed, Joe. Envy isn't complaining that somebody else's wealth is injuring you, it's complaining that somebody else is more wealthy than you. And wanting to make them less wealthy, rather than become wealthier yourself.

  7. FuzzyFace's objection sounds right to me. By buying a $150K house in a $200K school district you get the schools cheap.

  8. Wrong universe of comparison. If you can buy a $150K house in a $200K neighborhood, that may be a bargain. But why assume that the $150K house is in that neighborhood? The whole thrust of the "buying a better school district" argument is that it isn't.

  9. envy is the desire that others have less

    Yes, and that's the point where I think the classical list relates most obviously to other people. (You can be greedy about the unmined gold in the unclaimed mountain.) On the inward side, envy is a whole complex of feeling and mental preoccupation revolving around discontent at what others have.

    I also agree with Larry, but would emphasize again that this is not just about action — there's a concern with one's own mental health, in a sense, that would seem solipsistic if God weren't involved.

  10. So, if envy is the desire that others have less, am I guilty of envy if I prefer that the unmined gold in the mountain remain unmined? I prefer the mountain left intact, because I like to hike and fish. Open pits are not generally interesting places to hike, and the hydrocyanic acid extraction methods they use are harmful to the fish I enjoy catching (and sometimes, eating.)

    The externalities involved in mining the gold in that hill isn't worth the costs it places on me, to no benefit for me.

  11. Not from the "psychological" point of view, Dennis. You're not obsessed with others' possession of the gold. Arguably you're guilty of psychological greed, to the extent that you're motivated by your personal desire to hike and fish.

  12. matt wilbert,

    Jonathan talks about having a $200K house when everyone else has a $150K house. I'm not sure who "everyone else" is in that sentence, but I assumed it was the neighbors. Maybe he just oversimplified the argument.

  13. Vance, the question is WHY God would be so concerned about someone having an occasional lustful feeling as opposed to being malicious or cruelty toward others. In any event, I do address your objection in the third paragraph of the post: they are common and thus eat away at one's character in a more profound way. But that means calling them the "Seven Deadly Sins" in modern English seems like a misnomer. We are in heated agreement.

    Bernard, I appreciate your deconstruction of the post, but the overall point is quite clear: Bob Frank says that people would rather be in the upper quintile or decile not because they are envious, but because that puts their kids in better schools relatively.

    As for Brett, it's pretty easy to say that envy is something like, "he has a $1 million house and I want a $2 million house so I can be wealthier than him." There is no necessary attempt to take someone else down absolutely. Besides, the overall point that Bob is making is that positional goods MEANS that taking someone else down increases your own welfare, and thus that very well could be a net increase in social welfare.

  14. Johnathan, I think you've got greed and envy conflated here. Greed is the desire to have more for yourself. Envy to have less for others. Essentially, the difference is that the greedy man isn't going to be made any happier by his neighbor's house burning down. (Though he might be made happier if he could TAKE his neighbor's home for his own, which is why greed has to be channeled to be a force for good.) The envious man would be made happier by his neighbor's misfortune.

    This is what makes greed less destructive than envy; It can actually be satisfied in ways that involve net gains for society. Envy can't.

  15. "…, you’d want your own taxes to be lower, so you’re better off with a $300,000 house among $400,000 houses (you pay the least amount to get the best schools) than having a $200,000 house among $150,000, where you are carrying an outsized portion of the school tax burden."

    The City of Dallas got around this by basing your taxes on not only the value of your house, but also the value of the houses around your house.

  16. I'm no priest, Jonathan, nor even a Christian anymore, so I can't speak for God. But the preoccupation with the state of the soul is a distinctive strand of Christian tradition. Not unique to Christianity, but indeed as you say different from what people casually think of as the concern of the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia has some things to say on the subject:

    That sin may be committed not only by outward deeds but also by the inner activity of the mind apart from any external manifestation, is plain from the precept of the Decalogue: "Thou shalt not covet", and from Christ's rebuke of the scribes and pharisees whom he likens to "whited sepulchres… full of all filthiness" (Matthew 23:27). Hence the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, c. v), in declaring that all mortal sins must be confessed, makes special mention of those that are most secret and that violate only the last two precepts of the Decalogue, adding that they "sometimes more grievously wound the soul and are more dangerous than sins which are openly committed".

