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Vice, Investment, and the Seven Deadly Sins
by Craig Duncan
March 2005: it’s official – vice pays. And it’s not even illegal.
This month the Financial Times examined the spectacular growth of The Vice Fund, a Texas-based investment company which encourages its members to invest in the certainty of a vice-ridden future. The Vice Fund restricts its investments to four areas: alcohol, tobacco, gambling and war. The company’s prospectus boasts that its investments are “nearly recession-proof,” on the basis that no matter what the economic climate, the people of the world will continue to drink, smoke, gamble and kill each other. With a growth rate of 20% in the last year alone, The Vice Fund offers us the chance to personally profit from the fairly inevitable future shortcomings of humanity.
Have our vices ceased to be something bad, and instead have become just another market commodity? What exactly is a vice, anyway?
The Western conception of a vice (from the Latin vitium, meaning a defect or imperfection) implies some sort of shortcoming or moral weakness on the part of its practitioner. While we may refer to a particular type of activity as being a vice, what we are really condemning is not just the action itself, but also the moral weakness that led to it. Our understanding of vices has long been tied to the 6th century Christian concept of the “seven deadly sins”: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth. Since most people at some point feel proud, jealous, angry, horny, lazy, or greedy for material possessions or for food, we might say that the “seven deadly sins” represent traits in human nature that cannot realistically be eradicated. At the same time though, they are also traits which need to be controlled to some degree if a society is to be able to function properly. The practical purpose of the “seven deadly sins”, then, has not been eradication but moderation: they have served to remind people not to be too greedy, too jealous, too lazy, et cetera. Excessive repetition of one such sin would constitute a vice.
In an increasingly secular, increasingly multicultural society one might well ask: is this 1500-year-old Christian definition of wrongdoing still relevant? In February the BBC commissioned an opinion poll to answer this question. They asked the British public which of the “seven deadly sins” they still considered to be particularly bad, and invited them to create a new list of the deadliest modern sins. The results arguably showed a major change in the moral basis of our society. The only one of the original seven sins that made the new list was greed – the others were replaced by six new sins: cruelty, adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy and selfishness. Cruelty was voted to be the worst sin of all. According to the BBC’s Ross Kelly, traditional concepts of sin are much less important to us today than the simple question of whether or not our actions harm anyone else. “For instance,” he says, “we're less bothered about anger than we are about cruelty; and while many of us actually enjoy lust, we still frown on adultery."
So, our moral priorities today appear to be more humanist than spiritual: we see the deadliest sins as being those whose results can most palpably harm another person. Presumably this means that we can indulge in whatever vices we wish, as long as we do not harm anyone else. But what are we to think of The Vice Fund, and the idea of actively seeking to profit from the vices of others? Judging it in terms of the newly updated seven deadly sins, one might argue that The Vice Fund’s aims are cruel, but then, the same accusation could be levelled at a great deal of modern business. Given the Fund’s openness about its aims, it could hardly be described as hypocritical. And it’s not really any more greedy or selfish than any other speculative investment.
The Financial Times was ultimately rather critical of The Vice Fund, but not from a moral standpoint. It warned us: “There are… fundamental problems with negative screening of stocks on ethical grounds - good or evil. This approach is subjective [and] divorced from established investment wisdom.” In other words, bringing any moral considerations into an investment decision is simply bad business sense.
The Vice Fund is rare among modern investment funds in that it is open about its aims. This is perhaps the only reason it provokes the question of whether or not we are morally responsible for the effects of our investments. Most investment funds today allow us the luxury of not having to contemplate what our money is being used for. Accordingly this writer is not prepared to condemn The Vice Fund, but will instead applaud it for its honesty and openness in a field where such qualities are largely unknown.