How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?In the second episode of Torchwood, ‘Day One‘, Gwen feels that Jack and the others have lost touch with humanity. Jack then asks Gwen in return what it means to be human.

In this episode, Carys is possessed by an alien entity which uses her to have sex with people and consume their orgasmic energy. Gwen’s practical reply is to care for the victim as an individual; a person with intrinsic value. The rest of the Torchwood crew think of Carys as a problem to solve, they see her as a person with extrinsic value.

The deeper question thus is whether people have intrinsic value? The gut-feel reply will be ‘of course!’, but what is the argument for this?

If people only have extrinsic value then they are means to an end for each other. If we believe that people do have intrinsic value then we see them for what they are, which essentially leads to altruism, e.g. doing something without external motives.

Our ethical system is based on the idea that people have intrinsic value. If this was not the case then it would be perfectly acceptable to breed people to provide organs for others. Denying people intrinsic value can thus motivate cruel behaviours. The German Nazis saw people as a means to their end of obtaining absolute power and in Stalinist regimes people are considered as part of a collective, rather than an intrinsically valuable individual. We seem to be forced to introduce an intrinsic human value in order to provide a limitation for unacceptable behaviour.

But do people really have intrinsic value? Some argue that our motives are never truly altruistic and that we always use other people as a mean to an end – albeit not in ways as dramatic as the above examples. If this somewhat pessimistic view of humanity is true, how do we draw the line between acceptable use of people and unacceptable use?

I think that the intrinsic value of people is a social construction which enables us to live together without harvesting each others organs and not something that exists without our reflection upon it. The as such constructed intrinsic value has no objective existence in the world, but that does not matter because it serves its purpose of creating stable human societies very well. The boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use is drawn by justice and fairness, which in themselves are also very fluid concepts.

Some might argue against this and proclaim that there are many examples of successful civilisations where the intrinsic value of humans was not as engrained as in our culture. Intrinsic value is thus not a prerequisite for a successful civilisation.

When looking at some of these cultures in detail, we see, however, that they differentiated between ‘them’ and ‘us’. There are many examples of human sacrifice and in most cases only slaves and people from other tribes where used. In other words, they changed the definition of being human; something the German Nazis also used to justify their actions. Those people that were considered to be human were given intrinsic value, evidenced by the fact that all cultures have some sort of legal system.

The fact that many cultures undertaking human sacrifice were highly successful only underwrites the point that that intrinsic human value is a social construction!

Torchwood and the Meaning of Life

Resurrection gauntletThe first episode of Torchwood has finally aired on Australia television! This contemporary Doctor Who spin-off is more than just another way to cash in on the popular science fiction series. Torchwood is more violent and daring than the series that spawned it, but underneath the sex and violence the stories deal with philosophical issues, some of which deserve exploration beyond the screen narrative.

The Torchwood team has a metallic gauntlet by which they can revive the dead for a short period. Several people are killed by the same method and knife. When John Tucker, one of the victims, is revived, Jack Harkness asks him:

What was it like when you died? … Nothing, I saw nothing. Oh my God, there is nothing.

John is clearly disturbed by this prospect, specially because he knows that he will die again soon. The idea of total blackness and nothing seems to scare him profoundly.

This fear of nothingness is a fascinating aspect of the human condition. When analysing the problem it is clear that this fear is not rational because when there is nothing, there is also no threat. A state of not-being is not something to fear because it is not rational (not justified) to fear something that does not exist. So why are people not content with a prospect of an absolute end to life?

Leo Tolstoy thought that if there was no life after death, then life would be meaningless. This approach is, however, not satisfactory because it relocates the problem of whether there is meaning to a life after death. If there is life after death, then what is the meaning of that life? Is there a life after life-after-death to provide meaning? Ad infinitum …

The Epicureans did not agree with this line of thought and were right in arguing that death is inconsequential to the question whether life has meaning or not. Although death may be final and could make all our efforts futile from a perspective of eternity, we can only judge life from the internal perspective. The idea that death only removes meaning is forced upon us when we look upon life from the eternal perspective.

We can, however, not view life from an external perspective, because we are bound by our internal point of view. Any attempt to take an external perspective, such as religion, can not provide a final answer to the quest for a meaning of life.

The meaning of life is embedded in life itself and we should not hope, nor fear for anything after death.