Vice and Virtue

The following is study on vice and virtue based on the book STEERING THROUGH CHAOS, Vice and Virtue In an age of Moral Confusion, by Os Guinness

Or, The Seven Deadly Sins

“Sin creates [an inclination] to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud conscience and corrupt the concrete judgment of good and evil. Thus sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.”

Para. 1865, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994

I though this would be appropriate following on the heels of the study of David, Jonathans, and Saul’s character, where we see all aspects of their vices and virtues. Today, there is an explosion of interest in ethics. Even MTV, the New York Time and Hollywood have take interest in the Seven Deadly sins. MTV did show in 93 on the Seven Deadly Sin where most commentary concluded that they were dumb or outdated values. A most interesting treatment was Brad Pits movie Se7en that took a more dramatic and even serious look into the face of vice and evil. We turn to look at the moral characteristics that shape us in today “modern” worlds.

What are the seven deadly sins and their corresponding virtues in the Sermon on the Mount? Examples?

1. Pride vs. Poor in Spirit
Self absorption, Self assertion vs. humility, selflessness
2. Envy vs. Mourning
Resentment at happiness of others vs. empathy or sharing in unhappiness
3. Anger vs. Meekness or Humility
the will to harm others vs. the refusal to harm, peacemaking
4. Lazy (Sloth) vs. Hunger for Righteousness
Indifference to good vs. passion for goodness
5. Greed (Avarice) vs. Mercy
passion for material wealth vs. a passion for the wealth of others
6. Gluttony vs. Discipline or Self Denial
material consumption vs. dedication to important values
7. Lust vs. Pure in Heart
Carnal consumption /abuse vs. focus on integrity in people

From a different perspective they could be categorized as follows:

Perverted Love: Pride, Envy, Wrath/Anger
Insufficient Love: Sloth
Excessive Love of Earthly Goods: Avarice/Greed, Gluttony, Lust

Why study this?


• Moral crisis in the corporate board room – Enron, Martha Stewart, etc.
• Multiple messages in society on ethics: religion, entertainment, globalization, modernity, science, new age, peer groups – the question of who am I becomes complex – do you feel confused at times?
• The business trend in NA and Europe to find “core values” or “corporate governance” in the absence of the absolute or historical reference. The founding father understood the significance of this: freedoms triangle (freedom, virtue, faith) and that democracy rests on these principles. Oddly enough, it was the black race in America that really understood what this meant in practice, the linkage between faith, practice and democracy.
• Evil has never been more predominant in today’s global world this it’s historically ever been. The past century was the bloodiest on record. What is going on?
• Much of the current interest in ethics is simply fashionable.
• Ethics focus on avoiding being caught or sued then doing right.
• Social ethics are at the expense of individual ethics.
• It reflects a low view of human nature – good and evil.
• A rejection of absolutes
• It ignores over 3000 years of convention wisdom and ethical understanding – William Golding book…

Why study? The Big Picture?

• Understand the historical and biblical perspectives.
• Offers us a moral compass to face evil in our lives and the world.
• Discover the need for discipline, yet avoid the pitfalls.

As Christians, we have to ask ourselves not only where do we stand, but how do we stand in relation to these other view points.

What is our world view on vice? In the Bible, vice belongs to the category of sin and our alienated relationship with God. But there is something more fundamental going on then this. Vice or sin characterized the very nature of evil in man’s relationship to man. Vice or sin are crimes or evil against men as made in the image of God. And because they harm other men, they are an affront to God and man’s relationship to God. The Vices characterize and represent the very nature of evil. Our study of the vices will take into the character of evil in the world in and in ourselves.

Food for thought from a 1999 PBS interview on “Sinning: Weakness or Malice?” with Reverend Dr. Cornelius Plantinga Jr.:

WILLIAMS: Neil, have our notions of sin changed over time?

Dr. PLANTINGA: They certainly have. We traditionally have talked of the seven deadly sins where pride was the first. More recently, pride has actually made a real comeback in contemporary life. In fact, some folks think of self-esteem as the solution to all our problems. On the other hand, we’ve gotten more sensitive to certain sins, for example, to sins of disrespect against others.

Why Seven?

• Not an exhaustive list of sins, but the root or core of all sins
• The list was refined in the 5th century by Gregory
• The Catholic Church divided sin into two categories, venial and capital. Venial sins are like break civil laws (ie parking ticket). It doesn’t effect too much. Capital (or criminal) or what became know as the Deadly sins. Capital sin have direct effect on where we stand before God in this life and the life to come.

Why Deadly?

