A Letter to a Friend: Indictment of Hedonism
Author’s Note: This is my response to a good friend’s critique of a passage I posted elsewhere on this blog and on Facebook, by John Zmirak. Zmirak argues in a populist style to a convinced audience, and is therefore not particularly convincing to those of opposite views. I wrote this response to my friend primarily to provide context for Zmirak’s assertions.
I have re-copied the passage from Zmirak below. My original thought follows Thomas Couture’s painting, ‘Romans of the Decadence.’
“A new religion has come to dominate American public life, and it is an intolerant one.
[Utilitarian Hedonism] tries to make respectable the old despairing slogan “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die”—denying that human suffering or self-sacrifice has any significance, and using every technological means to create a “brave new world” where human beings can accumulate as many happy and comfortable moments as they can before they are annihilated.
Our country has gradually shifted from an intolerant (ca. 1688) to a tolerant (ca. 1783) Protestant culture, to a broadly religious humanism (ca. 1945), to embrace after 1968 a new and crasser creed. The lowest common denominator on which we can all agree boils down to this: suffering is worse than being happy, and being alive is better than being dead—except if it means that you will suffer.
That is the sum total of what Americans can agree on, the fighting creed of the free world for which we expect our soldiers to march off and die. The triumph of this new religion is everywhere apparent, and it’s the only rational way to explain to your grandmother how it is that gay marriage is now legal in most places where cigarette smoking isn’t, and why states that shrug at sadistic pornography grimly insist upon seat belts.
The God of the Happy Moments is a jealous god, and his zealots are proving to be bigots. Those of us who worship older and higher gods, who hold different theories of suffering, or who insist on ideas of human dignity based on the study of human nature, appear in the new believers’ eyes as dangerous cranks. When we object to their bacchanalian sex parties or chic lesbian weddings, we don’t merely come across as people who disagree about the structure of human happiness. No, we are against human happiness. We don’t want people to live long, have fun, and die happy. We want to jump them through meaningless flaming hoops rigged up by dead white males a thousand years ago, merely because we are cruel. Or because we want to cling to cultural power. Or hold back women’s progress. Or something else even more sinister that could only be turned up by therapy.
Our arguments aren’t bad; our motives are evil. We are “wreckers” and “saboteurs,” like the kulaks who frustrated Stalin, speed bumps on the Yellow Brick Road. We are probably also racists who torture kittens for kicks.
We are the kind of people whose speech, by its very essence, is always hate speech—because we hate the Good, and want to ruin people’s lives. Any college that wants its students to be happy will try to keep us under control and prevent us from poisoning their pupils’ innocent minds.
So the next time you hear of a leftist administrator trying to force a Christian group to admit non-Christian members, or a student senate trying to ban a pro-life organization, you should try to empathize with the censors: they are priests of a new religion who believe they are serving the highest good accessible to man. Our statements of faith and assertions of natural law are profoundly offensive, even blasphemous. To the Church of the Happy Moments, they are prayers from our own Black Mass.”
My mind is still in grand-strategy-mode rather than morals-and-values-mode so this will be halfass, but I will do what I can.
First off, as I’m sure you figured, Zmirak is writing for conservatives who feel this way- not to sway an objective typical audience. So he himself doesn’t justify the things in here, he assumes the audience knows what he’s talking about (which, by and large, those who would seek out this article and publication do.) I will fill in the gaps for you.
What Zmirak calls utilitarian hedonism is basically the notion that happiness and pleasure, and the abdication of pain and toil, constitute the highest good attainable by Man. There can of course be various combinations and permutations of the two variables mentioned at a social level, but at the individual level the rules for life are fairly clear: Do what makes you happy. Don’t do what makes you unhappy. Avoid trespassing on others’ freedom and happiness.
Alone, these are not bad in principle. What Zmirak (and Theodore Roosevelt, and I) have problems with is when morality is reduced to this and this alone. Our problem is not with happiness- it is with entitlement to happiness abdicating responsibility.
Concomitant to every right is a duty, and a lifestyle of ease and pleasure is a lifestyle of entitlement. The entitled sucks the benefits of social life off of the social teat while not contributing anything to the broader whole. I’m not talking about the welfare bum here, although he makes a good economic analogue. I’m talking about the partier who shuns his responsibility to family life throughout his 20s; the thrill-seeking adventurer who does not contribute meaningfully to society in any way; the ladies man who sleeps around but cares not for his aging parents. All these individuals might be happy in their own way, and they might be employed and contributing to society economically. By the utilitarian hedonist point of view, there is nothing wrong with what any of these people are doing- they are living life as they would like to, finding happiness as they see fit, and most importantly, are not hurting anybody. Each lives a life unto himself, with his own experiences, his own friends, his own judgments, and his own destiny.
