A series I found when trawling TV Tropes had as a theme that the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Lust, Greed, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, and Wrath for the unfamiliar) could be virtues if controlled properly. How might a culture express one or all of these sins as virtues besides viewing wrath as a useful tool for fighting monsters and evildoers and the like?
Depends on how you look at them
According to Larry Wall(1), the original author of the Perl programming language, there are three great virtues of a programmer; Laziness, Impatience and Hubris
- Laziness: The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it.
- Impatience: The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to.
- Hubris: The quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about.
(1) Quoted from "Programming Perl", 2nd Edition, O'Reilly & Associates, 1996
For the seven deadly sins
- Greed is easy. It makes people work harder and smarter. As Wall Streets says "Greed is good"
- Pride is also easy. It can make you do things already done because you know you can do it better than everyone else.
- Sloth can make you work smarter instead of harder
- Envy can make you work harder so you have what others already have.
- Gluttony doesn't have to be just food. It can be for experiences which means a willingness to try something.
- Lust can tie in with envy
- Wrath prevents others from hurting or taking advantage of you.
Check out concept of The Golden Mean
This is the idea that extremes of any attribute or quality are bad. Linguistically we tend to have different words for good versions and bad versions of things. You can't celebrate concepts such as lust because the word has negative connotations, you have to instead celebrate a different word that captures what you're looking for.
Too little: Cowardice
Just Right: Courage
Too much: Recklessness
Not all the words we use to mean evil things translate well into good words, but you can generally find a rough approximation.
Pride, Lust, Greed, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, and Wrath
Honour, Love, Industry, Ambition, Efficiency, Moderation, and Passion
It might sound like I'm describing a totally different set of attributes, but somebody accused of any of these sins could defend themselves by invoking the corresponding virtue.
It is all a matter of opinion
Virtues/vices are not virtues/vices because they are inherently good or bad. They have been defined as good/bad by religious authority. If we look at the actual qualities of the virtues/vices, we may arrive at different conclusions.
Let us take a look at at three of the virtues
Faith, to believe in revelation in the absence of — or even in opposition to — evidence. Church calls this a virtue. A skeptic on the other hand would call this a vice; that belief must be withheld until there is evidence, and therefore to believe without evidence is bad, in the eyes of the skeptic.
Hope, to assume that divine intervention will occur and set things right is considered by church to be a virtue. But in another view, someone that takes a look at the state of our environment might say that us humans need to deal with our own stuff and not sit around waiting for someone else to fix things; that not taking responsibility is a vice.
Charity, to give unlimited adulation to the divine. Others would argue that personality cults are anti-democratic and the source of much evil.
So what about the vices?
All you need to do is find the advantages of the seven deadly sins, and use those are arguments for why it is good to celebrate them.
Gluttony A celebration of the fact that you do not have to starve. Giving thanks to the happy circumstance that we have achieved not only the means to sustain ourselves but also to make it tasty, enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. To celebrate happy circumstances makes us look more favourably at the future, and strive to make even more things this good.
Greed For this I leave the floor to one of the most memorable speeches in movie history.
Sloth Putting in hard work and/or expensive resources into meeting basic needs is a burden on society. Anything that we do only to sustain us, and not to develop/evolve us, is a cost in both money and health/lives. So inventing things that allow us to be "lazy", lessens that cost.
Lust One of our primary, and most instinctive emotions. It has for a very long time been made shameful, and therefore it has caused us much hurt, angst and fear. Even today, lust-shaming is doing this harm to us, creating the image of the male as a slobbering brute who cannot keep his wits about him when lust hits him, casting out the female and denigrating her if she dares show that lust is a part of her emotional life. Celebrating lust then becomes a counter-weight to the shaming, liberating us and allowing us to be ourselves without feeling bad for it.
Pride Feeling good about one's accomplishments is a powerful motivator to get things done.
Wrath Nary any grassroots movement on this planet was ever started without some semblance of anger over the then current state of affairs. Again, wrath is a powerful motivator.
Envy The third motivator. As Christopher Hitchens used to say about the commandment not to "covet": coveting may lead to emulation; may lead to enterprise. Seeing what others have, feeling envious about that and thinking "I want that too", drives people to want to get the same for themselves.
The easiest way to do this is to link everything to a relationship component with other humans.
- Gluttony: The ability to not only feed yourself, but also everyone you care about. Throwing a big party and making sure everyone is well fed is a great thing that shows your personal success as a human being. It shows you care about others and are able to share your personal wealth.
- Greed: Making sure that you work hard to keep everything you have under your control is a good thing. It shows that you care about everything that belongs to you. In extension you also care to make sure that everyone close to you stays close to you, meaning that you care about their well-being. The more dangerous the world around the more important it is to keep track of the people you care about.
