instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Speculation on cultural roles

A post at An Examined Life on religious humor prompted me to think some more on the effect of prudophobia -- the fear of being thought a prude -- has on our culture.

A prude may be defined as someone who thinks you shouldn't enjoy something you enjoy. Prudes are mercilessly mocked by people who think they should enjoy something prudes think they shouldn't enjoy.

Since most people think they should enjoy something some prude, somewhere, thinks they shouldn't, most people find the thought that they themselves might be thought a prude to be at least mildly off-putting. And a lot of people, I suspect, are downright afraid of the thought that they might think they themselves are a prude. Isn't it bad enough that we turn into our parents? Do we have to turn into our grandparents?

So, moved by prudophobia, we hepsters refuse to judge the entertainment habits of others; de gustibus, and so forth.

Though there's a limit, isn't there? I mean, between the prudes and the pigs, we find us, who have achieved a decent balance between what's decent and what's stick-in-the-mud. Even if the pigs can't tell us and the prudes apart.

Now, I don't know any better than anyone else where to draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn't, but I think the solution will encompass the following idea:

That doing something is enjoyable doesn't mean I should do it.

It's an idea that, in the abstract, all but axiomatic Epicureans would agree with. What it lets you do, though, is break the link between what is enjoyable and what is right.

The prude's mistake is to think pleasure can be prevented by an act of will. If that were true, it would follow [more or less] that only malicious people can take pleasure in something that should not be done. The end of this line of reasoning: you can do what you enjoy as long as you aren't doing it maliciously.

If, however, pleasure doesn't imply liceity, then... well, then nothing in particular follows. If I think a certain joke is funny, it doesn't follow that I should tell it, or even put up with its being told. If I enjoy reading a certain blog, or watching a certain TV show, or singing a certain song, it doesn't follow that I may do any of these things.

And if whether I enjoy something has nothing to do with whether I should do it, it also has nothing to do with whether I should counsel others not to do it. (Though it may affect how I should counsel them.)

The standard, then, isn't whether something is enjoyable, but whether it's good for you.

What I haven't given enough thought about yet is my impression that this standard is recognized to a far greater degree in matters of food and drink than it is in matters of entertainment. Evangelical vegans are a bore, but nutritionists get a hearing. The United States, at least, seems far more ready to admit the possibility of bad effects from what goes into their mouths than from what goes into their eyes and ears. Not entirely without reason, perhaps -- the result of eating a candy bar is a lot more deterministic than the result of watching an immoral commercial -- but neither entirely without unreasonable inconsistency.