In Defense of Pleasure

First published September 15, 2005, in Between the Lines.

One of the delights of being a philosophy professor is that I occasionally come across charming texts in the history of ethics. Here’s Mary Warnock in her 1960 classic Ethics Since 1900:

Many people…feel strongly that some kinds of behavior, though utterly harmless to other people, should nevertheless be avoided for their own sakes, and that this is a moral matter. They may feel, for instance, that to indulge in some kinds of pleasurable activities, such as reading novels in the mornings, is wrong…because they feel that to indulge in them would be to start some kind of downward trend, some degeneration which is their duty to avoid.

Reading novels in the morning?

Perhaps reading novels in the morning is the 1960 equivalent of watching reruns of “The Surreal Life.” But I’m sure that even Mrs. Warnock (as the dust-jacket blurb quaintly calls her) could think of better examples of pleasurable activities that, though harmless to others, supposedly lead to degeneration.

I came across Warnock’s text shortly after returning from Last Splash, an annual gay party in Austin, Texas. Last Splash, which takes place on Lake Travis at Hippie Hollow, Texas’s only clothing-optional public park, has recently evolved into a long weekend of circuit-party events in addition to the activities at the lake. There’s nudity. There’s alcohol and other drugs. There’s flirting and kissing and groping and all kinds of so-called “naughty” behavior. In short, it’s the kind of event that makes Pat Robertson’s skin crawl.

And I love it.

Let me backpedal for just a second before proceeding full speed ahead (with a column that’s bound to be quoted out of context anyway). There are aspects of Splash weekend that I find deeply troubling—for example, the growing use of crystal meth and other hard drugs—and I strongly oppose them. You should too. But these activities need not be—and for the majority of us, are not—what the weekend is all about.

What the weekend IS about varies from person to person, but the common thread is pleasure—and in particular, physical pleasure. Why read novels in the morning when you can swim naked in the refreshing waters of Hippie Hollow, or sunbathe on the rocky shoreline, or kiss a beautiful stranger on a crowded dance floor? (Or take him back to your room, where you can do more than just kiss?)

Some readers will be surprised to find me—“the Gay Moralist”—seeming to advocate hedonism. Isn’t that precisely the sort of self-indulgent posture that our critics love falsely to charge us with?

Yes, it is. Which is why I aim frequently to prove that gays are as responsible, altruistic, and moral as anyone else. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that, because we are not interested only in pleasure (as hedonists are), it follows that we aren’t interested in pleasure at all.

That fallacy—call it the “prude’s fallacy”—is by no means new. Hedonists and their opponents have been around at least since Plato. I for one think the hedonists are wrong: there are goods besides pleasure. But from the fact that pleasure isn’t the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn’t good at all, as the prude falsely believes.

To deny pleasure’s value is just silly. And to deny that sex is sometimes mostly about pleasure—and nonetheless valuable for that fact—is even sillier. Straight people know this, and are generally quite comfortable with it, the right-wing’s protestations notwithstanding.

It is easy to understand why gay-rights advocates feel defensive on this point. Responding to myths about our being obsessed with sex, we sometimes appear to disclaim any interest in it at all. Eager to show that we understand its deep, serious, transformational aspects, we downplay its raw, playful, recreational side. Fighting for marriage rights, we sweep “casual sex” under the carpet. And these defense mechanisms are a shame, for they obscure the simple joy of physical intimacy.

This is not to say that the pleasures of sex are purely physical (far from it) or that sex is the only or the most important kind of physical pleasure. Gourmet food, fine wine, a vigorous massage, lavender-scented candles, a beautiful sunset…pick your favorite(s). They all have a place in a well-rounded life.

Nor do I deny that pleasure can be taken too far, can get in the way of other goods, can be dangerous when out of balance. That’s true of most good things, although pleasure is especially tempting in this regard. Still, part of encouraging people to “play safe” is encouraging them to “play.” All of us need to do that sometimes.

And so when I see thousands of people descend upon Austin to celebrate themselves and their bodies and their affection (even lust) for one another, I haven’t the least inclination to wag my finger. Perhaps I would if I thought that there was nothing more to their lives than this—but that too would be a fallacy. It’s possible to read novels on vacation and still hit the philosophy books with full force later on.