The Seven Deadly Sins Revisited: Greed

Rural upstate New York, where I grew up, offers unique evidence these days about some shifting demographics of the Seven Deadly Sins. Fifty years ago, the area was dominated by family farming, an Air Force base, and copper manufacturing. Today, the growth industries are prisons and casinos – the former, big gray teeming boxes of all the Deadly Sins tied up and bowed with barbed wire; and the latter, pleasantly humming hives of the Deadly that is our subject for today: Greed.

Of course some readers might dispute the idea of linking Greed to gambling. We now call gambling an “entertainment,” sometimes, regrettably, an “addiction,” but almost never, anymore, a sin or vice. No, what we talk about when we talk about Greed today is usually something different: the ongoing global financial crisis instigated at least in part by money men putting personal profits ahead of the common good. As Pope Benedict has put it and all would agree, “it was precisely from this root of covetousness that the crisis sprang.”

At the same time, there’s a reason why the rest of us leap so easily to that big picture of Greed, rather than to smaller ones such as credit cards or casinos: because the covetousness of others is always easier to see than our own. Phyllis A. Tickle remarks in her short book Greed (one of a series on the Deadlies), such blindness is Greed’s characteristic signature. We spy the serpent quickly enough when other people are bitten by it: Third World oligarchs, hedge-fund titans, rapacious CEOs. But we resist seeing something else – that the covetousness Pope Benedict spoke of was not limited to the top of the financial order, but went all the way to the bottom in unpayable credit card debt, unsustainable mortgages, and every other manifestation of “living beyond one’s means.” The very fact that his phrase has ceased to have any moral sting in our society tells us something about how we’ve gotten here.

Tickle further observes that lively debate has been running for many centuries over which is more lethal: Greed or Pride. The Apostle Paul, she argues, voted for Greed. Both Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Breughel similarly situated avarice at the head of their treatments of the deadly sins. Pope Benedict devoted his April 22 general audience to another thinker who put Greed first, Ambrose Autpert. Widely known in the Middle Ages and largely forgotten today – much like the seven deadly sins and their corresponding seven virtues – this monk and abbot from the mid-eighth century was known in part for arguing that, “In the earth’s soil various sharp thorns spring from different roots; in the human heart, on the other hand, the stings of all the vices sprout from a single root, greed.”

If it surprises you that some theological heavy hitters thought Greed trumps even Pride in its deadliness, consider just how finely honed is our self-deception about this particular sin. That “our” is not meant metaphorically. It is an uncomfortable fact – or one that ought to make us uncomfortable, anyway – that traditionalists and conservatives underestimate the seriousness of Greed, as many of our adversaries seem to understand better than we do.

This is not the same as calling capitalism on the moral carpet. Capitalism per se – the free association of people for economic activity – is no more responsible for Greed than, say, lush farmland and mechanized agriculture are for Gluttony. Contrary to our President and many other leaders apparently insensible to the lessons of several hundred years of economic history, the answer to Greed is not socialism. It is capitalism –which is to say freedom – correctly exercised, as Michael Novak demonstrates in his masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But just because we can’t easily see it in ourselves, or just because some of us have personal and political aversions to taking this Deadly as seriously as we ought to, doesn’t let anyone off the theological hook. Greed may not destroy as obviously as, say, Lust, but it detonates with just as much force in many a life.

In upstate New York and elsewhere, the casinos have brought employment to some people and disaster to many others: homes and families broken by gambling debt, working class people whose weekly checks disappear in a few hours’ time every Friday night. For many immigrants across the country, the seduction of easy credit and mortgages has similarly turned the American dream into a tornado of debt. A great many college students today also find themselves saddled not only with educational loans, but also piles of unpaid bills brought on by savvy credit card marketing – bills that have the further effect for many of postponing marriage and children. Yes, the companies that made these outcomes possible are partly to blame. But so is the persistent whisper in all our ears that we can live higher and more lavishly than we ought.

It is of some comfort to know – as Arthur Brooks has documented in his interesting 2007 study, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – that religious believers significantly outstrip secularists in the exercise of Greed’s corresponding virtue, Charity. But whether that difference will prove sufficient, in this world or the next, is a question that we privileged beneficiaries of unprecedented prosperity – financial crisis or no – should be asking ourselves night and day.

Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Her new book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, has just been published Templeton Press.