• They wound love, and kill the soul.
• Love for God and man
• They kill the soul in this life and the life to come.

Background – Historical and Modern Reference Points

• Aristotle and Greek Society. Virtue equal to balance – not too much or too little.
• Nietzsche: virtue is weakness, a means of the weak controlling the strong.
• Evolution – The Selfish Gene as an ethical model – Survival.

• Buddhism – virtue as a response to evil, a means of denying desire.
• Islam – Virtue as a response to despotism in 600 AD.
• Judaism – After 575 BC, virtue was a response to bring in the proper Kingdom of God. It was Christ criticism of Judaism that is was too legalistic
• Modernity’s Ethical Contradictions –1. A response to the high restrictive and harsh society of the Catholic and Protestant structure, but taught with a very shallow view of human nature and evil in this world.  2. The last two hundred years of elite thinking has been to destroy ethics and the possibility of moral knowledge.  3. Public ethics is reduced to being either for or against public policy.  4. What remains is clever talk about ethics and principle like: Prevention Ethics (don’t get caught); Public vs. Private ethics; Political correctness vs. personal practice; moderation or “sin lite” as in the words of MTV: “A little lust, pride, sloth, and gluttony – in moderation- are fun and that’s what keeps your heart beating.”

Modernity’s Ethical Blind Spots:

• Today in modern America we don’t recognize the historical understanding of vice and virtue. We dismiss those time as being not relevant, uneducated, mistaken (i.e. Victorian era), etc. A rejection of tradition. In tradition, being moral means translating the knowledge of right and wrong into character and actions. Before asking “what should I do”, it asks, “what kind of person should I be?” In business and education, right and wrong are not taught as moral truths (i.e. absolutes) but complex issues to be detected and carefully considered.
• Focuses on the symptoms, not the cause. We believe too strongly in the goodness of man to the detriment of recognizing how evil we really are. Examples: The founding fathers recognized the dominate trend of man, a realistic view of evil, when it embedded the checks and balances in the constitution. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Psychologist Karl Menninger’s 1973 book “Whatever Became of Sin?” benchmarks the slippage from cause to symptoms. Evil has slide from being “sin” to being defined as “crime,” then legally defined as “sickness” in psychological categories. Is it now “sin” or bad taste? Sin is now defined out of existence (i.e. God is dead, therefore no moral absolutes), is classified as wrong (it’s forbidden to forbid). Focusing on the symptoms downplays the cause, evil, sin, & vice, and pushes these issues to the sidelines. In doing so, we ignore the glaring events of the rise of evil in the past century. We are in self denial.
• Fall short to understand the full power of goodness as a force to combat evil in politics, business and personal ethics. A fear to practice the principles of goodness as taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Have you ever heard it said that it won’t work in “real” life? Examples? Napoleons summation.

Quote from Os Guinness:

“In contrast to the virtues-and-vices tradition, modern culture hands us a license to eat whatever we feel like eating, sleep with whomever is willing, rebel against whatever frustrates us, lash back at whoever has hurt us, and cross whatever legal and ethical lines are beyond detection, Yet the resulting loss of self-control is a critical part of the cultural crisis of the West. It is also an urgent reminder of why an understanding of the virtues and vices is important.”

But, there are Pitfalls to avoid:

• There is more to ethics then simply knowing about vice and virtue. The saying about an ounce of virtue is worth more than tons of sophisticated talk about virtue hints at this.
• The danger of legalism and moralism – The Judean pitfall that fails to balance judgment and mercy with grace.
• “Sin Management” – the limitation of virtue to either the removal of social evils or only the forgiveness of individual sins.

The virtuous life is about people enabled to bring goodness or light into a dark work. For those of us who have found this light, it’s a call to service others. In the face of evil, do we become evil ourselves in order to defeat evil. When confronted with the vices, anger, pride, envy, do we ourselves become that to resist it effects. No, virtue is a means of defeating evil in the world we find ourselves. Virtue is a message of hope in and evil world. Our belief in virtue speaks to who we are as created in the image of God and our fellow man, and how we are to behave towards each other in fallen world. Goodness and virtue historically have been much more power forces (ie Napoleon, Lord of the Rings, – when we encounter it, it has the deceptive appearance of being weak). Defeating evil bring us face to face with sin itself. “Evil comes into focus when we see it in others, but it comes into sharp and terrible focus when we see it in ourselves.”

Knowing about the cardinal virtues and deadly vices provides a moral compass for us. In an age of confusion, a clear grasp of vice and virtue will help guide us though chaos.


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