Why Secular Hedonism Needs Social Justice


silhouette dancing for joyI’m going to go out on a limb here. If we want to create and maintain a secular society that values pleasure? If we want to create and maintain a society that recognizes that this life is the only one we have, so we should experience it and enjoy it as richly as we can? If we want to create and maintain a society that understands that our bodies are all we have, and that values those bodies? If we want to create and maintain a society that that recognizes pleasure, not as the only part of life worth working towards, but as one part of that life, and an important one?

We need to fight for social justice.

Hear me out. At the Godless Perverts Social Club last night, we were talking about the mysterious appeal of religious asceticism, and why anyone would think the deliberate denial of pleasure was an awesome way to live. And several people pointed out that asceticism often rises as a reaction, not necessarily to a hedonistic and pleasure-based society, but to a society in which sensual pleasure is primarily available to a few rich and powerful people at the top.

One person pointed out that in a society with both (a) liberated sexual values AND (b) a great deal of social stratification, with a few wealthy and powerful people at the top and a whole passel of poor and powerless people at the bottom, it creates a recipe for sexual exploitation — which, obviously, isn’t going to make people very happy with those supposedly liberated sexual values. Someone else pointed out that if a society’s rich and powerful leaders are openly hedonistic, it creates a situation where more ascetic leaders will become very appealing: the hedonistic leaders will be seen as entirely in it for themselves and their own pleasures, while the ascetic leaders will be seen as more authentic, high-minded and self-sacrificing, seeking leadership purely for the greater good. (This perception will often be dead wrong, of course — there are plenty of selfish but non-hedonistic goodies to be gained from power and authority, and of course many supposedly ascetic leaders have gotten plenty of hedonistic goodies on the sly — but it’s still a very seductive image, and people will be fooled by it again and again and again.)

And of course, in a culture where most people are sick, miserable, exhausted with over-work, with no time or energy to pursue pleasure, with no resources to pursue pleasure, just generally ground down by life, and with little or no hope for anything better, a religion that promises bliss in the next life as a reward for sacrifice in this one will have tremendous appeal.

So it occurred to me: If we want to create and maintain a secular society that values pleasure, we need to fight for social justice. We need to fight for a world in which sensual pleasure is not just a privilege available to the 1% at the top who can afford the pleasures and aren’t working themselves to exhaustion merely to survive. We need to fight for a world in which sensual pleasure — good food, comfortable homes, sex education, reproductive control, art and entertainment, pleasant and beautiful public spaces, time to enjoy our bodies, physical health care so our bodies can be enjoyed, mental health care so enjoyment is possible — is available to everyone.

society without god coverWe should do this anyway, just because it’s right — because bodies are something we all have, and basic enjoyment of those bodies should not be a special privilege accorded to the lucky few. But we should also do it because it will be a whole lot more sustainable. A culture that values pleasure — not as the only value of course, but as an important one and one worth pursuing — and that makes pleasure available to pretty much everyone… that’s a culture with a good chance of lasting. (I’m thinking, as I so often do, of Phil Zuckerman’s research in Society without God, showing that societies with high rates of atheism tend be ones with high rates of stability, egalitarianism, access to basic social services, and general happiness.)

A culture that values pleasure, but only lets a few people have it, is not going to stick around.

Related piece:
Atheism and Sensuality

Comments

  1. says

    Plus in a society in which we enjoy the pleasures of our (and each others’!) bodies more we are less likely to burn up material resources on sublimated surrogates which are less healthy for ourselves and the planet: excessive use of food, drink & other drugs, excessive consumption of consumer electronics, driving and flying for entertainment itself and to go to places of entertainment which themselves consume resources to build and run, etc

    So it can help save our planet.

    As part of the move towards social justice maybe we should be also looking at ideas such as the New Economics Foundation’s proposal for shorter working hours.

  2. aziraphale says

    I agree completely. But… I’m not sure “sensual pleasure” is the best phrase to use. There are other values and pleasures – friendship, intellectual pleasure in literature and the sciences, even the pleasure of reading this blog! They are all made more difficult to attain if one is at the bottom of the heap in a greatly unequal society, and are all worth fighting for, but I don’t think they are sensual.

  3. says

    with little or no hope for anything better, a religion that promises bliss in the next life as a reward for sacrifice in this one will have tremendous appeal.

    So it occurred to me: If we want to create and maintain a secular society that values pleasure, we need to fight for social justice.

    Actually, based on what you say, you could even leave off the “that values pleasure” part. Too bad there seem to be so many selfish atheists out there who don’t want any social justice beyond themselves. *sigh*

  4. Yellow Thursday says

    I’ve been thinking in a similar vein for a year or so. People can’t explore pleasure without first having their basic needs met: food, clothing, shelter, safety, access to health care, education, etc. As part of a philosophy of ethical, secular hedonism, we need to work towards a society where everyone has these things.

