“Harmless pleasures” is a conventional phrase for the description of activities that are satisfying without imposing any harm on anyone. Hobbies such as stamp collecting or raising roses or following the fortunes of a baseball team are considered harmless pleasures, that taken as a term of praise given how many awful things happen in the world. Harmless pleasures are to be indulged because human action could also be malicious and destructive. Its companion term is “guilty pleasures” which are also for the most part minor but do carry at least some threat of doing some damage, probably in the long run, to the person indulging in them. Examples of these would be eating chocolates, which make you fat and raise your cholesterol levels but taste so good; enjoying pornography, which appeals to the male desire to look at naked female bodies but may weaken one’s appreciation for the personhood behind the body; or following gossip columns so as to be in the know about celebrities but also encourage a disrespect for the privacy of a person. Guilty pleasures won’t do much damage to your soul or your body but they address an indulgent side of yourself and so are, in some way, sinful. Smoking, however, has been moved in the past fifty years from being a guilty pleasure to being an out and out evil in that the practice is very highly correlated with the development of lung cancer and other diseases. The tricky issue are those cases where it is not at all clear whether a pleasure is harmless or guilty or downright bad. Clarifying the status of some test cases will allow elaborating what are the criteria by which a harmless or guilty pleasure turns into something else, something downright unacceptable. What are the additional circumstances which turn a harmless or guilty pleasure into something more momentous: a tragedy or a comedy or a history or a romance, to use Shakespeare’s categories?
Consider politics, which is sometimes considered to be a harmless pleasure in that it is an exercise in civic virtue that leaves everyone who participates satisfied, whether their candidate wins or loses. The stereotypical example provided at get out the vote rallies of an earlier time was of a farm couple who drive many miles to their voting places and then one spouse votes Democratic and the other votes Republican, each ballot nullifying the other, but both spouses pleased that they have had their say in the electoral process. This is a minor satisfaction but an important one in that a democracy depends on its citizens feeling they are part of the electoral process, their chosen representatives just that, chosen by them. The outcome doesn’t much matter because democracy can withstand both weak and able people being elevated to office; it will outlast them, but it will not outlast citizens who think they make no difference in who the leaders of the country are.
But think what happens if the citizenry thinks that only their candidate could do good for the country, act responsibly for the country, or vote their anger rather than their beliefs or their interests. Then they would be the one’s acting irresponsibly either because they were blinded about what was going on or thought they knew enough, knowing nothing, to foist someone without merit on the country. That is why, now, people may not be able to talk politics over the dinner table with their relatives. The political cleavages are just too deep to sustain the idea that the farm couple was doing the right thing. One is wrong and the other is right. So it makes sense to think that voting or other forms of civic participation, like serving as a clerk at the voting place, or hosting a tea at your home for your chosen candidate in the primary, is a harmless pleasure. It is no longer so if the activity is leavened by mean-spiritedness or willful ignorance.
Another harmless pleasure that can go astray because of mean-spiritedness is sex. The ideal of sex as a harmless pleasure was well imagined by Erica Jong some decades ago as the image she called “the zipless fuck”, by which she meant sex without impediments: there were no circumstances which barred sex from being an experience for itself alone, which would no longer be the case if you had to take into account whether people you didn’t want to know about it it learned about it, or if pregnancy or emotional demands came into play. And that was the utopia for which the sexual revolution of the Seventies was reaching. It wasn’t just that there would no longer be a double standard whereby men and women were judged differently for engaging in casual sex; it was that everyone could be concerned about their sexual satisfaction for that purpose alone and so apart from the question of love or marriage, those two items to be arrived at by some other process than the anticipation of the exchange of sexual favors. Do what you want and then decide to love or marry someone or someone else for other reasons such as compatibility of worldviews or ambitions or the desire to raise a family together. Sex in itself was a harmless pleasure, like gardening or singing in a chorus.
But it did not work out that way. It turned out that it is very difficult to keep the emotional component that makes people vulnerable to one another and dependant upon one another suppressed when people are physically intimate with one another, and we have learned that from the multiple accusations made in the name of sexual harassment against male undergraduates by female undergraduates who felt used rather than unharmed when a sexual encounter was unsatisfying or in some other way seemed violative of the young woman’s personhood. Just as when people who learned that little boys were not just socialized into being interested in toys having to do with violence because they would turn twigs into guns for a game of cops and robbers, so too Feminists came to decide that, like as not, a high percentage of men were just acting like brutes rather than as consenting partners in a harmless pastime, and so something had to be done to stop them from being that way. There is always an excuse that can be found--drunkenness, intimidation, female inexperience--that allows the determination to be made that the sex was not consensual. We are by no means out on the other side of how to deal with that dilemma, but it can be said that, again, the issue has to do with the introduction of meanness into the equation, this time on the part of the male in the sexual encounter.