- Sloth: Focusing on the important stuff and leaving everything that is not very important for you aside means that your laser-like focus will help you accomplish your goals and help your fellow humans. Leave everything you can't do very good and that would distract you from what you can do best aside for those people who are good at it.
- Lust: Happiness and love are incredibly important. Lust is one of the most vital components of the relationship between two people and is thereby one of the most important things to take care of. You need to take care of your own lust - and that of your partner - in order for the society as a whole to be more happy.
- Pride: Showing others how much you have is important to motivate them to strive to achieve the same things that you achieved. Be a role model and be proud about it.
- Wrath: Seek out what is not already yours and use your wrath against others to obtain more - others that not fall into your family category of course. Together with your fellow humans you should strive to use your combined wrath to seek out ever increasing territory and power to make sure the whole group profits and thrives.
- Envy: Just like motivating others by showing pride you should envy others to see what they have, what they have done to get to that point and to try to find a way to achieve the same thing. Ideally you would guide this towards other folks that are not in your direct vicinity to simply take what is theirs and make it your own, but in itself envy towards your neighbour is good as it motivates you. You should seek out opportunities to motivate yourself wherever you can.
You have a lot of examples how a sin could be construed as a good thing in the other answers already.
So I want to concentrate a little bit the how and why these are considered sins in "our" culture. If you abstract a little from the reasoning of religion, these sins are basically part of a code of conduct, defined by or for the society.
If you follow these rules you will fit in nicely, if you don´t problems will arise.
So we are looking for a society where the premise is different so that these Sins are considered beneficial.
For example a society which has problems with fertility could preach Lust as a virtue.
A society which has problems with stressed resources and overproduction could preach sloth to it´s citizens. (see discussions about unconditional basic income for example)
A culture which is threatened by oppression could preach wrath as as a virtue to empower themselves.
and so on...
The question is who makes the rules - as you stated (if controlled properly.) So it all depends on who controls the society and from which behavior they profit. If you have an autocratic society, an Orwellian state, a democracy ... the answers may be different and also the enforcement or adoption of those rules.
PS: Also found a site which seems to be dedicated to answering your question.
The key here is controlling them properly.
First we need to understand what (moral) virtues and vices are. Basically, virtues are both descriptor of and ideal model of the behaviour of the human person within human society: the "human being attaining excellence". They are God given talents that we practice and train ourselves to engage in in order to become the best human beings we can be. Moral virtues are spiritual behaviours that distinguish us humans (body-soul beings) from other animals, with whom we share many traits, behaviours, urges, and responses.
So a virtuous person in human society treats others with generosity & respect, is kind & humble. It is a choice to behave like a human being, exercising her God given talents. The outward behaviours are an extension and revelation of her interior nature. The truly human nature.
A viceful person treats others with disrespect & violence, is prideful and desires what others have for himself. This is also a choice, but not the choice of being a human in excellence! It is the choice of behaving like an animal, and is thus an insult to animals who have no choice in the matter. The outward behaviours are also an extension of the inner nature. The truly beastly nature.
What's the difference between the natures? The virtuous person seeks to elevate herself above the purely animal behaviour ecapsulated by the vices. The viceful person does not seek self improvement and is content to wallow with his fellow beasts.
Are vices inherently evil and virtues inherently good? No. Animals are not evil; and people who wallow with them and behave like them are not evil either. Certainly both vice & virtue can be put into the service of evil, but that's a different matter. The sin of engaging in a vice is the desire to turn yourself into an animal and live like an animal, rather than a human person.
So what about controlling vices properly? What happens here is beastly vices are elevated into lesser human virtues. They are less in stature, because they do not bring us to human excellence, but they certainly can serve as stepping stones towards those higher virtues.
When Pride's dangerous overconfidence and inflated self-regard is controlled, it becomes a rejoicing in one's own deeds. This is healthy in so far is it serves to build confidence in oneself; but is still lacking the depth and power of humility, the understanding that these gifts and successful deeds are not under one's own control.
When Lust's empty cravings & graspings are curbed, it becomes an eagerness to excel. This is healthy in that is drives scholars to research and entrepreneurs to found businesses.
When Greed's avarice and search for "prosperity" (at the expense of others, usually) is curtailed, it comes "wanting wisely". This is the healthy assessment of one's wishes and desires: do I really need this thing?, will that really make me a better person? It still lacks the power and majesty of Charity, the free giving of one's self and one's possessions or talents.
I think that will serve to illustrate. When we control our vices we are simply beginning the journey towards a virtuous life. And our culture does indeed express the virtuous nature of these controlled vices.
Greed becomes Opportunity: For example, in the USA, one of foundational pillars of society is the capitalist economic model. In this model, Greed is still a vice, because it ill treats other people and seeks to destroy them; but Opportunity is the virtue of those who offer a service or a product to others with the expectation of remuneration.
