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The Haunting Fear that Someone, Somewhere May Be Happy

December 1st, 2006 · 2 Comments

Andrew Sullivan quotes a reader making the familiar point that drug prohibition often seems to be motivated less by a concern for the harms of addiction than by sheer puritanical terror of pleasure. It occurred to me that as often as we invoke that impulse, I’d never thought much about its origins. But it makes a lot of sense now that I do. Societies run on incentives: Penalties and disapprobation for bad behavior, praise and rewards for hard work, good deeds, and the like. Anything that’s a source of private pleasure threatens to loosen those constraints. And if you’re inclined to think the social order is highly fragile, a precariously thin chain binding our bestial natures, then you’ll be disposed to see drugs more or less the same way 15th century bishops saw the Gutenberg Bible. The puritanical impulse, seen this way, need not be anti-pleasure as such; it just consists of the demand that society be the only dealer.

Tags: Sociology



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James Kabala // Dec 6, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    I don’t thin any fifteenth century Bishops objected to the Gutenberg Bible, which was, after all, just the traditional Latin Vulgate in printed rather than manuscript form. Bishops in England (but generally not on the Continent) objected to vernacular translations; many early in the 16th century objected to Erasmus’s new Latin translation that seemed to cast doubt on the Vulgate’s faithfulness to the original languages in some cases; but no one that I know of objected to having the Vulgate in printed form. We can see now that the printed press would help spread Protestantism, but no one envisioned this sixty years before there was Protestantism.

  • 2 James Kabala // Dec 6, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    “I don’t think” is how I meant to start off, of course. Sorry for the missing k. And in the last sentence I wrote “printed press” for printing press. I should have proofread better.