  5. says

    People can’t explore pleasure without first having their basic needs met: food, clothing, shelter, safety, access to health care, education, etc. As part of a philosophy of ethical, secular hedonism, we need to work towards a society where everyone has these things.

    I agree, however a lot of people think the things that provide pleasure are basically a zero sum game, so I suspect that many think they will have to give up their sources of pleasure (e.g. huge gas guzzling SUV’s, fur, high processed foods\meat, jewelry, setting the thermostat to 74F in winter\68F in summer, smoking, shoe collecting, etc.) to allow more people access to things that make their pleasure possible. This then begets the ‘I got mine, so fuck everyone else’ sort of attitude contributes to the sexism, racism, homophobic, xenophobic, religious fanaticism, etc. (all means to reduce one’s competition to resources) which is all too common.

    Those who have a zero sum perception filter on life really need to be made aware]\convinced that in the long run, not all of life is a zero sum game and that a ‘rising tide raises all boats’ works so they stop fighting those working towards a society where everyone has these things.

  6. says

    The reasoning here is good, but it is all speculative. It needs at least one empirical example of a secular, hedonistic society that did not care about social justice, which then caused the bottom-up rise and eventual domination of an ascetic but more egalitarian religion, which then went on to reverse and suppress all of the positive secular gains that were squandered by the hedonists.

    Your example: The Roman Empire.

  7. Pen says

    Well, yeah, it’s kind of self-evident. And it’s also basic justice.

    BTW, have you thought that an unequal society’s elites don’t just get to enjoy pleasure while the underclasses don’t. They explicitly exploit the underclasses to service their desires. Women as sexual gratification objects for men. Peasants, laborers and craftsmen dedicating their lives to supplying them with luxurious and copious foods and fine arts. Even defending their luxuries with their lives if necessary. And all in exchange for not much. Why?

    There’s a lot to consider here:

    1) the practicalities of a fair distribution of world production and labor, however it’s brought about and what our societies can afford under those circumstances.
    2) sexual freedom is economically effective everywhere, so why is it that sexual freedom is so intensely opposed in so many quarters? Traditional sexual expression promotes oppression and vulnerability (I’m talking about lack of reproductive autonomy, primarily)?
    3) people are the kinds of beings who are inevitably going to seek status just as much as they seek sex. A healthy society needs to pay just as much attention to how it makes status widely attainable while restricting pursuits of it which are at the expense of others.

  8. Steve Caldwell says

    I quoted the following passage from David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation in a blog post responding to David Silverman’s visit to CPAC:

    As modern developed countries learn to educate, provide health care, and ensure the general welfare of a diverse population, there is less reliance on religious community and charity. This partly explains why conservative religion so often abhors the modern social welfare state, where the public sector fills many roles once served by religion. It’s little wonder that secularity is most prominent in the social democracies of Europe, where the notion of the public sector serving many essential community needs is widely accepted.

    I finished the blog post with the following comment:

    For a small-government conservative or libertarian conservative atheist, this may seem frustrating. After all, conservative politics may have the unintended side-effect of keeping religion alive and limiting the growth of atheism.

  9. Greta Christina says

    I agree completely. But… I’m not sure “sensual pleasure” is the best phrase to use. There are other values and pleasures – friendship, intellectual pleasure in literature and the sciences, even the pleasure of reading this blog! They are all made more difficult to attain if one is at the bottom of the heap in a greatly unequal society, and are all worth fighting for, but I don’t think they are sensual.

    aziraphale @ #2: True — but it’s not what this piece is about. This piece really is specifically about sensual pleasure. The idea that sparked this piece was the question of why asceticism — i.e., the deliberate refusal of sensual pleasure — would be appealing. And sensual pleasures have their unique issues when it comes to social justice or the lack thereof. Other pleasures are also worth discussing, but sensual ones often get dismissed, and I think they’re worth singling out.

    Those who have a zero sum perception filter on life really need to be made aware]\convinced that in the long run, not all of life is a zero sum game and that a ‘rising tide raises all boats’ works so they stop fighting those working towards a society where everyone has these things.

    andrewscott @ #5: Agreed. That’s partly why I wrote this: to convince any possible “I got mine, so fuck everyone else” people who might be reading this blog (yeah, yeah, I know) that it’s in their own best selfish interest to promote social justice, so they won’t have to contend with an ascetic, body-hating culture.

    Well, yeah, it’s kind of self-evident. And it’s also basic justice.