    We could quarrel with the logic (how are we sure that that commandment refers to what's in your heart, rather than acts taken in covetousness?), but the tradition is real. Most people's focus, though, is on interpersonal morality, rightly so I think — thus the confusion. (Brett's comment on greed vs. envy is a good example of this.)

    Skeptics of religion will often remark casually that religions are mere "systems of control". One objection is that it's not clear in most cases who's controlling who — there isn't literally always a priestly caste colluding with the state to control the people. Another is that religions are to an important extent systems of self-control, collective means towards a personally valuable end.

  17. "Vance, the question is WHY God would be so concerned about someone having an occasional lustful feeling as opposed to being malicious or cruelty toward others."

    Well that's the great Christian innovation, isn't it? To switch from a religion of orthoPRAXIS (what matters is what you DO, the standard model up till that point) to a religion of orthoDOXY (what matters is what you THINK).

    One could argue that this innovation was simply hit upon randomly, one more mutation among the sea of constantly evolving new religions of the time, but that this particular innovation proved vastly more powerful than the competition because it allowed for rather greater control of the population than was previously the case.

  18. I can't recall just where I got this from, but I believe the focus on the Seven Deadly Sins isn't so much the idea that these particular transgressions are worse than any others, but that they lead to worse sins in the long run. Attacking the seven deadlies is a way of nipping the more vicious behaviors in the bud.

    Let's say you're a pastor, dedicated to your flock's spiritual health. One of your parishioners has a bad temper and allows anger to overwhelm him or her more often than seems normal. That kind of thing can blossom into cruelty, for sure. You'd probably rather counsel this person against anger before that happens, since it's easier (or seems easier) to get at. That is, as you say, the Seven Deadlies are indeed milder than other sins, and all the deadlier for that in their destruction of the soul.

    By the way, not to get too picky, but that wasn't Kermit. That was a sleepy-eyed, unruffled character named Nigel, who was eventually relegated to the position of bandleader in the Muppet Show pit and never said another word.

  19. Vance, I take your point, but it still doesn't answer what I think my question is! What if someone has sadistic fantasies about torturing a child? What if someone else has gluttonous fantasies about eating 17 Big Macs in one sitting? Neither of these impulses is acted on, but if we were just looking at their inner thoughts, I for one would say that the former is far worse than the latter. What am I missing here?

    Brett, I suppose we are just arguing over definitions, which is real, but I wonder whether you are defining yourself out of the argument. My neighbor has a Lamborghini. I hate him and envy him. I thus work really hard so that I can afford TWO Lamborghinis. I actually take the subway myself and don't care about using them. I think you'd define that as greed, but I don't see why that isn't better conceived of as envy: I don't want the Lamborghinis for their own sake, but simply to one-up my neighbor. Isn't that envy?

  20. I see — I imagine the sadistic fantasies would be filed under Wrath, but I don't know for sure.

  21. "[N]one of the Seven Deadly Sins are particularly bad"

    –Zasloff

    "Fear is the path to the dark side: fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." "Anger…fear…aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice."

    — Yoda

  22. Or, an alternative answer to Jonathan's last question — sometimes it's not appropriate to consider only the effects on oneself.

  23. I don't think of myself as particularly cruel or malicious, and I don't think most of my friends are either. But deceit is absolutely epidemic. I lied twice in the first sentence of this post, and I didn't even really mean to.

  24. "I can’t recall just where I got this from, but I believe the focus on the Seven Deadly Sins isn’t so much the idea that these particular transgressions are worse than any others, but that they lead to worse sins in the long run. Attacking the seven deadlies is a way of nipping the more vicious behaviors in the bud."

    This is a jewish idea — making a fence around the law and not even approaching the fence. (It's rather strange that this, good IMHO, idea co-exists with the idea that you can fool god by putting a rope around a city and declaring the entire thing a single household, but that's humanity for you). But then, as I said, they're interested in practice, not in thought.

    Christian theology (as opposed to the random mishmash of more or less spiritual ideas that occupy the brains of most Americans who call themselves christians) doesn't go in much for ranking some sins as worse than others, and to the extent it does, the worst sins are NOT what naive people would consider such — evils against other people — but precisely thoughtcrimes, which supposedly alienate one from god. This is why crimes against other people, from crusades to torture in the inquisition, to burning heretics, to enslaving native Americans, were all fine in the eyes of the church.

