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Unpacking Our Guilty Pleasures

By Kenneth Boyd
7 Feb 2020

February has already proven to be a month of guilty pleasures for me: not only is it the month of the Super Bowl, but a new Fast and Furious movie – inexplicably titled “F9: The Fast Saga” – has been announced. Now, I’d like to be the kind of person who took pleasure exclusively in high brow entertainment and fine art, but I’m just not. And two of the things that I take the most guilt in enjoying are the NFL and stupid action movies.

But what makes a pleasure a guilty pleasure? And how bad should I feel about enjoying them?

Call something a guilty pleasure if it’s something that brings you happiness in one way or another, but that you feel bad about enjoying. These kinds of pleasures can come in many different forms: people will often say that listening to a musical artist who they find embarrassing, or that reading a trashy novel, or watching a cheesy movie is their guilty pleasure. The guilt here seems to be one pertaining to aesthetic value: we know that there are really great musical artists that we “should” be listening to, classic novels that we haven’t gotten around to reading yet, and films with artistic merit made by real auteurs, but we choose to take pleasure in other things, instead. The guilt involved, then, seems to be one in which we feel bad about not bettering ourselves, aesthetically-speaking, or at least not living up to the standards of taste that we take those around us to have.

If we think about these kinds of guilty pleasures, then although we may indeed feel bad about enjoying them, it really doesn’t seem like we should beat ourselves up about it. If the only thing that you feel bad about is that you’re not enjoying what someone says you ought to be enjoying, and you’re really not causing anyone any harm, then you’re likely morally in the clear. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to broaden your artistic horizons now and then – it’s probably a good thing to not subsist solely on an artistic diet of increasingly fantastical car-chase movies – and there are no doubt reasons in the vicinity that will support diversifying your interests – for example, that the indie film director probably needs your money more than Disney. That being said, there are other kinds of guilty pleasure that we should maybe feel more concerned about.

Consider my other guilty pleasure, watching the NFL. What is the source of my guilt? It is, in part, a guilt that comes along with knowing that I could be spending my time better engaging with something that was more enriching, or just that I could be doing something productive instead of sitting on the couch all afternoon. At the same time, the nature of my guilt is a little more substantial, as I am well aware of all the various moral issues surrounding the NFL, and that I am, at least in some small way, contributing to those problems in consuming the product the NFL provides. Unlike how watching a fictional character getting blown up in an over-the-top action sequence brings me pleasure, watching a real-life human being get hit in the head only to have his obvious concussion symptoms ignored is far more problematic. While I likely to do not have any moral reason to give up on my aesthetic guilty pleasures, there is perhaps more of a reason to give up on, or at least address, my pleasures that cause legitimate moral guilt.

There is a worry, however, in lumping together these kinds of aesthetic and moral guilty pleasures under the umbrella of “guilty pleasures” generally. For instance, guilty pleasures are not only the kinds of things we tend to feel bad about, but are also the kind that we tend to give ourselves leniency towards: I might feel a bit bad about reading a trashy novel when I know I could be reading Dostoyevsky, but I’m probably going to forgive myself pretty quickly, and as a result I probably won’t feel that much pressure to change my behavior. But there is also a temptation to lump in things that we know are bad into the category of guilty pleasures, and thus give ourselves a pass on them. For instance, some might resist the moral reasons towards eating less meat with the reason that eating meat constitutes a guilty pleasure in the same way that the music of Taylor Swift might constitute a guilty pleasure (hypothetically, of course). But this would be a mistake: guilt caused by recognizable moral reasons is not the kind of guilt that we can ignore in the way that we can generally ignore aesthetic guilt.

This is not to say that you’re not allowed to have any fun, or that it is definitively your moral imperative to never watch another NFL game again (although one might make a case for this). Rather, it is to say that not all guilty pleasures are the same, and so examining the root cause of why one feels guilty about a guilty pleasure is worth doing.

Ken Boyd holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com
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