    Pen @ #7: I wish it were self-evident. I agree that it’s basic justice, and the good justice-y reasons for it are pretty obvious — but the Machiavellian self-interested reasons (“if you want a hedonistic society that doesn’t stand in the way of your pleasures, it’s in your best interest to make those pleasures available to everyone”) are not so obvious. Hence, the piece.

  10. johnthedrunkard says

    The book I mentioned, which speaks a great deal about the bogus credibility given to ascetics in societies with visibly corrupt elites, is:

    The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957, revised and expanded in 1970). By Norman Cohn.

    The book has near cult status in history. Cohn reviews the recurrence of violent ‘end times’ cults in Medieval Europe, AND the way later historians ignored the religious significance of these movements, tending to call them ‘peasant revolts’ or ‘reform movements’ or even manifestations of iconic Marxist ‘class struggle.’

  11. says

    There is a book. “How Sarah became a nudist.” I suppose it was supposed to be sort of erotica, yet, there is little of that in it (its unbelievably tame, even compared to stuff in straight scifi/fantasy I have read). Its more.. straight fiction, and shows a kind of weird and disturbing sort of “solution”, premised in the book, which I thought reflects perfectly the sort of inequity inherent in the idea that you **must** give up something, if you want something else, because, somehow you can’t have both.

    The central premise is that, in some future point in time, different personal choices become “registered life styles”. If you like BSDM, you have to “register” as one. A nudist, again, has to register as one. The idea being to offer legal protections to those who choose that life style, which, horrifyingly, also includes protections for evangelicals, or other groups, with diametrically apposed view points. In one point in the book Sarah ends up joining a nudist protest, against a bunch of evangelicals, who where protesting the nudists.

    Now, such a law might be OK, if not for two problems – 1) it explicitly tries to present the idea that no one is “casually” drawn to certain things, like a normal person will never be bi, or try BSDM, or otherwise cross one of the imaginary lines created by these “registered life styles”, and 2) being government, some clown decided to attach tax incentives, and other such things to it.

    Inevitably, this led to people that where “not”, as far as the government was concerned, “true nudist”, or “true BSDM”, or “true” what ever else “cheating” the tax system, by registering as something that, according to the government, they couldn’t possibly be (think… weekend nudist, or the like, where, during the week they stayed clothed, and only took it off, in public, or otherwise, on the weekends. Obviously, someone trying to “cheat” the system, right?) And, just as inevitably, the government’s solution became, “We need to impose clear rules on these people, so that those who are not serious about it won’t falsely register.” Thus leading to the rule, in the story, that, once you are registered as a nudist, you could do just about anything you like in public, even sex, **but** the only clothing (which means even underwear, bathing suits, etc.) you where allowed, under any circumstance, to own, or wear, are shoes, which covered less then 3/4 of your foot. I can only imagine, since the book never wanders into any of those other categories, other than to mention insane things like the evangelicals being, apparently “protected from evolution”, which I presume means its illegal for them to own a book on it, or someone else to sell them one, or something like that, what horrifying denial of rights any of the “other” lifestyles imposed on people (perhaps they would even bring back, for certain lifestyle, law making it illegal for anything but “missionary position” for certain lifestyles?).

    I do admit, there have been some times, like with some of the sanctimonious asses on the far right, where I would love to fake registrations for the whole lot of them as “nudists” under such a law, if for not other reason to then laugh my ass off as the government showed up to strip their closets bare…. but, as someone that considers the whole point of allowing “anything” in public that is currently taboo, even if its limited (in the case of outright sex) to specific venues, having someone try to “protect” that “lifestyle” by taking a hatchet to other rights, is a horrifying idea. But, its also what has been, in one manner or another, done, over and over again, from the dawn of time, to “protect” the rights of the privileged, who then claim that all the penalties being applied to everyone one else, which deny them the same privileges, are also “protecting” those that are not allowed them. And, that makes the idea that some alternative future, in which the “lifestyle protection agency” exists, and its told to impose such insane rules on people, all too disturbingly possible.

    The only thing making it unlikely is that, so far, the rule has been, “The constitution protects rights, not takes them away, unless there is no other means to solve a problem, and law must apply to all people equally.” But.. that is a legal interpretation, which obviously doesn’t count, at all, in certain things, like the recent idiocy with Hobby Lobby, or other cases where special categories of people are deemed, “in need of protections that demand someone else be denied rights, else we offend their religion.”, which is, imho, just a “lifestyle”, regardless of the nonsense definitions used to grant it extra privileges.

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  1. […] Why Secular Hedonism Needs Social Justice–”And several people pointed out that asceticism often rises as a reaction, not necessarily to a hedonistic and pleasure-based society, but to a society in which sensual pleasure is primarily available to a few rich and powerful people at the top.” […]

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