    So while your idea seems to make naive sense, it simply does not reflect the actual theological position of the church on these matters. (And that's before even throwing in matters like predestination and "solo scriptura" [as opposed to works].)

  25. Roughly summarizing my understanding of medieval Christian theologians (Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas): People are estranged from God and have a propensity to sin. All sin comes from pride, which is placing yourself above God, and other sins flow from it. A person might feel lust, envy, sloth (acedia, which is better understood as despair, especially of God's love), anger. Because humans are all in a state of sin, we can't help it (but still bear responsibility for it and should repent).

    It gets worse when you consent to the sin, either deciding to let yourself continue wallowing in the internal aspect of the sin or to acting on it, whether this manifests itself in murder, theft, adultery, arson, etc. Abelard says in his Ethics that actually carrying out the action or not does not add or detract from the sin once you've internally consented to do it – you could decide to kill someone out of anger or envy but be prevented from doing it, and you're still as guilty as if you'd been able to pull it off. You could not particularly want to kill a person who's attacking you, but do it rather than allowing yourself to be killed. Or you could (ahem) *accidentally* sleep with someone who's not your spouse but happens to be in your bed, not intending to commit adultery (Abelard had some very strong opponents on this and other things). For Augustine, too, sin is in the will. Even individual actions aren't bad in themselves, but bad because they go against God's will. Augustine thought that if there were times when killing people was good or at least the lesser evil, such as if God told the Israelites to wipe out an entire people (good) and if killing them prevented them from spreading heretical ideas (lesser evil).

    Also, Dante's with you on considering fraud, malice and treachery worse than the seven deadlies. Lust, gluttony and disorders regarding property (hoarders and wasters) are among the first circles of Hell. Deceit and malice in various forms make up the pockets of the eighth circle, and betrayal is in the central pit. In Purgatory, envy near the bottom right next to pride, while greed is up among the things that are disordered versions of things humans need to preserve themselves (you need to procreate, eat and have shelter to survive, but too much love of sex, food and material goods is problematic because it diverts your attention from God).

  26. However, to add to Azelie, Dante considers violence against people and property to be the least bad kind of violence. Violence against the self (suicide) is worse, and violence against god (blasphemy or heresy) and against nature (a nice catchall term including sodomites and usurers) worst of all.

    Aquinas has some more interesting things to say on sin; for example in his list of the four "sins that cry to heaven for vengeance" we see

    – sodomy

    – exploiting the poor and

    – not paying workmen the money they are owed.

    Apart from the choice of these particular actions as "crying to heaven for vengeance" it's interesting that, in our current times, there is rather more concern with the first of these than the latter two.

  27. Let's look at another deadly sin, namely Sloth. To what kinds of sin does this lead? Well, it and its effects are regularly deplored on this blog site. Look at the "ground zero mosque" travesty for a salient example.

    It is easier to repeat slogans than to learn facts and draw inferences that accord with reason. Thus, "ground zero mosque" is easy to repeat. It takes some effort to ascertain facts about the actual location and design of the proposed community center. The disinclination to make that effort springs from sloth, and leads to other deplorable effects. For example, it is easier to consider Muslims under one general term than to have to learn the differences between the sects and varieties of Islam. The latter entails taking time to read about history and to determine which particular facts to apply to the situation at hand. Sloth abhors this effort, and prefers to be slipshod and facile. Consider how much more undemanding it is to just say that "they" killed 3000 Americans on 9/11 than to learn about the Sufi tradition and its collisions with more narrow interpretations of Islam. It is harder to do some homework than to repeat what you hear on television.

    In this way, Sloth can lead to strife and eventually to war. Deadly sin it certainly is.

  28. I guess you're not the only one to think that perhaps the original seven are a bit on the trivial side.

    This ( http://smsscr.com/p/seven-deadly-sins ) is one person's idea of how to rank them – by how easy they are to text from a mobile phone!

    What is the world coming to?

    Back on topic, I'd add "not considering yourself to have any responsibilities to the world around you", although I'm stuck for how to sum it up in one word. It does perhaps have some overlap with "Sloth".

    Wanders off, shaking head.

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