The Virtue of Vices?

From Dan Greenberg at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog “Brainstorm: Lives of the Mind” comes a recent essay on what science ought to be discovering:

“We can all think of blockbuster discoveries that we’d like to see coming from science. Cures for terrible diseases would rank very high on the list. So would abundant supplies of cheap, reliable, and clean energy. . .

“. . . Meanwhile, as work proceeds on these prime problems, we might realistically hope for swifter solutions to far-smaller problems. Though of lesser importance and difficulty, their solution would make life a bit nicer, easier, convenient, and congenial.”

Dan’s suggestions include audible (and comprehensible!) public address systems for airports and other public places. A good one for those who must suffer air travel and would like to know where they’ll end up. Also in the realm of transportation, Dan hopes someone will build a car that’s not impossible to get into, some new method of entry more ergonomically friendly to an aging population of drivers.

He concludes with a call for a scientifically engineered end to the downsides of our favorite vices, smoking, boozing and overeating:

“Now for a troublesome research goal: Taking the harm out of sinful activities, such as cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. The quest for a ‘safe’ cigarette has so far proven futile, as have enormous efforts to deter a still-substantial number of smokers from continuing with the nasty habit. Since prohibition is politically and culturally unattainable, the solution is clear: Create a cigarette that is harmless and satisfying — a formidable objective that would require a mini-Manhattan Project. The costs, however, could be assigned to the cigarette industry, which would reap a fortune from success. While they’re at it, maybe they can clean up pipe tobacco, too. I miss my pipe.

“As for alcohol, that’s another tough problem, but, as the saying goes, if we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we — you finish it. The need is to retain the pleasure of imbibing — including the buzz — without the deleterious effects on health and morning-after clarity. Here, too, the industry that will benefit from success can foot the bill, in happy expectation of success producing a bonanza.

“Finally on my list, there’s the problem of weight control in a society glutted with fattening food, available at relatively low prices. Marketed with great ingenuity, this abundance is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic that is now a major public-health concern. The food industry has in the past tinkered with little success with “non-nutritive” food. What’s needed is a major effort to create the taste, feel, and satisfaction of popular foods, minus calories.”

I’m not sure how serious Greenberg is. But I have some problems with this premise, vaguely in orbit of C.S. Lewis’s concept of pain as a necessary regulator of human action.

Am I nuts? What could be wrong with a safe beer buzz or tasty food that doesn’t make you fat?

It just doesn’t sound right to me. What then would humanity have with which to correct itself—to remind itself of its own flaws—if not the occasional hangover, lung cancer or broken marriage?

I don’t mean to posit Querencia as a defender of the good old-fashioned vices (although that doesn’t sound too bad as I write it); I want even less so to seem in support of human suffering.

But, for example, I was never one to shine to the next generation Star Trek vision of “synthohol,” the drink of choice for starship captains who might need to be of clear mind at a moment’s notice. Future booze just must not be that good, I figure.

All in all, I prefer my captains flawed. I like them haunted by personal demons and half-insane with blasphemous quests for vengeance. Don’t you?

What are we, any of us, without our demons? What would Hemingway say of a life without consequences, without risk, without regrets? I know what Captain James T. Kirk said (or perhaps will say, some centuries hence) to the prospect of such a life: “I need my pain!”

What say you?

3 thoughts on “The Virtue of Vices?”

  1. What’s life without a little pain?

    Sure it’s unpleasant but that’s life.

    (this from somebody who’s been ordered to avoid alcohol by her doctor for the duration of the medication…grrrrr…..)

  2. I am with Heidi, and you.

    I like the idea of us as defenders of the traditional INCLUDING vices(;-))

    We cannot erase sadness, death, tragedy, and pain any way. It would be what the late Bill Buckley called “immanentizing the Eschaton”– Google it– making Heaven on earth. Neither religion nor evolution suggest that anything but tyranny lies that way.

  3. Put me down as being skeptical of such projects’ moral advisability AND about their actual benefits to human health. A safe cigarette, huh? Why does that sound like something more likely to cause unintended and unforeseen health consequences than to improve anyone’s life?

    Your overall point was that pain is good for us. It is. Only things that are alive can feel pain. For Aristotle, it’s a necessary part of all human virtues: the central question being, how best to deal with various pleasures and pains? Trying to engineer around this elemental fact of a soul’s existence (right down to amoebae!) is seeking to achieve a definitional impossibility. Best to start the work of virtue right off, rather than trying to get around its difficulty. Thus, all things in moderation, including moderation.


Leave a Comment