The Seven Deadly Virtues

Why it’s time to quit being good

| September-October 1996

A great deal of harm is being done these days by a sinister program to promote putative virtues among the young and innocent. Popular books like Golden Rules: The Ten Ethical Values Parents Need to Teach Their Children by business writer Wayne Dosick and William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues for Young People argue that society’s ills can be cured by brainwashing—excuse me—teaching the “moral sciences” to children. The real agenda behind this campaign, it seems to me, is to control people and limit their freedom.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some paranoid libertarian. What troubles me is how completely lacking in fun this short-sighted and spiritually empty project is. This irritating man Bennett, for instance, writes that “the kind and number of friends you have will depend on your own virtues.” In other words, You’d better follow these rules, kid, or no one will like you—except losers. By trumpeting “reputation” as the first reason for being virtuous, Bennett engages in moral blackmail and drains the virtuous life of any transcendent purpose. His idea of schooling young people in the so-called virtues takes away self-responsibility and reduces them to mouselike, resentful underachievers.

This sort of thing isn’t new, of course. Benjamin Franklin—the well-known work-obsessed lunatic who coined the guilt-inducing rhyme “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” —is credited with making modern capitalism possible. And in England the Victorian writer Samuel Smiles’ best-seller Self-Help encouraged weary proletarians to think it was their duty to God to work 12 hours a day in the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution. Someone needs to hold the line against this insidious tendency.

That’s why we launched The Idler magazine in August 1993: to return dignity to the art of doing nothing. Idlers persistently question the status quo and the misguided notion that hard work is holy. We are heirs to a tradition that includes such vaunted layabouts as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Louis Stevenson—all of whom lived to loaf and loafed to live.

Here, then, is an idler’s guide to the seven deadly virtues.