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Writer's Block: Seven

Which of the seven deadly sins—sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and pride—are you most likely to commit?

Y'know, this is a really interesting question--but not for the reasons you might think.

Let's take a look at these seven deadly sins. Sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and pride. Trust the Catholics to come up with a list of affronts against man and God, but not to list things like, for example, "murder" or "rape" or "genocide."

"But Tacit!" you might say. "You're barking mad, or at least splitting semantic and theological hairs. Wrath can lead to murder! Rape can be caused by lust! And genocide--"

Well, I'm not sure what on this list really matches up with genocide. Not sloth, certainly; genocide is damn hard work. Pride? Those who commit atrocity usually think they're better than the person they commit it against, but that's not exactly pride, precisely; it's something else.

Which is exactly where this list falls apart.

You see, of the seven things on the list, five of them are not actions. They're emotions. And here's the tricky bit--as human beings, we choose our actions. We choose our actions, even when we feel emotions.

Many people can feel angry, without acting on that anger. Many people can feel lust, without violating anyone because of it. It's actions, not feelings, that carry moral weight; we are, each of us, responsible for the things we do, but to assign moral value to a feeling seems a little absurd.

Hell, read Song of Solomon in the Bible. The whole damn book is an ode to lust. The lust that a man feels for his wife is perfectly normal; I would say even positive and healthy, especially if one believes in the Catholic notion of being fertile and popping out pups multiplying. On the other hand, the lust a priest feels for an alter boy? Not cool.

You see that? You see what I just did there? Context. Moral value depends inexorably on context.

Even folks who claim to despise "moral relativism" still believe it. Alice shoots Bob in the head with a .50-valiber Desert Eagle, spreading his intelligence and his awareness all over her living room wall like a demented Jackson Pollock. Is that morally wrong? I bet a lot of folks would probably say it is. Now let's add to the scenario a bit; she did it because he was in the process of attempting to murder her children. Is it morally wrong now?

You see that? Context. The moral value of an action depends on its context.

But let's go back to the list. Anger; who hasn't felt it? It's a feeling; an inevitable human emotion hard-wired into the limbic system of every one of us.

Count on the Catholics to turn a feeling into something to be guilty about.

Look, the guy who gets pissed off and smacks his wife around is an asshole, no doubt about it. But the guy who gets pissed off and yet manages to keep his cool in spite of it? That guy is not a sinner, and indeed there is greater virtue in doing the right thing even in the grip of an emotion than in doing the right thing when the right thing is easy to do.

We can flip this list on its head, too. The Mob hit man who whacks sixteen people in cold blood--which deadly sin is he committing? Not sloth, certainly. Not greed--as it turns out, hit men don't usually get paid very much for what they do. Far less than a lawyer, or a plastic surgeon, or a professional basketball player. Hell, they probably make less money than a computer help desk operator! Hollywood aside, shooting people really doesn't pay the way you think it would.

Lust? Doesn't fit. Gluttony? If eating too much is the worst thing you ever do, they should give you the VIP entrance into Heaven. Anger? A good hit man is cool and collected; he's not motivated by rage. Angry people get sloppy.

How about envy? He might not even know the target, much less envy him. Pride? Well, I suppose he might take pride in a well-executed job (Ha! I slay me!), but then I think most professionals take a certain pride in their craft.

So the guy who gets pissed off but doesn't act on it is a mortal sinner, but the guy who whacks people for a living isn't? Who is this god, and how did he get the job? I gotta say, if I were a god, you can bet the list of deadly sins would look a whole lot different. A little less with the "feeling" and a lot more with the "doing," if you ask me.


( 46 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 6th, 2009 07:03 am (UTC)
That's what the commandments are for, I thought.
Feb. 6th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)

Since in the catholic religion, thinking about something is as bad as doing it ("You have to wwaaannnnnaaaa" - George Carlin), I've always considered the deadly sins as the mental part and the 10 commandments as the actions part.
(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 10th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
I haven't been angry for years now. Cranky yes, a bit pissed off, but not genuinely angry. I don't like being angry, so I don't.
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
I'm right there with you. Yet you have been angry in the past, yes? That means you have, in the eyes of Catholic doctrine, committed a mortal sin, even if you were angry in the solitude of your own home and did nothing with that feeling.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)
*snerk* I have less of a problem with "sins" that are sins of action rather than thought, and even less of a problem with the notion of sins that have a measurable, quantifiable effect on others.

I like what Robert Heinlein had to say on the matter, even though I like almost nothing else the man ever said: Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 6th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
You are correct. Also, it is 'Avarice' not 'Greed'. Many people don't know the difference so they use the latter in both cases. Then someone comes along and makes a semantic argument based on common usage that denigrates an entire group of people for their beliefs.

Another common misuse is to equate killing with murder. While murder is not on the list of '7 deadly sins' it is certainly a mortal sin. The difference between the two using Tacit's example; Killing in cold blood is murder. Killing in defense of life, yours or some other, is simply killing.


(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 10th, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)
You are so right!
And yet... For example, imagine that you catch yourself being very happy about something that is pretty bad -- like, you're satisfied to see someone's relationship go sour, because you predicted it would and you like being right. (I'm not saying you'd actually feel this way -- but imagine you do, and you catch yourself at it). Or, I don't know, you're happy about someone dying, or something in this vein.
Wouldn't you feel guilty about having such feelings? Even if there's no action involved?

- Ola
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
I don't know that I would feel "guilty," per se. I do recognize that scadenfreude is an unhealthy emotional response, and that taking satisfaction at someone else's misfortune makes me feel pretty horrible. But ultimately an emotion not coupled to an action hurts nobody else, and I think the best measure of "sin" is in that which hurts others.

