Are Christian Ethics something worth preserving? Pride and the Deadly Sins

This is what pride means to us now, according to Google image search

This is what 'pride' means to us now, according to Google image search

A common claim I’ve come across is that, all-in-all, the major religions, and the major non-religious bodies of thought, preach the same ethical message.

That if you push beyond the superficialities, and focus on ethics rather than on metaphysics, we get a very similar message coming from all of them (and, it is suggested, that message is quite a good one that ‘we’ the modern sceptical observers should accept).

In certain senses this is true (i.e., if you select the right sources to make them agree) but in certain senses I often think it’s the opposite of the truth. I want to supply one of the supporting documents for this latter case.

Most people are familiar with ‘the Seven Deadly Sins’, a list of character traits that would lead to damnation, which circulated in various forms for much of Christian history.

A notable feature of this meme is the relative importance it accords to the sins. In almost every version Pride is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise (this parallels the association of pride with Lucifer, from whose actions other sins came).

This isn’t a particular unfortunate action that can be hand-waved away. This is a cultural item that was developed and preserved over centuries and remains widely recognised. It can probably claim more widespread assent than most other non-obvious Christian ethical claims.

That seems to be partly a psychological claim (that when people act wrongly, it usually stems ultimately from an over-high opinion of themselves), and partly an ethical claim (that this is what is most objectionable in a human being).

Note, this is not just the (perfectly reasonable, and obviously correct) awareness that sometimes, and in certain senses, pride is a major failing, a vice, and a source for other vices. It is explicitly an over-all claim: that, all-in-all, esteeming oneself too highly is the single biggest cause of vice, and the single most serious vice.

Is the psychological claim true? I don’t think so; I happen to think it’s the opposite of the truth. Of course there are more than one meanings that one can give to ‘thinking highly of oneself’, but all-in-all I think that wrong acts and personal failings more often stem from a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness. All-in-all I think that people who feel better about themselves are more likely to act rightly, to have strength of will, to make sacrifices for others. I also think that this is the belief of many of the most influential figures in the history of psychology.

Perhaps I’m wrong. But there is at least a substantial difference here.

What about the directly ethical claim: that pride is more objectionable than other vices? Again, I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone in that. I see nothing obviously worse about pride than, say, habitual violent anger, cruelty, apathy, wilful ignorance, or other vices.

Of course, that might be a result of me having a particularly high opinion of myself (to quote Blackadder, ‘I try not to fly in the face of popular opinion’), which might blind me to recognising its seriousness – indeed, the opinion might even be cited as evidence of my vice.

But this runs both ways. If a tolerant attitude towards pride might be a result of vice, so too might be a severe attitude. Someone might hate pride because they are so invested in degrading themselves before something, so emotionally bound up with self-hatred that they are unhappy seeing others not bowing down.

We might find ourselves wondering which way to go. Maybe our understanding of this Christian meme will be improved by looking at its expression in popular culture. Hence I submit for consideration: Cenodoxus.

In this extremely popular 17th-century play, we are introduced to a polymathic doctor who, to all appearances, is the sort of person that everyone should aspire to be: kind, learned, restrained, wise, generous, who has devoted his life to helping others, and is respected and loved by all who know him.

This man dies, and during the saying of the last rites his corpse is heard to cry out. Each of the three times the priest says ‘Cenodoxus was a good man’, the body exclaims: first that he has been accused, then that he has been found guilty, then that he has been damned, and is to be tortured. Why? For the sin of pride. For how long? For a billion years, and then billions more after that.

I won’t say much about this, except to say that it sounds like it should be satire, and that it clearly illustrates that to a certain religious mindset, there seems to be quite literally nothing that can be imagined so appalling and barbaric that God might not do it and be praised for doing it.

Should we give the benefit of the doubt to this sort of Christian civilisation? Should we presume that when it says what appear to be false and  loathsome things, and what will clearly be interpreted as such by a naive listener, it actually has an unobjectionable and intelligent meaning in mind? Should we, that is, resolve that no matter what the words we read are, we shall presume good faith and virtue on the part of the person or culture that wrote them?

We could if we want, but wouldn’t it be more efficient to just not read the words in the first place?

If we take it that over centuries, the Christian church had a chance to express what it actually meant, and that when it says that the worst failing is to respect yourself too much, and doing so may earn you trillions of trillions of years of dismemberment, however much you help others and improve yourself, they meant that – then there’s a distinctive ethical position here which is diametrically opposed to an alternative ethical position which, thankfully, many people subscribe to.