Another feature of a harmless pleasure, that already showed up in the case of politics, is that it seems to be neutral, either side of a conflict as good as another, as is the case when one vies for one baseball team rather than another. There is another sense of neutral, which means everyone can agree that it is an acceptable thing to pursue the pastime, which was also the consensus, for a while, among those in favor of the sexual revolution. That sense of neutral applies to a number of occupations that are thought to by and large engage in good things beyond their primary goals. For example, news coverage may be contentious, and some of it, such as the coverage of sexual scandals in high places, may be thought both grotesque and by no means a public service, however much it is generally agreed that it is important for people to have information available to them about politics and other matters. Some of those matters are non-controversial, such as news reports about the dangers of overusing antibiotics. So we get a sense of pleasure that we have been presented with such information even if it is rather well established and obvious. It is a harmless pleasure to get satisfaction from being well informed about the circumstances or one or more issues of social life. The awareness of the possibility of congestion fees on automobile traffic, of runaway fires in California, of rat or mold infested public housing, of a hit and run in Brooklyn, of a bodega in the Bronx being held up--in a word, all the topics on the local news--give a feeling of satisfaction that one is aware of what is going on in the world even if only rarely does national politics with its complicated and confounding issues get into local news coverage. Sometimes, of course, that secondary function of news takes there to be a consensus when there is none, so even as there are reports that cannot be doubted that the overuse of antibiotics can be bad, there are reports on climate change as if the science of the matter has been settled, every viewer encouraged to take it as so simply because it is reported that way. So the harmless pleasure of contemplating what is known and established remains when something other than that is presented that way.
Perhaps the most fascinating case of whether a pleasure is a harmless one or not is the case of religion. In modern America, religion is thought of that way. It consists of proper moral feeling enshrouded with piety and so everyone can, whatever their dogmas, have a religious view of the world that gives them comfort in the universe as a whole and with their own inwardness. How you engage in religious rituals is not an essential issue, and so constitutes a kind of hobby. Religion does not require you to do anything that you would not otherwise do and that includes the support of political candidates who may or may not agree with your official religious or moral point of view. Catholic politicians can say they accept the Church’s teachings on abortion and then also say that their positions as public officials requires them to administer the law even if it is in violation of those teachings. Religion is therefore neutral and part of a consensus in that it does not demand any action other than would be suggested otherwise and religion is only religion when it is not mean-spirited, which means that it does not demand harsh or cruel judgments, though people can disagree about what moral law requires.
So religion, as a harmless pleasure, consists of the consideration of lofty moral feelings, of being charitable towards mankind, of considering one’s place in the universe, as well as attending to the rites of one’s church or synagogue or mosque, at least for the length of the weekly service and, hopefully carrying the aura of that experience into one’s everyday life, being better for it in that one is a little bit more humble, circumspect, and enlightened because of it. That is the consensus which everyone, even atheists, can share. We are all striving, each in our own way, to be better people and so can be awestruck by the extent to which people in other religious, or even secular, communities strive to do the same thing.
But, on the other hand, religion can be experienced as something other than as a harmless pleasure of the sorts associated with church picnics or a sense of oneself as a righteous and socially acceptable person, however different may be the rituals and words for expressing that. Religion becomes operative and divisive when it takes on the qualities that make other harmless pleasures unacceptable: mean-spiritedness, as that is represented by Jesus saying He had come to separate brother from sister, and non-consensus based, in that there is a particular doctrine which has to get its way and so does lead to doing what would not ordinarily be done. Americans have lost touch with that sense of religion except when it comes to cults, like that of Jim Jones or David Koresh, who were denied by politicians commenting at the time of the debacles that surrounded those two people, as practicing anything that could at all be described as a religion. Even Evangelicals are all for consensus, these days, speaking of the hard work of the Pope and how Israel is deserving of their support, even though their ideology remains divisive not so much in that they support Trump but that they can’t get out of their heads that they are following a literal reading of the Bible even when they are not, the Gospels having had nothing to say about either abortion or homosexuality.
The life of harmless pleasures provides content for the idea of a perfected world. Voltaire will cultivate his garden; Marx will be a literary critic in the afternoon. According to John Milton, Eve serves lunch to the Archangel Michael, which is what any English wife does to entertain her guests. But Hemingway will take risks as a bullfighter and so that is not a life of harmless pleasure but of adventure and danger and so a very different sort of ideal, as is the idea that in a perfected secular world, we will find a way to fly to the stars. So the question of harmless pleasure resolves itself into whether perfection rests in being at peace or else forever striving, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, to find new challenges which do something more than pass the time with contentment.