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Sunday, June 15, 2003

Self-Denial 

I just read another great article by Jacob Sullum in the July issue of Reason called The Anti-Pleasure Principle.

The article is ostensibly about the CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest; no, I won't link to them, but I will link to these guys). It explores their un-scientific, alarmist, headline-grabbing attacks on various foods. But what was more interesting to me about the examination was Sullum's observation that:

The group is also emblematic of a troubling cultural trend whose motto might be, "If it feels good, don't do it."

And it seems to really reflect their attitude! Whatever people seem to enjoy, they condemn and forbid: Pizza with extra cheese ("Never order" ), fried mozzarella sticks ("Just say no"), buffalo wings ("Order something else"), crispy orange beef (ditto), beef and cheese nachos ("Order just about anything else"), a gyro ("There's no way to make this a healthful choice"), a mushroom cheeseburger ("Forget about this one!"), a fried whole onion ("a bomb"), a milk shake ("Skip it"), the Cheesecake Factory's carrot cake ("the worst dessert on the menu"), and cheese fries with ranch dressing ("worse than anything we've ever analyzed").

And when some innovation comes along that mitigates the health concerns associated with certain foods (like irradiation, artificial fat, sugar, or meat, etc.) they invariably oppose it with dubious fears. It's almost as though there was some law of nature (the Conservation Of Misery?) that a solution must be violating.

What I was thinking about, and Sullum touches on, is that there seems to be an attraction to this and other movements because of this anti-pleasure principle. Many religious traditions involve self-denial and self-imposed rigors, as though virtue required misery. I'm sure these ordeals help those who share the experiences to bond with each other (and separate from outsiders), form an identity, and get a sense of structure and meaning in their lives. But, I think these means are wrong and bad and not the best ways of achieving these ends. It's even worse when they try to impose these things on the rest of us (as the CSPI often does).

Like most popular bad ideas, there is an element of truth behind it. It is important to be productive and responsible; and these things are often difficult. But that doesn't mean that difficulty and misery are good for their own sakes! It's important to get things done, but it's not better to work hard than to work smart. We're human beings. Solving problems and finding better ways to do things is what we're all about. We should embrace improvements (with skepticism), not reject them reflexively.

I think it's anti-human to always prefer the miserable to the pleasurable, and the "natural" to the artificial.

I'm pro-human. Human life is not all about pain and misery. It's about solving problems, achieving valuable goals, discovering truth and beauty, and enjoying the process.

I love the way Sullum ends the article:

For my part, I think I'll try some cheese fries with ranch dressing. They've never tempted me before, but if CSPI says they're "worse than anything we've ever analyzed," they must be pretty damned good.