Envy becomes Keeping Up With the Joneses: in the USA, "keeping up with the Joneses" is the proper control of Envy. Envy of another's material success is a vice because it rots the sufferer's spirit & corrupts his mind. It causes him to seek a destructive and inappropriate revenge upon the object of his envy. Keeping up with the Joneses is a positive outlet for the desire to succeed materially: it is a driver to work hard, earn a little extra and spread that wealth around a bit by buying culturally appropriate displays of one's earnings (a fancy new car, big screen tv, the latest tech gadgets).
It all comes down to Culture.
Lets take for example, Christians and Muslims have their own "rules to follow" which justifies that this is good or this is bad yet most of them are doing the "bad" even though they know what is "Good".
But put culture in the picture and your virtues will be accepted.
If a country is raised with the mindset that unleashing wrath on enemies(e.g killing supposed evildoers) is justifiable, and that it is the best way to deal with such things, then everyone will do it.
Beasts are different, they kill because of instinct, means of eating, which is their way of life. So if a man excuses himself of using wrath to kill people, evil doers and not without the culture to back it up, we use the word "Sin" to tell everyone that what that man does is bad, and is not justifiable.
At the core of every virtue stands a sin a negative behavior. Some sins may seem as opposites of other virtues, but the virtues themselves contain at its core a reason for existence, a sin. Humble beings can still take pride in their way of life or despise the Prideful. Some names sins are simply other feelings brought to the extreme. Lust is just an uncontrolled desire, a need to seek pleasure. Lust provides same emotion as Love and compassion, they are different only in nuances that are never set in stone. Lust is often described as selfish, while commpassion spreads the pleasure, but it doesn't have to be that way.
Greed - Gathering riches takes them out of circulation, weakening the economy. So "gathering gold and not willing to share it" is a sin. But having a large sum at hand is still handy for organisations and states. Dragons may gather gold, but what do they want it for, they are intelligent, they know it is useless to them. But what if they plan to use those funds to restore their empire or to build temples, hospitals, monasteries, libraries, orphanages? What if they gather gold so that when a famine or a great war comes, they can protect the people in their domain from harm? Gathering wealth is a sin only if there is no purpose.
Generosity is a greater sin disguised as a virtue. It encourages people to give away the wealth they earned and allows the others to stop striving for more, to progress. It promotes sloth.
greed -> prosperity Keeping a constant flow of money, seeking to gain more with each trade and each contract and investing to gain more can help the economy. If the money flows it allows others to reach for that money. If one man builds a dam all others get less, if a man allows the river to flow they all get as much as they can carry in their buckets. Those who allow the money to flow are still wealthy, yet they do not restrict the others to gain as well.
Pride - pride can be decomposed into many things. Bravery, ambition, courage, loyalty, respect, trust. Pride can lead to doom, but the humble can also doom themselves. Many brave died at the hands of the enemy, yet the cowards let the others die instead of them. The ambitious can fall into a trap, because they look too far ahead and don't see what is beneath their feet. The loyal can take pride in their service and take their life when they loose this pride they call "honor". Many people take praise their country and are proud of their leaders and respect them.
Lust - Desire, love, pleasure, commpassion, joy, fun, humor. Many positive emotions can be a part of lust. It is only a way of achieving that emotion and to what end, that makes it evil.
Envy - It is the emotion that forces the others to keep up with the best. If they kick down the Prideful it is only their fault that they didn't try to stand up again. If they steal from the Greedy or kick the Slothful down from their beds, they always force the others and themselves to keep up with the rest. The envious are agents of progress, just as the slothful. Envy is what defines success and failure. And often the envious switch to a different sin, when they achieved their goal.
Sloth - They don't want to work, they instead try to find a way how to avoid it. They are inventors, but also slavers (just as the Prideful can be). They drive the progress, they find new ways for the others, or they simply want to share their laziness.
Gluttony - They are Hedonistic, free, rebellious, they seek luxury and quantity at the same time. They are the ones who create plantages and mass produce, so the luxurious can be common. They search new ways to exploit the universe, find new ways to replicate the existing.(The Greedy would never do so unless they can not gain more in that way. But the Gluttonous do not care.)
Wrath - Wrathful are the needle in the back of shemers, they act on a impulse. They act NOW when it is needed, they have no fear, they have no regrets. Wrath may pose as bravery, vengeance, justice. Wrath is the impulse that led to the virtues. Wrath is a reaction to injustice it is the counter to every other sin or virtue going too far. It can even stop itself, Hate is Wrath in the extreme and Hate also wakes up wrath in those who suffer because of hate.
So all sin and virtues can become evil. The feelings the words do not matter, they way they were achieved and their cause is what matters.
Most answers are about rephrasing those unappealing qualities so that they sound kinda appealing (to us, today). Why not look at different cultures through history instead?
