In Defence of Simple Pleasures

Given our rather tumultuous and troubling political times, a proposed 40c per 100 grams sugar tax seems like a rather minor issue. Nevertheless, when the Grattan Institute put out a media release last week proposing the the response was loud and overwhelmingly negative.

From the Right, we got the rather predictable outcry of the ‘nanny state’ treating us like children who can’t make our own choices. From the Left, concerns were raised that the tax was regressive, and was adversely targeting lower income families.

Missing from the discussion was any real acknowledgement of why we are collectively eating ourselves into an early grave: it feels fantastic.

The pursuit of simple pleasures, whether from sex, drugs or Coca-Cola, tends to get a bad wrap in moral and political discourse but is fundamental to who we are as a species. John Stuart Mill famously made the distinction between the lower pleasures – the old ‘swine rolling in mud’ kind – and superior intellectual delights such as poetry and art. More modern criticism of ‘lower pleasures’ are that they are inherently self-destructive – either mentally, socially or physically – whether or not there is any evidence to back this up.

Among the baseless criticism of simple pleasures made in modern political discourse are assertions that pornography is ruining our sex lives, cannabis is making us listless and unproductive, and alcohol is turning us into violent brutes. Of course, many pleasurable activities carry risks, but rarely does the hype live up to the reality of potential harm.

It comes as no surprise that moralising in regard to simple pleasures is also one of the prominent underpinnings of the global (and very much failed) War on Drugs. Peter Hitchens, one of the few still willing to support drug prohibition, argues against drug intoxication on the basis that:

“If … we deliberately dull [our cognition], so that we do not see or hear or feel or even smell the wickedness which is going on around us and turn ourselves into passive, giggling beings, self-satisfied and set apart from the world around us, we are shirking our responsibility as human beings”

An absolutist ‘right/wrong’ picture underpins Hitchens’ viewpoint as well as demand reduction strategies globally . Most drug policy goals envision a world where drug taking not only doesn’t exist, but where humanity is without a curious or pleasure seeking nature.

Whether we are talking the odd cigarette or an evening with a skilled courtesan, the pursuit of simple pleasures remains a fundamental and enriching part of many lives. As such, we should be frank in our defence of pleasure seeking behaviors and move beyond Mill’s (and Hitchens) world of “higher” and “lower” pleasures.


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