In my opinion they are worthless trash, not because of what they do but because of what they don’t do. Were I a partier or a ladies man, I would envy those two for their exploits, and I already do envy the adventurer.
But in their distance from responsibility, they are no better than children in the eyes of society. They do not dare mighty things, seek to serve their brethren, strive to build social capital and enhance the health of society, leave lasting art or thought to contribute to the great conversation, or serve their country with the fullness of their hearts. They exist for themselves, and themselves alone- they have no higher purpose but the maximization of the dopamine and serotonin flows into their brains.
They are selfish in the worst sense of the word. The only thing more despicable is willful helplessness.
So there’s the first point- a sense of entitlement without a sense of duty (the natural result of Epicurean ethics) is disgraceful. I’m sure you agree.
And think about it- what kind of moral code is “Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone?” There’s a reason why the Golden Rule, observed by all cultures, is but a single part of human morality, and only the baseline individual-to-individual conduct at that; there’s also a reason why every society, every organization, every faction, has had a moral code based on duty and observance of certain rules beyond noninterference. That’s because it’s the common observance of such traditions and rules that binds groups together, in the absence of need, trauma, or tyranny.
Are these rules and norms unjust? Sure. Do they result in problems and need to be fixed over time? Definitely. Does that mean we need to start extolling the benefits of freedom bereft of duty lest we descend into fascist oppression?
You are correct in condemning Zmirak’s attacks on homosexuality (social conservatism is in desperate need of reform on sexual issues if it is to survive and continue to influence America with its timeless message) but you are wrong in seeing them as a major issue at stake here. Frankly, I think Zmirak could care less what people do in their bedrooms. I think what he has a problem with (and this is what I have a problem with) is their sexual RIGHTS being lorded over the necessity of sexual RESPONSIBILITY for the development of responsible individuals. When sex is viewed as a bodily function and not as an act of love (and that is the single greatest shot-in-the-foot the gay community has given themselves these last few decades- identifying primarily with their sexuality and, in pop culture, making themselves seem like a bunch of promiscuous bonobos. I guarantee you this, a good proportion of social conservatives like myself have no problem at all with homosexuality, and every problem possible with gay promiscuity- the same problem, in fact, that we have with straight promiscuity,) let me repeat myself, when sex is viewed as a bodily function and not as an act of love, and thus as sexual standards drop and drop and drop, you get irresponsible people who care more for rights than duties, and especially are more interested in having a good old time than becoming mature adults and raising families full of good children who will go on to become good citizens. It’s that simple. Entitlement ideas creates entitled people, and the result is people who don’t do much good for anybody but themselves. (Yeah they do volunteer work for Key Club a few hours a month- but you know what I mean.)
And by asserting the right to sex over the responsibility of sex, an important social norm is overturned and you can see the consequences of it in Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Hollywood. Sure, friendly and nonjudgmental environments for gays; also terrible environments for families, and not because the gays are there.
Moreover, well-intentioned people bemoan the breakdown in the social order we are experiencing today, and oftentimes attribute it to inequality. This is true in part, but largely overlooked is the breakdown of the family structure- the skyrocketing increases in rates of divorce and single-parent homes, the increasing idleness of the rising generation, the rampant rise of crime and drug abuse among the youth. There are a billion answers to these problems, provided by the policy wonks. But at a certain level, where does man become not a number but an actor, and his actions become explained not by social science but by epic literature?
Strong values of duty and responsibility are critical for families, for organizations, for factions, and ultimately for nations. They are not cultivated in an environment that tells people that they need only indulge themselves and leave others alone. This is the natural end of human rights theory, gone too far; when all norms and duties are sacrificed in a chimaeric quest for social justice, nothing but the most laughable injustice to posterity can ensue.
So, in a nutshell, here is what I think: There’s nothing at all wrong with people being happy and doing what they like, nothing at all. There is everything wrong with people expecting they have the right to be happy without acknowledging a duty towards the common good. That duty towards the common good involves activity in the name of the common good, but also a bending of one’s values to a certain degree to align with the values of society. That’s what makes groups, and that’s what keeps them strong.
And this is only happiness juxtaposed to social duty. I have not even begun to cover the importance of suffering, or happiness in the context of objective human nature. Those will be topics for future discussions, I hope. But for now I hope I have given you a sufficient intro to the conservative view of entitlement and duty.
Additionally, I intimated earlier that social conservatism needs to work on itself if it’s going to last. This is truer than you could imagine- those who equate social conservatism with Biblical living and Christian worship have no idea what it means, and I’m talking about both supporters and detractors. Social conservatism is much more about natural law, generic belief, social responsibility, and a conservative outlook on politics and life- including distrust in rapid change, faith in balance, etc- than about religious and sexual dogmas. So far as sexual dogma goes, social conservatism truly only has the role of ensuring that sex be married to love so as not to be sold cheaply on the market. In any case, ask me how I feel about my fellow conservatives.