Maybe when you have been reading my last blogs (the last one was The Pride) you have wondered why I am writing about the seven deadly sins. And maybe you also thought that these are not topics that are relevant to our lives today.
But they are, because the reason why I have studied the deadly sins is that in my practice I have to do again and again with fears (as you can see here). With fears that to a large extent result from our present way of life, our economic system and from the behaviours that are considered normal. So, in order to better understand you and my patients, it seemed to make a lot of sense to me to take a closer look at the only catalogue in our cultural context that makes negative behaviours taboo.
Perhaps you have read my blogs (started in January with Gluttony) up to this point. If so, you know that I still see all these behaviours as harmful not only to the individual but also to society.
Which fears do I mean?
My patients biggest fear is not being good enough. Not beautiful enough to find the right partner. Also not sexy enough to keep him. Not smart enough to have a career. Or strong enough to manage a work-life balance. Not selfless enough to be a good mother to the children. And not interesting enough to find a suitable circle of friends. Or not assertive enough to have a career…. I’m sure you can think of a few more. And then from that results fear of losing people or security, or fear of going out into the world, fear of other people, or fear of decisions and risks, fear of darkness and uncertainty.
I think we can assume that our species would not have come so far if we had all been permanently plagued by these fears. Because we have evolved on the basis of fears of threatening animals or people, of natural disasters, hunger and exclusion from the community. And of course all our fears can be traced back to these primal fears.
So, can it really be compared to being excluded from a tribe – which was like a death sentence – or losing followers in social media or having to deal with hater comments? I don’t want to minimise it – it is often very real for the person concerned. But in our society, there must be more to be excluded than to disagree or be different at all.
Only with science and technology, and even more so with the global development of the internet, are there global ideals that seem attractive to people, but tend not to be realisable. Ideals that are explicitly related only to the individual and not to society as a whole, ideals that necessarily involve injustice towards othersin their realisation.
And what do these fears have to do with the deadly sins?
Young, beautiful and rich without having to work hard for it is the ideal of our time. When people see, or think they see, that they are not enough for this ideal, they become envious and greedy. They slowly slide into bitter listlessness and, as a result, depression. Or they become angry and let others feel their aggression too. 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 will realise this. This is often true of the arrogant, the narcissists and psychopaths of our time. And they all try to distract themselves from all the 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 formulation of the seven deadly sins that we know today dates back to the sixth century AD. (Formulated by Pope Gregory the Great.)
However, the original understanding of a sin distinguished from a mortal sin still exists today. While a sin is a concrete action that violates valid values and principles, possibly also existing legislation, mortal sins are rather to be understood as vices.
The german word for “vice” (Laster) comes from the Old High German “lastar” = “mistake or disgrace” and denotes a negative behaviour by which someone is dominated and as a result commits the same sins again and again. But a mortal sin in this sense calls into question the valid values of the community and the prosperous advancement of each individual. And vices, however, are not to be confused with compulsions. They are behaviours that human beings freely choose, often even in the knowledge of their negativity.
And if you look at my list of the deadly sins in relation to fears, you may also feel that the list of the seven deadly sins adequately describes the possible vices of people in a society of inequality and injustice.
What effect do these deadly sins have on our life together?
If greed and envy lead to property offences, they can of course be prosecuted. However, people with these traits do the real damage to society without being able to be legally punished. They cause the irresponsible exploitation of nature as well as anything but loving coexistence. And not only between people, but also between people and nature. The same applies to gluttony, which is also responsible for the ever-increasing number of deaths due to non-communicable diseases.
In my view, pride and anger are qualities whose rise is promoted by the economic system that underlies our society. However, they do not represent a helpful attitude towards life, neither for cooperation nor for the individual.
Lust – in its manifestation as vice – is difficult to bear, especially for the individual. For by denying people a balanced and satisfying sexuality, it denies them an essential basis for happiness.
And inertia – or bitter listlessness – is ultimately, on the one hand, the consequence of the above six vices. On the other hand – much more importantly – it is an essential basis for the rise of mental illness worldwide.
Why does society accept these behaviours?
My opinion of the damage these behaviours do to each individual as well as to our society is not necessarily a widely accepted one. Today, we excuse so much of what used to be considered sin with our human survival instincts or simply rephrase it 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 behaviours and passions into useful ones. They were simply assigned to a goal that could be seen as positive for society as a whole. The philosopher of law Giambattista Vico formulated this as follows. “From cruelty, avarice and ambition, the three vices that lead all men astray, society makes national defence, commerce and politics, and thus establishes the strength, prosperity and wisdom of republics.”