Of course, that position isn’t “The Christian Position’. There are many ways to extract a message from Christianity, and many standards to judge which is most reasonable.

But the fact that what is arguably the historically most significant of the Christian cultures has so reliably promoted this view of pride as the worst sin, does at least make it impossible for any contrasting view to be presented as ‘the Christian message’ or Christian ethics’ in any simple way.

6 Responses to “Are Christian Ethics something worth preserving? Pride and the Deadly Sins”

  1. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    A number of points here.

    Firstly, as you observe, “there are more than one meanings that one can give to ‘thinking highly of oneself’” – and there are more definitions of “pride” than just that one. In my dictionary, the third definition listed is “being haughty”. This follows from the excessive element in the definition (which you acknowledge), and leads us to the ethical judgement.

    When people have an over-high assessment of themselves, that must correspond to setting themselves up as relatively more important than those around them. This leads to unethical behaviours.

    Your example of Cenodoxus is actually a very good illustration of a problem with pride. You frequent feminist blogs, so you will be familiar with the concept of “cookies”. Cenodoxus is being punished because he is like the male “feminist” who wants a cookie because he doesn’t beat his wife – his pride is not justified because he has simply lived up to what is expected of him, and therefore his pride is not being proud of doing well, but rather expecting a reward for doing the minimum. In this sense, the pride that is at the root of all sin is the demanding of something for nothing.

    all-in-all I think that wrong acts and personal failings more often stem from a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness.

    Pride and shame are two sides of the same coin. These things you list (inasmuch as they result in crime or sinful acts) actually stem from pride, which then results in violent emotions as that pride is thwarted by their situation in life. St Paul teaches specifically against this sort of thing. In Buddhism, the equivalent teaching is that the source of suffering is desire.

    Finally:

    If we take it that over centuries, the Christian church had a chance to express what it actually meant

    The Church is not a reliable guide to Christian ethics! One need only look at the sins committed by its members to judge that, be it the sale of indulgences or the abuse of choirboys.

    For all that I am a Christian, I accept the Marxist analysis of organised religion, that it always tends to serve the interests of the ruling class. It is not wise to read the words of the organised Church as representing the core of Christ’s ethic, because Christ was most definitely not serving the interests of the ruling class.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “The Church is not a reliable guide to Christian ethics”
    Well, the church is no reliable guide to anything beyond itself – but it has as good a claim as anything else to be the point of reference for phrases like ‘Christian ethics’, i.e. if we find that phrase then, without looking more closely at the context, it’s likely to ‘mean’ the Church (intentionally or not). Certainly that means nothing about ‘Christ’s ethic’; it just means that the word ‘Christian’ is a disputed word.

    I don’t doubt that there’s a subversive, humane, liberating ethics to be found in Christianity (just like, regarding my recent post on faith, I don’t doubt that there’s an intellectual case to be made for theistic belief as reasonable). I can respect such a position, but I don’t think it can claim to be the natural or ‘correct’ referent of everyday use of phrases like ‘Christianity’.

    “the third definition listed is “being haughty”. This follows from the excessive element in the definition…and leads us to the ethical judgement…When people have an over-high assessment of themselves, that must correspond to setting themselves up as relatively more important than those around them. This leads to unethical behaviours.”
    Well, people can set themselves up as more important than those arround them while having an over-low assessment of themselves (everything is about them and their guilt and shame and problems). But more to the point – I’m not denying that this can lead to bad actions, I’m denying that it’s reasonably thought of as the primary and ultimate root of bad actions.

    “Cenodoxus is being punished because he is like the male “feminist” who wants a cookie because he doesn’t beat his wife – his pride is not justified because he has simply lived up to what is expected of him, and therefore his pride is not being proud of doing well, but rather expecting a reward for doing the minimum. In this sense, the pride that is at the root of all sin is the demanding of something for nothing.”

    But he’s represented as being just about the best dude for wide around. For this anlysis to apply, we’d have to say, not only that sin is all-pervasive and nobody is morally perfect (which is fairly reasonable) but also that nobody ever deserves a reward for doing the best they can, no matter what they acheive. We’d have to say this while also maintaining that people *do* often deserve punishment for falling short. Upshot? Human beings will always deserve punishment, never deserve reward – and not recognising their punishment-worthiness is itself worthy of punishment. Also, not striving as hard as possible to reach the impossible standard is itself worthy of punishment.

    What does this sound like? It sounds like a mad totalitarian cult of personality or like a fairly good plan for a BDSM scene.

