For its October issue, Real Simple gathered five experts “including a moral historian and a romance novelist” to reveal the five vices they find occasionally beneficial. And while this short piece smacks of playful innocence, it also suggests that there are times when we should let our moral compasses slide and just indulge.
Perhaps what makes this bite-sized article a little alarming is the range of “vices” that make the list. Among those recommended are “gossip at the office,” “embrace sloth,” “eat meat,” “enjoy schadenfreude” (pleasure at the misfortune of others) and “be lustful.”
The two that bear the greatest initial shock factor in my opinion – “embrace sloth” and “be lustful” – are in reality quite tame. Speaking of “sloth,” author and editor Erica Jong rejects the American work ethic, which is to overwork. To remedy the habit, Jong recommends embracing sloth by taking a vacation. Likewise, in her “be lustful” blip, best-selling romance novelist Sabrina Jeffries remembers a time when speaking of anything sex-related was taboo, asking “why can’t we even talk about it?”
Then there’s the vice “eat meat,” which to some would seem appalling and to others not a vice at all. Graham Hill, founder of TreeHugger.com and LifeEdited.com, insists that “an all-or-nothing approach is impossible for some people,” adding, “I’m one of them.” Rather than cut out meat altogether, Hill has become what he calls a weekday vegetarian.
But where the playfulness seems to turn to masked egocentricity for me is with the two vices “gossip at the office” and “enjoy schadenfreude,” which encourage exactly what they say, with no subtle wink at anything else.
“I don’t talk about others more or less than the average person, but I have a friend at work with whom I jokingly have explicit trade-offs,” says Yale Psychology Professor Paul Bloom. “If I present him with a piece of information, he owes me an equally juicy nugget in the future. There’s an unseemly pleasure to gossip, but it can also be beneficial.”
Though he argues that information is power, his assertion still feels like a cop out. It’s like someone sidling up to you and assuring you that your desire to hurt someone else isn’t great, but hey, who can really control themselves when it comes to that anyway?
Ringing in the same key is University of Virginia Moral History Professor John Portmann’s “enjoy schadenfreude” section. Prefacing his paragraph by saying that “religious and secular scholars alike agree that envy is awful,” he then jumps into an argument that the pleasure you get from another’s misfortune “can feel great.” He cites karma-heavy examples like your mean boss being caught cheating on her taxes and facing a penalty. Feels great, right?
Since when has the argument “do it if it feels good” led to anything balanced or productive? I’m not arguing against pleasure or fulfillment, but it seems odd to take something so potentially harmful and try to make it feel lighthearted and harmless. To me, it’s the difference between saying, “Go ahead and indulge in that piece of chocolate after dinner” and “Go ahead and binge eat when no one’s looking.” One just doesn’t strike me as humorous.
What do you think? Is this article what it would appear – an invitation to loosen up – or is it a slightly convoluted free pass to engage in potentially harmful behavior?