To this day, therefore, envy and greed are considered positive motivators to get ahead. A certain arrogance is required for advancement to leadership positions. And anger is seen as energy that only needs to be channelled in the right directions. Lust and inertia are redefined as sexual freedom and leisure, as desirable behavioural values in our stressful times.
And excesses are then attributed to problems in individual families, early childhood disorders or severe traumas, and thus quasi excused.
What values characterise our society in Germany today?
One source to figure this out is the Basic Law (an english version you can find here:). It formulates the fundamental rights of the individual in our society. It is admittedly true that the fundamental rights primarily establish defensive rights of the individual vis-à-vis the state. But they also give an impression of the conception of humanity that underlies our social constitution.
The most important points from my point of view:
- Above all, there are the rights that relate to the essence of our existence. These are the right to dignity and to life and physical integrity.
- Other rights give people far-reaching freedoms. The right to free growth (without interference with others), to one’s own belief and worldview, and to freedom of expressing one’s opinion. The last, however, is restricted by the partial sentence: without harm to youth and honour. In addition, the right to move freely throughout the federal territory and the right to choose one’s occupation.
- Other rights relate to the rights of people as a community. The protection of human rights forms the basis. This is supplemented by the right to peace and justice, to equal treatment. In addition, there is the right to free teaching and science, and the right to assemble and form associations.
- And it grants special protective rights not only to the family, but also to the home, property and inheritance.
Why precisely the basic idea involves dangers.
As a result of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the experience of the following Nazism, freedom, the dignity of the individual and the right to free personal growth now occupy a central role, not only for the individual but also for society. It is not without reason that the Basic Law is considered one of the most liberal constitutions in the history of mankind.
But this liberality is also associated with dangers. Namely, when the guarantees of freedom, personal development and property lead to an individuality separated from society. This in fact opens the door to “deadly sins”.
Today’s “deadly sins” are the result of our economic system. A system based on ever further growth and thus ever further exploitation of natural resources. This system creates a society that measures a person’s personal success by his or her position in this very system. People who cannot cope with these pressures, who are weak, lonely and desperate to get by in this world, often see these behaviours as the only way out.
What can we do to counter misguided individualism?
As long as the underlying system does not change, only one’s own behaviour. To do this, it is first useful to realise that the social framework conditions have a decisive influence on our behaviour. Constantly questioning the role models set 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 this purpose, I often work out a value pyramid with my clients. Values often reveal unconscious beliefs that influence 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 very recent years, connectedness, love (not only in the sense of a couple), freedom and self-fulfilment have been named more and more frequently as the top values of my clients. Perhaps you will also find your values here.
Thirdly, however, all that you wish for, what your values and ideals are, must also be guaranteed to the people around you. So if you form your behaviour in such a way that you support these values in others, you and we are on the right path in my opinion.
What behaviours are necessary to realise these values?
Of course, philosophers have long thought about what a prosperous coexistence of people in a large, unrelated group, i.e. a city, an empire or a state, should look like.
I will mention here only the three that fit the three points made above:
Aristotle sees “good destiny” (eudaimonia) as the goal of individual and communal life. This can also be translated as “fullness of life”, “good (divine) providence”, or simply as “the good life”. The “good life” is to be equated with a life that leaves no wish unfulfilled and in which everything has been achieved. (An ideal is not just an image in your head for nothing 😊😊) The good life for all in the community is thereby superior to that of the individual. In my view, what is important in his concept is that the achievement of this goal is characterised by the conscious and active action of people. To achieve this goal, people must be guided by certain virtues. He uses virtues here in the sense of behaviour, because he sees these as determined by reason and practised by education. It is always important for these behaviours to keep to the middle, since neither too much nor too little is useful to the desired goal. For Aristotle, the highest virtue is “sophia” – “wisdom”. Sophia enables one to approach the understanding of the meaning of life. The most important virtues after that are justice, bravery, generosity and compassion.
In his works, Kant posed the question of the basic principle that enables people to live together in a society. And 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.” This includes not only “Do not do to others what you would not have them do onto you”. But it goes far beyond that. For 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 und Childress
Finally, I would like to introduce to you two US bioethicists: Tom Beauchamp and James Childress. They have described the “no harm principle”, “self-determination”, “justice” and “duty of care” as basic principles of our social coexistence. Unfortunately, their concepts have so far only been successfully taken up in medicine.
The principles formulated by these philosophers and ethicists are based on being guided by fundamental behavioural patterns in one’s life, living and developing one’s own values, but always in relation to the duties one has to fulfil towards one’s environment.
Theoretically, such considerations of principle should then also lead to rights that are protected by law. But in my opinion, this requires the development of a new economic and social model, from which, unfortunately, we are still far away.