    (Well, no, that’s unfair. You can just about escape punishment by being like St.Bruno in that play – retreat entirely from society and live in silence in a small room)

    “a lack of self-esteem, a sense of emptiness, inferiority, weakness and worthlessness…actually stem from pride, which then results in violent emotions as that pride is thwarted by their situation in life.”
    I just don’t agree – or at least, the word ‘pride’ here is being stretched beyond recognition. Like I said, there are many meanings of both ‘pride’ and ‘humility’. But does that mean that a view which says ‘pride is the root of all wickedness, humility is good’ and a view that says (this needn’t be enlightenment humanism, look at Aristotle) ‘excessive pride and excessive humility are as bad as each other, and neither is the primary root of wickedness’ doesn’t disagree?

  3. Q Says:

    I think that pride being the worst sin is an insight into human nature.
    In the abstract, examining the direct consequences, it seems wrong, but there is a point about how humans work that colours an analysis of which would be least bad to add to an otherwise sensible, rational and good person.
    People tend not to be rational in other ways. When they get angry, it’s almost always because their worth has been demeaned in some way, and when they act on it it’s frequently because they have the arrogance (or pride) to impose their feelings on the world.
    People (sadly) seem to get angry much less about matters of principle.
    Similarly, although people can experience lust, gluttony and greed (which are pretty much the same feeling for different things) but it can be argued that it is inflated self-worth that actually leads them to satisfying these desires, because they lack the humility to live and let live.
    That leaves sloth and envy. Sloth, again, can be linked to an insufficient motivation to contribute like everyone else does, which, if not directly a consequence of pride, is certainly from insufficient humility.
    Envy can easily be linked to pride.

    I think that the idea is that pride enhances all the rest and makes a person inclined to act on his feelings and thoughts: both vices and virtues.
    If one assumes that everyone has vices and that men are always flawed then this might well be the worst of the lot. When it comes to controlling people, it’s best to stop them acting on any of their sinful impulses rather than trying to identify and quell every impulse.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    So firstly, even if you think the ‘anti-pride’ ethic is correct, you will hopefully admit that it’s a distinct ethic from, say, Aristotle’s ‘seek a medium between pride and humility’ or more modern PROGRESS-ive approaches.

    But secondly,
    “When they get angry, it’s almost always because their worth has been demeaned in some way, and when they act on it it’s frequently because they have the arrogance (or pride) to impose their feelings on the world…Similarly, although people can experience lust, gluttony and greed…it is inflated self-worth that actually leads them to satisfying these desires, because they lack the humility to live and let live…Sloth, again, can be linked to an insufficient motivation to contribute like everyone else does, which, if not directly a consequence of pride, is certainly from insufficient humility…Envy can easily be linked to pride.”

    All you’ve done here is tell stories about various sorts of vice that describe them in terms related to pride. Are these the correct analyses? The most illuminating? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I can tell similar stories that talk about the opposite.

    E.g. when people are angry, it is indeed because their worth has been demeaned, but also because they have such a low and insecure sense of their own worth that the insult strikes them to the core. When they act on it, it’s because they don’t have a high enough opinion of their own willpower to exert control. When they act out of excessive lust or greed or whatever, it’s because they don’t value themselves enough to refrain from activities which harm them and others.
    Etc. etc.

    Which account is better? Who knows (hint: mine). And to a certain extent you can find bits to pick out which could be described under both terms. But the choice of one idiom over another is itself a choice that’s open to critique – why emphasise those aspects, why link them together under that sort of heading?

  5. kyazu Says:

    The seven deadly sins were all active behaviors…carrying the threat of eternal suffering for caring about oneself.
    Pride: thinking of oneself as higher than the great chain of being dictates
    envy:wanting what your manor’s lord has
    wrath: taking a stand
    gluttony: eating a diet richer than what a peasant was expected to have
    sloth: not tilling the soil as much as the lord of the manor wants you to
    lust: expressing attraction and love outside of a YHWHist marriage
    greed: wanting to rise beyond your current place in the chain of being
    ALL of these are directed towards assertive behaviors (even sloth, which in this case would be refusing to be productive,) intended to conflate standing up for one’s own rights with heinous crimes. “ignorance,” “zealotry,” “hypocrisy” and “abuse of powers,” “closed mindedness,” “elitism,” “cruelty” obviously weren’t among these sins, even though one could argue that these are AT LEAST as deadly as the seven deadly sins, probably even moreso. The seven deadly sins were part of a religious/political machine intent on manufacturing a sentiment among the peasentry that they_didn’t_matter, and that they should forget entirely about the worldly posessions of not only themselves, but of their friends and family

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