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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The moral imperative of having fun

Daniel Bell on the sovereignty of fun

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The moral imperative of having fun

“Van Wyck Brooks once remarked about morality in Catholic countries that as long as heavenly virtues are upheld, mundane behavior may change as it will. In America, the old Protestant heavenly virtues are largely gone, and the mundane rewards have begun to run riot. The basic American value pattern emphasized the virtue of achievement, defined as doing and making, and a man displayed his character in the quality of his work. By the 1950s, the pattern of achievement remained, but it had been redefined to emphasize status and taste. The culture was no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy. Despite some continuing use of the language of the Protestant ethic, the fact was that by the 1950s American culture had become primarily hedonistic, concerned with play, fun, display, and pleasure — and, typical of things in America, in a compulsive way.

“The world of hedonism is the world of fashion, photography, advertising, television, travel. It is a world of make-believe in which one lives for expectations, for what will come rather than what is. And it must come without effort. . . .

“Nothing epitomized the hedonism of the United States better than the State of California. A cover story in Time, called ‘California: A State of Excitement,’ opened:

“‘California is virtually a nation unto itself, but it holds a strange hope, a sense of excitement — and some terror — for Americans. As most of them see it, the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of pleasure is what California is all about. The citizens of lotusland seem forever to be lolling around swimming pools, sautéing in the sun, packing across the Sierra, frolicking nude on the beaches, getting taller every year, plucking money off the trees, romping around topless, tramping through the redwoods and — when they stop to catch their breath — preening themselves on-camera before the rest of an envious world. “I have seen the future,” says the newly returned visitor from California, “and it plays.”’

“Fun morality, in consequence, displaces ‘goodness morality,’ which stressed interference with impulses. Not having fun is an occasion for self-examination: ‘What is wrong with me?’ As Dr. Wolfenstein observes: ‘Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one’s self-esteem.’ [The quote is from Martha Wolfenstein, “The Emergence of Fun Morality," in Mass Leisure, ed. Eric Larabee and Rolf Meyerson (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), p. 86.]

“Fun morality centers, in most instances, on sex. And here the seduction of the consumer has become almost total. . . .

“What this abandonment of Puritanism and the Protestant ethic does, of course, is to leave capitalism with no moral or transcendental ethic. It also emphasizes not only the disjunction between the norms of the culture and the norms of the social structure, but also an extraordinary contradiction within the social structure itself. On the one hand, the business corporation wants an individual to work hard, pursue a career, accept delayed gratification — to be, in the crude sense, an organization man. And yet, in its products and its advertisements, the corporation promises pleasure, instant joy, relaxing and letting go. One is to be ‘straight’ by day and a ‘swinger’ by night. This is self-fulfillment and self-realization!”

— from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976)

Read more from Bell’s book here.