Deadly Sins (a Sunday Sermon)

August 30, 2008  
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can you have too much sex? Yes, apparently. In the news this weekend, David Duchovny claims to be suffering from “sex addiction” and has just entered rehab. (Maybe it’s my age, but I think I might do an Amy Winehouse on this one and say no, no, no.) The Duchovny case history will no doubt be labeled “the x-rated files.” Or maybe it’s Californication as reality TV.

Lust, as we all know, is a deadly sin.  Desire is all right, but lust is “too much of a good thing.” It distorts the proper proportions. But what about the other deadly sins? In case you forgot them, here are all seven:
  1. Lust
  2. Anger
  3. Gluttony
  4. Pride
  5. Envy
  6. Sloth
  7. Greed
    Hieronymous Bosch - The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things
    Click on the image for a larger view
Does the same rule of moderation and proportion apply? Yes, but. In the words of the Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the others.”

No problem with sins one through six. We criticize ourselves or others for having too much sex, eating too much food, or lazily avoiding work. The same goes for the emotional sins. Some people need “anger management,” others need to curb their envy. We have a variety of negative words for those who are too proud – egotistical, narcissistic, conceited, etc.

With food, sex, self-esteem, relaxation, etc., we recognize that there are limits. But we give Greed a pass. Is it possible to have too much money? Apparently not. Those who amass more and more of it win the admiration of others, and as a society we do little to curb their passion. In fact, we encourage it, and not just with esteem; we grant it tangible rewards like tax breaks unavailable to those of lesser means. The tax code, especially in the Cheney-Bush administration, seems to have been written as an elaborate gloss on Gordon Gecko’s maxim “Greed is Good.”

The Seven Deadly Sins are sins because they distort the balance between the individual and the society. They all represent individual pleasures grown so large that they become detrimental to the society. But for some reason, when it comes to the unbridled pursuit of money, we don't see the sinfulness.  We don't even see any downside in the imbalance.

For example, elsewhere in the news, Joe Nocera in the New York Times details how billionaire Carl Icahn gained control of XO Communications only to use the company’s financial woes as a way to enrich himself.
As chairman, he could have tried to have helped the company rebuild — or sold the company to someone who was interested in doing so. But that doesn’t really appear to have ever been his motive.
It wasn’t easy, and Icahn met resistance, but through a combination of sneaky tricks and power, he got his way.
“Carl is very smart and acts very aggressively in his own self-interest,” said Robert Powell . . ., who has followed the XO shenanigans closely. “And if you get in the way of his self-interest, he will trample you.”
Icahn is already a billionaire and has been for some time. I have no idea why he needs more money. Nevertheless, he wants to screw a company in order to add still more to his bank accounts.
Yet nobody ever suggests that the Icahns of this world check themselves into rehab.

Big hat tip to Philip Slater, author of Wealth Addiction. The title says it all.


kristina b said...

Jay you've really captured what drove me out of working in industry here. There was this moment when I was working in the tech world that kind of epitomized my problem (and exactly what you're talking about here).

I was in Hong Kong on business, at a hooka bar of all things with a handful of middle and upper level managers. We all worked for a multinational corporation, and the underlying tone of all conversation was that greed was A-Okay and, in fact, encouraged. Anyway, it was right before the current war began. In Washington, the non-politicos (like me and the others at the hooka bar) were completely divided. There were huge protests going on against the war.

So the price of gas comes up in conversation, and a guy at the table mentioned $6/gallon prices in England. I gasped, and he mocked me a little for being an ignorant American. Then the guy sitting next to me says "That's why we need to fight this war! To keep gas prices from getting like that!"

I was so offended and completely disgusted that I basically shut down. I stopped speaking, and after a while got up from the table and hailed a cab without saying a word even though we were all planning to stay up all night to make ourselves tired for the plane ride back to the US the next day.

I just couldn't take that greed at ALL COSTS was so socially acceptable in that group of people. That moment is really something that pushed me to change careers for the sake of my sanity. I felt and still feel like morality and industry are at odds (though there are, of course, degrees).

Jay Livingston said...

kristina, thanks for the comment. But it wasn't just the guy next to you. As I recall, Bush I justified Iraq Invasion I by saying that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait threatened "our whole way of life," and it was pretty clear that what this phrase really meant was cheap gasoline.

kristina b said...

Looks like we're not the only ones making comments about the real reason for war in the middle east. Nice.

In other news, I don't know if you caught it, but I made an announcement about my career today on my blog.