I police myself against schaudenfreude, but that's because I don't like the way it feels, not because it actually harms others.
Feb. 6th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
well, Catholics have a list of mortal sins, too, which includes things like murder, rape, genocide. We wouldn't leave those out :)

"A sin" is basically anything that leads you away from God. Of course the Catholic view of what will do that is highly dependant on the Cathoic view of God. It's hardly surprising that any religion would have a list of do's and don'ts, doncha know.

:::But the guy who gets pissed off and yet manages to keep his cool in spite of it? That guy is not a sinner, and indeed there is greater virtue in doing the right thing even in the grip of an emotion than in doing the right thing when the right thing is easy to do.:::

You get brownie points for that. But the purpose of listing the sins is in the identification of them, so that you can work towards a more calm, peaceful, spiritual, you. We're all called to be saints; but we are also expected to fail at it, time and again. Doesn't mean we should stop trying to improve ourselves!
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
"A sin" is basically anything that leads you away from God. Of course the Catholic view of what will do that is highly dependant on the Cathoic view of God. It's hardly surprising that any religion would have a list of do's and don'ts, doncha know.

Yep. And within the framework of those beliefs and premises, the Catholic view on sin is internally consistent.

I just don't think it's terribly useful, that's all.

I am somewhat suspicious of the notion that something can bring us closer to or take us farther away from God, because to me that implies a knowledge of God, and I don't think that's reasonable even if one accepts the premise that God exists.

I know that one of the most basic tenets of Christianity in general is that God writes books, that the books God wrote tell us what brings us closer and what brings us farther away, and that by studying this book one can gain enough knowledge of God to make those choices--but in practice, even this idea, I think, falls down.

If God writes books, he sure seems to have trouble making his exact meaning plain, given all the various ways the Bible has been interpreted even in Catholic history. Seems to me that if an omnipotent God actually wanted us to know something, we'd know it--that's kind of what "omnipotent" means, right?

As far as mortal sins go, I think it's interesting that in the Catholic view, the greatest and most evil of all sins--a sin so heinous that committing it causes immediate excommunication, without the need for a priest to perform the excommunication, and that is so great only the Pope himself can offer special dispensation to reverse the excommunication--isn't genocide, or murder, or anything like that. It's desecration of the Host.

Put six million people into an oven, and a priest can absolve you of your sins. Spit out the wafer during Communion and it's over--you're instantly and automatically excommunicated, and only the Pope can save you.
(no subject) - redselchie - Feb. 10th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 13th, 2009 06:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: (I wonder if a priest can absolve himself?) - tacit - Feb. 14th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
Trust the Catholics to turn a feeling into something to be guilty about.
That's not just Catholic. At least one of the gospels (they all kinda run together) has Jesus saying that if you lust after some woman who walks by, you've committed adultery. That's how the protestants pull off the line about no one being good enough to get into heaven on their own, without being redeemed by quasi-human sacrifice.
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Yep, that's a good point. (The quote in question is Matthew 5:27-28.) All of Matthew 5 is filled with instances of criminalizing thought and feeling, in fact:

Matthew 5:21:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'
22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Feb. 6th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
It all boils down to "impure thoughts". I, for one, do love my impure thoughts. :D

And while I'm on the subject, I may as well admit that Gluttony is my major downfall. I can never seem to get enough of a good thing.
Feb. 6th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Let's turn this around into a writing prompt: "What, in your opinion, are the seven deadly sins?"

I note that the seven principle Christian virtues (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) are almost entirely mental states. And those weren't made up by the Catholics, they're from 1 Cor 13:13 and Wis 8:7.

On the other hand, nobody ever said these were the only deadly sins, as you point out. And I'd expect a religion in which the only way to heaven is to have a mental state B (believing that Christ died for your sins) or, in some versions, to have had a mental state B at some previous time, to also classify other mental states as sinful.
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Yep, I think you've made an interesting point about the notion of belief being a necessary part of redemption carrying over to other mental states.

As for virtues, I frankly would be more inclined to cast "faith" as a sin than a virtue, for reasons it'd take a very long time to describe. The notion of seven virtues is something I'll have to chew on.
(no subject) - phantom_man - Feb. 10th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylvar - Feb. 11th, 2009 01:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 11th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
there was an interesting tv show (i know, oxymoron) on cable a few weeks ago on the "sin" of "sloth" and how it really wasn't laziness, as we define it, but clinical depression- that the ancients didn't have the vocabulary for defining the depression that absolutely immobilizes a person- that there was a lot of "casting out of unclean spirits" and such, and, which surprised me, a lot of midieval art depicting Sloth which was either depression or catatonia...

did i have a point? not really..but it did make me realize that perhaps our modern defs of those 'sins' are not as we see them now.
Feb. 6th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Man, I *LOVE* you.

this is beautiful and so very cogent

Laura, the former Catholic
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Why, thank you! :)
Feb. 6th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
Then you're gonna love this site!

http://www.p4cm.com/p4cm/ - Note the "Ex-Masturbator" t-shirt at the top. Then, if you scroll down, there are videos of a girl explaining why she's an ex-homosexual and two videos that I couldn't even finish watching about girls explaining what's wrong with atheism.

But the first video about why they came up with the ex-masturbator shirt is all about being in "bondage" to their passion.

I just thought "wait, I'm supposed to not like that? Man, I think you guys are just doing it wrong!"
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - joreth - Feb. 6th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jonnymoon - Feb. 6th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Feb. 6th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Feb. 6th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - tacit - Feb. 10th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 8th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
Feb. 8th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
You are very very right!
I added you, by the way, hope you don't mind. You seem very interesting :-)
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Howdy, and welcome aboard!
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