Here's a quote from "Germany and its Tribes" by Tacitus, Chapter 14:
Nor are they as easily persuaded to plough the earth and to wait for the year's produce as to challenge an enemy and earn the honour of wounds. Nay, they actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.
There, Wrath, Sloth, Pride and Envy incorporated into a single principle of their life.
For some more on Pride, let's read about Sardur II, a king of Urartu, who called himself
"the magnificent king, the mighty king, king of the universe, king of the land of Nairi, a king having none equal to him, a shepherd to be wondered at, fearing no battle, a king who humbled those who would not submit to his authority."
Apparently, the guy wasn't big on modesty. There are, of course, many more examples like that (actually, there were some 20th century African dictators calling themselves in a similar manner). I have no quotes ready, but praising themselves for killing scores of enemies in rather gruesome ways (not just the warriors on a battlefield, but their women, children etc. after the victory) was also quite common - there's showing off your Wrath.
Gluttony in its basic, non-disguised meaning, was quite literally perceived as a virtue in some historical societies. Think of Roman feasts for example (Lust probably fits there, too). When food was not yet that abundant, being fat was somewhat synonymous with being attractive (look how fat I am, I eat a lot, I can afford it, I am so cool and successful, be with me and you may share that success, and so will our future children, etc.)
As for Lust, isn't it largely regarded as a virtue even today, at least by the male half of the population?
I don’t really know much about the historic origin, evolution, or promotion of the deadly sins, but they’ve always struck me as a list of attributes a lord would least want in his peasants. It’s as if the power elite are trying to make the underclass feel guilty and damned if they have any feelings that may threaten the elite’s place on top.
Turn it around, and it follows that the seven deadly sins are virtues if you want to foment a rebellion. In a world where the few economically exploit the masses in near-slavery conditions, a revolutionary ideology could emerge among the underclass that makes virtues out the sins:
Pride: Don’t believe that the elite are somehow inherently superior to you. Value your own strength, intelligence, skills, and leadership ability. They’re no better than you.
Lust: Want a material thing badly. So badly you’ll take impetuous risks, even with your own life.
Greed: Don’t be satisfied with just what you need. Want more from life than mere survival. Bread is great, but you should have roses too.
Envy: The elite have all this great stuff. Don’t you want some of that for yourself?
Sloth: Bust your ass for the glory of your lord? I don’t think so. Go on strike.
Gluttony: In world where any material excess goes to the elite (as profits or taxes), not consuming it yourself only adds to their power. Use it up. Wasting it is better than letting them get their hands on it.
Wrath: Get pissed. They use you and they have no right to do so.
Here's a link to the piece Vices and Virtues by Bruce Nauman at UC San Diego. The legend on campus is that the first Vice/Virtue your eyes are drawn to describes your greatest temptation/strength respectively. "As Nauman implies in this work, we may know the difference between faith and lust, or hope and envy, but in real experience these vices and virtues are never experienced purely. They continually show themselves in new and baffling combinations." I think a sophisticated culture would embrace such a duality.
This is much more easy than it seems. You only need to look at the historic and cultural context.
The seven deadly sins were created in their current form in 590 AD and go back to an initial list of 8 that a christian monk made maybe 200 years earlier. They encode christian thought of that era.
Look outside this narrow frame and you see other cultures celebrating some or all of these as virtues. The key here is to look at the spirit behind them. They are all expressions of basic, instinctual desires. For things necessary for survival. In a wild, primitive world, all of them will enhance your chances of survival.
Today, we have overcome these basic needs with progress and technology. We don't need to stuff ourselves when food is plenty because food is always plenty. We don't need to jump on every chance of sex because our society has developed rules that give everyone a reasonable chance at a stable relationship. We have the police and courts to punish those who wronged us, so wrath is channeled into the justice system - and so on.
The 4th to 6th century world didn't have most of that. They needed to suppress those desires to stabilize society.
So the moral evaluation of these sins is very much a matter of context, and by manipulating the context you can easily turn any of them into virtues.
Not sure you could do this.
The problem is not that could try and make the deadly sins palpable, respectable and useful. Other answers can and do that.
The thing that makes these sins not just sins, but deadly sins is that they are beyond useful and respectable: they all warp your soul, you focus on itself. In the end you only live to fill the needs of the sin. And in doing so they are (very) destructive to the owner and it's surroundings. Let me say it again: deadly sins are all very destructive, both to their owner and surroundings.
Now, if you couple that with some kind of self-sacrifice or some other virtue...
What if your culture needs people to defend their borders, and these people with deadly sins are the best to do so? On one hand honoured by their culture for their heroics, on the other hand knowing that they are spiralling out of bounds under the control of their sins. Heroes are not always doing good things out of good intentions. But might turn out that way.