Maybe you have already asked yourself reading my last blogs why I actually write about the seven deadly sins (the last one was “pride”). And maybe you also thought that these are not topics that are relevant for our life today.
Actually, they are. The reason why I did researches about the deadly sins is that my clients normally come to me because of fears (have a look here). Fears that typically result from our present way of life, our economic system and from behaviour that is considered normal. So in order to better understand you and my patients, it seemed to me very useful to take a closer look at the only catalogue in our cultural area that makes negative behaviour taboo.
If you have read my blogs up to this point(started with “gluttony” in january , you know that I basically still consider all these behaviours to be harmful not only for the individual but also for society.
What fears am I talking about?
My patients’ greatest fear is not being good enough. Not beautiful enough to find the right partner, not sexy enough to keep him, not smart enough to make a career, not strong enough to balance work and private life, not selfless enough to be a good mother, not interesting enough to find a good circle of friends, not assertive enough to make a career…. I’m sure you can think of a few more. And this results in fear of losing people or security, fear of going out into the world, fear of other people, fear of decisions and risks, fear of darkness and uncertainty.
I think we can assume that our species would not have come that far if we had all been constantly plagued by these fears. We have evolved on the basis of fears of threatening animals (or other tribes), natural disasters, hunger and exclusion from the community. And of course all of our fears can be traced back to these primordial fears.
And yet, can we really compare whether we are excluded from a tribe – which was tantamount to a death sentence – or whether we lose followers on social media or have to deal with hater comments? I do not want to belittle this fear – it is often very real for the person affected. But worse things were necessary in our history to be excluded from the community than to disagree or even be different.
It is only with science and technology, and even more so with the global development of the Internet, that there are global ideals that the majority of people consider to be worth striving for, but which tend to be unattainable.. Ideals that are explicitly related to the individual and not to society as a whole, ideals that necessarily contain in their realisation injustice towards others and other things.
And what do these fears have to do with deadly sins?
When people are convicted that they are not enough for the ideal which seems to be in everyone’s mind – young, beautiful and rich without having to make an effort – they become envious and greedy and slowly slide into bitter listlessness and, as a result, into depression, or they get angry and let others feel their aggressions as well. Some achieve these ideals for a time, but many of them also feel that they are not enough and fear all the time that someone would recognise this. This is usually also true for all of these prideful people, the narcissists and psychopaths of our time. And all of them try to distract themselves from all this misery with lust and gluttony.
So do these sins still apply today?
Of course, the understanding of sins has also changed over time. After all, the proclamation of the seven deadly sins we know today dates back to the sixth century AD and was formulated by Pope Gregory the Great.
However, the original distinction between a sin and a deadly sin still exists today. While a sin is a concrete action that violates existing values and principles, and possibly also existing legislation, deadly sins are to be understood more as vices.
Vice comes from the Old High German “lastar” = “fault or shame” and describes a negative behaviour by which someone is dominated and as a result of which he commits the same sins over and over again. A deadly sin in this sense attacks the prevailing values of the community and the prosperous progress of each individual. However, vices should not to be confused with compulsions. Vices are habits, which a person freely chooses, often knowing the negativity of it.
And if you look at my list of deadly sins in relation to fears, you might agree that the compilation of the seven deadly sins aptly describes the possible vices of people in a society of inequality and injustice.
What impact do these deadly sins have on our living together?
If greed and envy lead to property offences, they can of course be prosecuted. However, the real damage to society is caused by people with these character traits, without the possibility of legal punishment. They are responsible for the progressing exploitation of nature and for anything but caring togetherness – not only between people, but also between people and nature. This also applies to gluttony which is the basis for the steadily rising number of deaths from non-contagious diseases.
From my point of view, pride and anger are character traits whose increase is encouraged by the economic system on which our society is based. And they do not constitute a helpful attitude to life, neither for togetherness nor for the individual.
Lust – in its manifestation as a vice – is above all difficult to bear for the individual because it denies people a balanced and satisfying sexuality and thus an essential basis for happiness.
And inertia – or the bitter listlessness – is ultimately on the one hand the consequence of the above six vices, and, on the other hand an essential basis for the increase in mental illness worldwide.
Why does society accept these behaviours?
My view on the damage that these behaviours cause to every single person as well as to our society is not necessarily shared by the majority. Behaviours that we considered sinful for ages are excused today by our survival instinct. Or they are regarded as useful because of rephrasing them in favour of our economic system.
This reinterpretation has a long tradition. As early as the 17th century, attempts were made to reinterpret dangerous and anti-social behaviour and passions into useful ones by assigning them to a goal that could be considered positive for society as a whole. In the words of the legal philosopher Giambattista Vico: “Out of cruelty, greed and ambition, the three vices that mislead all people, society made national defence, trade and politics, thus establishing the strength, prosperity and wisdom of the republics”.
