The Politics of the Seven Deadly Sins

The reason that the seven deadly sins are deadly is not because they are inherently evil, but rather because they are such powerful motivators that people are prone to indulge in them to excess. This may seem counterintuitive to many, but consider a few examples from the following table:

SinIn ModerationIn Excess
Wrath Natural and healthy reaction to unfairness or injustice. Broken friendships, feuds, vendettas, casual violence, and unjustified war.
Avarice The will to provide oneself and one's loved ones with the necessities of life, and perhaps some comforts as well. The pursuit of money or material goods to the exclusion of relationships, to the detriment of the environment, to the exclusion of effort on truly worthwhile pursuits, or to the point of unjustly depriving the needy of the necessities of life.
Sloth Avoid wasting energy in cases where nothing useful can be accomplished, recharge one's batteries, smell the roses. Wasting time and energy when critical work needs doing, when others need help, or when excellence and achievement are possible.
Pride Keep one's possessions in presentable condition, maintain an upstanding reputation, be unreproachable in both word and deed. Refuse to admit mistakes, rest on the laurels of long-forgotten achievements, refuse to improve oneself.
Lust The continuation of the species. Addictive behavior, neglect of duties, betrayal of loved ones. Or, as the case may be, previously loved ones.
Envy Emulating the successes of others. Wasting time and effort coveting the possessions and successes of others, reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator, thwarting success and achievement of others, and perhaps even attacking others simply to spite them.
Gluttony "A man's gotta eat!!!" Poor health and early death, to say nothing of wasting food, thus resources.

Some would argue that the indignation that rights a wrong on the one hand and a vendetta that destroys a community on the other are different in kind, not merely different in scale, and perhaps rightfully so. However, for our purposes, the crucial observation is that both are driven by the same feelings and emotions—in other words, they are both symptoms of the same underlying motivations. The sad fact is that the participants in a vicious and destructive vendetta feel the same sense of moral outrage felt by someone standing up to a belligerent bully.

The seven deadly sins are clearly extremely powerful motivators, so much so that they are harnessed to drive organizations of all sorts. Interestingly enough, many organizations seem to specialize in one or another of the deadly sins. The choice of sin is extremely important: As we will see, the choice of sin greatly influences the organization's longevity.

Mapping the Seven Sins to Political Organizations

For brevity, I group gluttony, lust, and sloth into "hedonism". This is not to say that these sins have no individual importance, but rather that I have not yet seen any reason to distinguish between them when considering political organizations. Of course, conservative political parties no more see themselves as avaricious than the liberal political parties see themselves as envious. In both cases, they project the sin on the less-fortunate members of society. Thus, a conservative politician would not be expected to argue that greed is good, but rather that the less fortunate should have all opportunities, and not be held back by the evils of overweening bureaucracies. Similarly, a liberal politician would be equally unlikely to extoll the virtues of envy, but rather that the less fortunate should have an ample share of those things that make life possible, and, in developed countries, those things that make life worthwhile. Naturally, one would also expect a liberal politician to resist any initiative that might cause the less-fortunate to be held back by the avarice of any individual or organization. Needless to say, these two politicians would no doubt argue as to whether the opportunities ostensibly on offer to the less-fortunate would instead present themselves to the well-heeled on the one hand, and as to whether the money intended to ease the lot of the less-fortunate would instead pad the payroll of a burgeoning bureaucracy on the other. We are unlikely to settle these argument here, nor, one might add, will anyone settle them anywhere as long as they continue being such reliable sources of campaign contributions for both sides of the debate. So let us instead focus on the seven sins and their relation to politics.

In a manner not too different from our envious/liberal and avaricious/conservative policians, a wrathful politician would be less likely to expound wrath for wrath's sake than to focus on the necessity and righteousness of a forceful response to real or imagined injuries caused by real or imagined enemies, whether contemporary or historic.

Likewise, a healthy civic organization would not focus on pride itself, but on good works well done.

The experience of the Democrats attempting to harness wrath in the 2004 US presidential election should give caution to any organization tempted to switch sins. Howard Dean did indeed make an excellent showing, but for a short time only, and Michael Moore, though more durable, did not seem to have a decisive effect on the outcome. Perhaps political systems with less of a winner-takes-all makeup can draw on the motivational force of multiple sins, but the shifting coalitions that tend to be engendered by these other systems leave ample room for doubt.

How then does an organization survive long-term, given many society's notoriously short attention spans?

Longevity of Sin-Based Motivation

Avarice and envy appear to have endless ability to motivate. No matter how much one has, one can always want more. No matter how well-off one is, there will always be someone else who has more of something, be it money, fame, accomplishments, talent, luck, or any of the myriad things that people use to distinguish themselves. Therefore, an organization based on avarice or envy can persist indefinitely.

In addition, organizations based on envy need countervailing organizations based on avarice and vice versa. Unless presented with meaningful opposition, envy-based organizations will reduce everyone to the least common denominator. To see this, consider that it is far easier to remove the wings from a bird than it is to add them to a mouse. Beyond a certain point, therefore, equality is the sworn enemy of excellence. But neither are avarice-based organizations free from fatal flaws. In the absence of meaningful opposition, they can result in oppressive winner-takes-all scenarios. Although excellence might well have been the basis for the big win, a very natural but very undesirable outcome is for the winner to defend the win by suppressing nascent excellence in others.

The more hysterical proponents of either conservative or liberal political philosophies would therefore do well to think much more carefully about their party platforms. Or indeed, to think at all. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any hope on this issue, as I fully expect politicians and their minions to continue focusing strictly on winning elections, resorting to deep thought only after a devastating loss.

As to wrath, people have proven themselves quite capable of holding grudges for centuries, but only if a real or imagined enemy remains a potent threat. When the enemy is vanquished, so is the wrath. It is therefore quite dangerous to try to appease a wrath-based organization. The organization needs a viable enemy in order to motivate its people, therefore, any attempt to address the advertised grievances will very result in new grievances being generated as needed to sustain the organization.

Pride considered to be the most deadly of the sins, but this deadliness is inextricably linked to its great weakness as a source of motivation. A feat in adolescence, for example the winning pass for the Big Game, can be a source of pride for a lifetime—but such a source of pride generates reminiscences, not action. An enduring pride-based organization must have a strong component of "so what have you done for me lately?", setting an endless series of grand challenges and goals—and continuing to make itself attractive to the young, the energetic, and the disaffected. This latter is itself a difficult challenge as the organization ages and starts to prefer dignity to adolescent chaos, but any organization that fails to meet this challenge will find that its lifespan is bounded above by that of its current members. Therefore, any organization that fails to appeal to the young will die within one generation.

The hedonistic Big Three, gluttony, lust, and sloth, provide motivation only up to the satisfaction of the underlying need. This motivation can be extremely powerful, for example:

However, power does not necessarily imply longevity, and I am unaware of a long-lived organization motivated by any of these Big Three, though some might point to certain organizations surrounding the oldest profession as counterexamples. Others might offer the "silent majority" as a counterexample, but this majority seems to be not only silent, but also supine. Some would argue that this is a good thing.


An organization's leader needs to clearly understand not only that organization's motivating sin, but also those of its partners and competitors. Only then can the leader build on the sins of its members in order to bring the organization's strengths to bear in an effective and sustainable manner.

Appendix: Where did "Waspleg" Come From?

The observant reader may have noticed that the initials of the seven deadly sins at the beginning of this page spell "waspleg". I have no idea who first came up with this mneumonic, but I first heard it from Rick Lindsley, who was looking for a correspondence between the seven deadly sins and Snow White's seven dwarfs. In any case, this mneumonic does seem to be reasonably well known.