On Creating an Ethic of Enjoyment


This is in some ways a follow-on from my post But I Like To Like The Things I Like To Like, from the other week.

Let’s set a scene here, shall we? Last Friday, in the work canteen. Me eating my (delicious) apple pie and custard, in a room full of steak-eating men and salad-eating women. The apple pie was good, and I’d quite sensibly justified the indulgence on the grounds that I’d done a lot of cycling in the past few days, and the chicken noodles I’d had for lunch hadn’t been a particularly generous portion. I’m very good, by the way, at justifying apple pie.

But why should I need to? And why is it so goddamn difficult to stop feeling like I need to?

It’s one thing to say that it’s a good thing to reject the idea that we need to justify our likes and enjoyments. However, without something to replace them, it’s nigh-on impossible to do so. So to start, let’s take a look at that delicious dessert again, shall we?

The context of apple pie and custard

Sitting in a canteen, eating a delicious apple pie, which I justified to myself because of having cycled a whole lot the day before, so I was due an indulgence. I feel a little guilty about the apple pie- I’ve spent money on it, and it’s something I’m eating purely for the pleasure of it. But that’s okay, because I cycled about a whole lot yesterday and the day before. Loads of uphills.

What does this say about how I view either of these things? Everything is being viewed in relation to each other, on a scale from ‘good’ to ‘bad’. My enjoyment of my delicious pie is marred by having to justify it. As is how much I enjoyed cycling to and from work and shops and people’s houses the day before. The cycling was framed in the context of “should do”, which meant that I couldn’t even enjoy that one on its own merits. The entire ethical framework at work here, you see, is one of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Of being a person who does the right things- working hard, taking care of myself and whatnot- versus ‘letting myself go’ and losing control.

That, my lovely readers, is one hell of an impoverished way to live one’s life.

Do Ethics Mean What I Think They Mean?

I should pause here to talk a little about what I mean by an ‘ethical framework’. I’m interested here less in whether we think that Act A is an ethical or unethical thing to do, so much as what the underlying framework is through which we make these judgements. What are the criteria by which we judge a thing as good, or bad, or neutral?

Pleasure and enjoyment have not, by any means, been seen as necessarily ethical things in the cultural context I come from. Good old Catholic Guilt runs deep, whether we like it or not, whether we believe a word of it or not. Beyond any questions of (dis)belief is the fact that we are, or were, raised to see sacrifice as somehow a good thing by default. This is, by the way, by no means limited to traditionally catholic cultural contexts- without even leaving christian culture I could mention the rather similar Protestant Work Ethic. Suffering/work are good, pleasure and enjoyment are suspect. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, even pride are seen as barely forgiveable. Giving in to our desires too much is bad. These desires need to be fought. So we justify them, we allow ourselves little indulgences and we pay for them with ‘good’, sacrificial actions. But what if we could just toss all that out the window, and create a genuine moral framework based on pleasure, based on enjoyment?

An Ethic of Enjoyment

Let’s start from the premise that either we only have one life, or we really aren’t sure and should damn well better act as if we do. It’s the premise I start from, after all, and this is my blog. What’s the best thing for us, as individuals and as a society, to strive for within these short few decades? What makes us appreciate being alive, feel most alive and whole? It’s rather obvious to me that, while the specifics of course vary, it is maximising enjoyment, pleasure and joy which makes our lives most worthwhile. When you take away the potential for eternal rewards, it’s rewards here that matter. The things that make you laugh out loud, make your uncontainably happy, make you chuckle, make you smile. If we get to decide what is good and worthwhile, what is the ultimate virtue, why not make it happiness?

Let’s go back to lunch the other day, seen through a lens of an ethic of pleasure. The day beforehand, I had spent some time cycling about in the sunshine. This was lovely– the wind in my face, the sun on my back, the sense of satisfaction on reaching the top of a hill and coasting down the other side. Lovely! The next day I had delicious apple pie. It was lovely– scrumptiously moist, with a crunchy crust and a giant dollop of sweet, creamy custard. Lovely! Through this framework, the only problematic thing was the slight twinge of guilt and justification- these suck, there’s nothing to be gained from them, and they detracted from enjoyment.

But doesn’t that excuse… All Sorts?

It could be argued that living through an ethical framework based on pleasure, as opposed to control, throws the door open for all sorts of undesirable things. Going back to those seven deadly sins- if pleasure and enjoyment are our primary ethical principles, then how do we get anything useful done? And aren’t we all going to end up, well, selfish assholes? Don’t worry, I have three arguments against this:

Firstly, in order to increase my overall enjoyment, sometimes I have to do things that I don’t, well, enjoy. I really like having a house to live in, for example. Specifically, I like having this house. It’s got my stuff in it, I like my housemates, I have enough room, it’s got an awesome location. I also like having things like food and electricity in the house. If I want to have those things, I gotta go to work. Which sucks at 7am, but overall, the things I gain from going to work cause an overall increase in pleasure and enjoyment in my life. It’s about the big picture here.

Secondly, people enjoy doing altruistic things. One of the major things that we do to feel happy is doing good things for others. We’re social animals, we gain some of our deepest senses of satisfaction and joy from our relationships with others. I love making dinner for my friends, or finding/making something that I know they’ll enjoy, or spending time with them. And doing the work that we need to do to nurture our relationships with each other? Leads to an awesome level of increased happiness and satisfaction.

Thirdly, this opens the way to a guilt-free conception of altruism. I never said that this was about maximising only my enjoyment. It’s about happiness being our primary ethical principle. Instead of framing altruistic acts as decreasing suffering, we can frame them as working to increase society’s capacity for enjoyment. If happiness is our guiding principle, then there is no point feeling guilty about social structures which existed before we were born- the important thing is just to do what you can, to the extent that it is practical, and doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying their own life.

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I’ve more to say on this topic, I’m sure. But it’s a sunny day, and I want to go enjoy it.

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