To this day, envy and greed are therefore considered positive motivators for moving forward. A certain arrogance is required for advancement to leadership positions, and anger is regarded as energy that just needs to be channelled into the right direction. Lust and inertia are redefined as sexual freedom and leisure, as desirable behavioural values in our stressful times (more about here).
And excesses are then attributed to problems in individual families, early childhood disorders or severe trauma, and thus quasi excused.
What values characterise our society in Germany today?
One source is the Basic Law, which formulates the fundamental rights of the individual in our society. Even if the basic rights primarily establish the individual’s rights of defense against the state they also give an impression of the conception of human being on which our social constitution is based:
- Above all are the rights that relate to the essence of our existence – the right to dignity and to life and physical integrity.
- Further rights give people far-reaching freedoms – the right to free personal fulfillment (without harming others), to one’s own belief and worldview, to free expression of opinion (without harming youth and honour), to free movement throughout Germany and to free career choice.
- Other rights relate to the rights of people as a community – respect for human rights as the basis of every human community, rights of peace and justice, the right to equal treatment of every person in the community, the right to free teaching and research, and the right of assembly and founding associations.
- And it not only grants special protection rights to the family, but also to housing, property and inheritance.
As a result of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the experience of the subsequent National Socialism, freedom, the dignity of the individual and the right to free onal fulfillment now play a central role, not only for the individual but also for society. It is not for nothing that the Basic Law is considered one of the most liberal constitutions in the history of mankind.
But there are also dangers associated with this liberality. Guaranteeing freedom, personal fulfillment and property it leads to an individuality detached from society and thus in fact open the door to “mortal sins”.
This is because they are the result of an economy based on ever-increasing growth and, therefore, ever-increasing exploitation of natural resources, and of a society that measures a person’s personal success by his or her position in that very system. People who are unable to cope with this pressure, who are weak, lonely and desperatly trying to survive in this world, often see these behaviours as the only way out.
What can we counter a misguided individualism?
As long as the underlying system does not change, only your own behaviour. For this, first of all it’s useful to realise that the general social conditions – and of course social media – have a decisive influence on our behaviour. A constant questioning of the role models given by society and the media should therefore urgently be part of your (new) behaviour.
Secondly, it is helpful to understand what – apart from the ideal described above – is really important for you.
For that, I let my clients very often create a pyramid of values, because values often reveal unconscious convictions that shape our decisions. Only when someone is aware of these subconscious imprints are new decisions possible
.Most of my patients name the following values that motivate them in their lives:
Especially in recent years, connectedness, love (not only in a couple’s sense), freedom and self-realisation have been named more and more often as the highest values of my clients. Maybe you will find your values here too.
Thirdly, however, everything you desire, your values and ideals, must also be guaranteed to the people around you. So if you shape your behaviour in such a way that you support these values in others, then, in my opinion, you are and we are on the right path.
What kind of behaviour is necessary to realise these values?
Of course, philosophers have thought for ages about how a prosperous coexistence of people in a large, unrelated group, i.e. a city, an empire or a state, should look like.
Let me just mention the three philosophers and ethicist who I think are fitting in with the three points raised above:
Aristotle saw “good fate” (eudaimonia) as the goal of individual and community life, which can also be translated as “fullness of life”, “good (divine) providence”, or simply “the good life”. The “good life” is to be equated with a life that leaves nothing to be desired and in which everything was achieved. (An ideal is not for nothing just a picture in your head 😊😊) The good life for all in the community is more important than that of the individual. I consider one thought extremly important, that this goal will be achieved by the conscious and active action of the people. For that people must be guided by certain virtues. Aristotle used virtues here in the sense of behavioural patterns, because he regarded them as determined by reason and practised by education..
It is always important for these behaviours to keep to the middle, as neither too much nor too little is beneficial to the desired goal. For Aristotle, the highest virtue is “sophia” – “wisdom”, because it enables us to approach the understanding of the meaning of life. The most important virtues according to it are justice, bravery, generosity and compassion.
In his works, Kant posed the question of the basic principle that enables people in a society to live together. He expressed this in his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. (Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals). This not only includes “Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated”, but goes far beyond this. This principle also includes the duties one has to fulfil towards oneself, towards people and towards the state. From today’s perspective, one could add, also towards nature.
Beauchamp and Childress
Finally, I would like to introduce you to two US bioethicists: Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, who have described the “no harm” principle, “self-determination”, “justice”, and “duty of care” as basic principles of our social coexistence.
These principles, formulated by these philosophers and ethicists, are based on allowing oneself to be guided by fundamental behaviours in one’s life, with living and developing one’s values, but always in relation to the duties one has to fulfil towards one’s environment..
Theoretically, such considerations of principle should lead to rights that are protected by law, but I believe that this will require the development of a new economic and social model, from which I regret to say that we are still a long way off.