We wrote about the cardinal virtues of sustainability which are the same as Plato’s four cardinal virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude and Justice. Plato didn’t put the four cardinal vices forward, but we thought it would be useful to consider what they would be, in terms of sustainability. By doing this we might provide an insight into the attitudes that cause unsustainability. People can then seek to recognise these vices in themselves when they occur and learn to turn their vices into virtues.

These cardinal vices of sustainability are roughly the opposites of the cardinal virtues, and they are:


This is the opposite of Temperance and is the drive to acquire and hoard evermore possessions. It is related to greed, profligacy, envy and status competition (i.e. ‘Keeping up with Jones’). Covetousness leads people to possess more than they need and to engage in conspicuous consumption. The belief that we can make up for intrinsic deficiencies with extrinsic possessions drives this vice. However, no amount of possessions will ever make you whole because they can’t. What makes you whole are intrinsic ‘possessions’ such as belonging, social well-being and positive relationships, self-fulfilment, and an authentic, meaningful experience of life.


Human arrogance comes from the ‘myth of our specialness’ ingrained in our collective psyche. It leads to the attitudes of entitlement, vanity and thoughtlessness. It is the idea that ‘we are the most intelligent, most dominant lifeform on earth, so we can do what we like’. Even though it means the ruination of nature and the mass extinctions of species! It is said that if humans suddenly ceased to exist, all the other life on earth would sigh with relief. Arrogance is the opposite of Justice because it implies that humans can have more than their fair share, taking more than we need and exploiting the earth in unsustainable ways.


This is the attitude that what I do can’t make a difference either way; I am powerless in the face of insurmountable problems. It is a form of avoidance born from weakness, and apathy born from lazy disregard. This vice is the opposite of the courage and grit implied in Fortitude because it is really just giving up before you even start. Fortitude tells us to take responsibility and to continually play our part in making things better, even in the face of hardship. Fortitude provides ongoing motivation to make a real difference. Passiveness, on the other hand, shirks responsibility and is motivated by comfort and ease instead which leads to complacency.


This is the opposite of Prudence, at least in part. Short-sightedness leads to a lack of precaution, prevention and due care, which are fundamental aspects of sustainability. Short-sightedness is not seeing the big picture of how the way we live affects other people and the environment. This myopia leads to reckless and wasteful behaviours that cause harm to the well-being of other people and our shared planet, and ironically, ourselves.

In conclusion, Covetousness, Arrogance, Passiveness and Short-sightedness cause us to live vicious and unsustainable lives. Whereas Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude and Justice give us the ability to live virtuous and sustainable lives.