May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
April 12, 2021
[God]’s a hedonist at heart. . . . He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working.—C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Where there is no extravagance, there is no love—Oscar Wilde, “Mr. Pater’s Last Volume”
In college, I was a member of a debate team that competed in regional and national Ethics Bowl tournaments. I almost never dated as an undergraduate, but I loved that team, and the people on it, with an intensity rivaling romance.
We were an object of curiosity and a bit of mystery within the circles of our tiny school. To our infinite amusement, we were once mistaken for members of the Ethnic Bowl—an ironic misnomer, as most of our team was very white. “So what do you do on Ethics Bowl?” friends would ask, impressed by our academic gravitas, not realizing that what actually kept me coming was a much less cerebral motivation: I felt a sense of belonging I had never experienced before. It glowed through me like alcohol. One night a week I traded sly, erudite jokes about Immanuel Kant and moral theory with the philosophy majors I idolized. Ethics Bowl was the hit of warm-and-fuzzy oxytocin that animated my college years. I cannot imagine who I would have become without it.
“So what do you do on Ethics Bowl?”
We gather snugly in the ivory tower.
We have crises.
At the start of each season, we tackled a new stack of ethical dilemmas that ranged from the banal to the bizarre. In one meeting, we might discuss Belgium’s child Euthanasia Act and then shift to the ethics of artificially intelligent companions or meat consumption. The cases were undoubtedly interesting, but what I really loved was the chance to study them alongside some of the funniest, brightest people I’d ever met.
Sooner or later, though, each of us reached a case that buried itself in our psyches, rummaging through the drawers of our beliefs and making a mess of our preconceptions until we were entirely unmoored. Although everyone pitched in for Jess’s case on medically assisted suicide for children, the depth of his research and the persistent, existential quality of his vacillation was as good as a stamp of ownership. My case, too, became mine in a way that wasn’t Joe’s or Mark’s or Stephen’s, though they researched and discussed it alongside me.
I chose the Batkid case, as we called it, because it confounded me. I’d learned to relish the process of moving from indecision to clarity; with enough research I had always been able to snap all the pieces into place—order achieved, convictions gathered. I thought I was in the business of paradox-cracking. And even at first glance, this case was a taunting, haunting paradox, an elegant logic that seemed to prove that an obviously good action was, in fact, obviously bad.
The case begins innocuously. In November 2013, five-year-old Miles Scott had just completed treatment for leukemia and was ready to realize a dream: the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned San Francisco into Gotham City and Miles into Batkid. At the cost of $105,000 (about ten times the foundation’s average cost of granting a wish), thousands looked on as Miles rode in a Batmobile, fought crime in a tiny superhero outfit, and was awarded a key to the city by San Francisco’s mayor.1 It seems reasonable to assume that the day’s display of human goodness—and the subsequent Netflix documentary Batkid Begins—caused a national spike in the purchase of Kleenex.
Then, there’s the paradox. In December 2013, the Washington Post ran a provocative piece by philosopher Peter Singer, who suggested that the philanthropy conducted by Make-A-Wish is at best misguided, if not downright unethical. After all, the thousands of dollars that funded Miles’s Batkid Day could have provided clean drinking water, food, surgeries, and medicine to children in developing countries—the money could, quite literally, have saved lives. “The unknown and unknowable children who will be infected with malaria without bed nets just don’t grab our emotions like the kid with leukemia we can watch on TV. That is a flaw in our emotional make-up,” Singer contends. What, then, is the opportunity cost of our giving when we give to nonessential, feel-good causes? Until we feed every hungry family and cure malaria and stop the Islamic State group and save all refugees—until we pull everyone on earth from the morass of basic need—Singer says the cost is always, always death.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it,” he asks, “that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?”2
If you are a philosopher, Peter Singer is the closest your field gets to a Kardashian. For decades, he’s been splashed all over the news for the extremes to which he carries utilitarianism. In 1999, for example, the Guardian ran a feature naming him “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.”3 Singer’s still going strong today, as he tirelessly works the crowds through TED talks, Instagram, and an occasionally cheeky Twitter account.
Utilitarians like Singer aim to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This devotion to pleasure may sound self-indulgent, but since utilitarianism’s scope is broad—it aims at the greatest good for the greatest number—there is almost always a more pressing need than our own pleasure. So why stop at money? Throwing parties, making love, bearing children, and creating art all become suspect, as there is always a worthier cause for our time, energy, and emotions. Committed utilitarians take on the constitution of a calculator rather than a human person, running an endless series of dispassionate calculations in the background of every choice.
Most ethical systems have a category for actions that are not required but are unquestionably good, like donating a kidney or becoming a foster parent. But in utilitarianism, there is no such thing as a moral threshold that one must meet; acting rightly is more like trying to get the highest possible score on an arcade game. The most ethical decision is limited only by our imaginations or our resources; it is only when we exhaust these infinite supplies that we are truly good.
Even before reading Singer’s response to Batkid, I wasn’t a person of extravagance. I took inordinate pride in being thin and compact; I researched or studied instead of going out on the weekends; I lived on the handful of wages I earned at my job on campus, hoarding the rest to pay off student loans. My closet was always the sparsest one in the dorm, filled with ten different colors of the same style of inexpensive V-neck. My hardest self-denial was maxing out on class credits every semester to finagle an early graduation, since I wanted to stay in college forever. But after Batkid, I began to see even my academic luxuries—literature classes, poetry writing, a philosophy minor—as acts of gluttony, while others starved for want of bread.
On the occasions that we speak of a part of something to refer to the whole—for example, if someone were to say, “Give me a hand, would you?”—we are utilizing synecdoche, a rhetorical device that comes from a Greek word meaning “simultaneous understanding.” Synecdoche is a pretentious vocabulary word, useful only when you attend nerdy parties or are about to take the SAT, and so I am hesitant to employ it here. But it is the clearest and most efficient way to explain what this well-intentioned celebration in San Francisco came to signify for me. Batkid was my personal synecdoche, a part always pointing back to my whole—a sign, a microcosm, a delicate miniature of my vast and ancient guilt over excess.
Most of my teammates were cut from less ascetic cloth, and it was difficult for them to understand how the Batkid case was dragging me under Singerian waters. One of my friends on the team offered to talk through the case with me, convinced as he was of the fundamental rightness of celebrating a leukemia survivor and immune as he was to Singer’s skeletal principles. But after hours of conversation, I was still torn between the same arguments and counterarguments, treading circles of mental rhetoric. My friend, half-frustrated and half-perplexed by my obstinacy, watched me go.
I didn’t yet have the words to tell him about the self-denial I’d always practiced. Years later, I found my instinct for a compact life articulated in Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government”: “You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.”4 Batkid was my part, but this—this had always been my whole.
It turns out that Thoreau isn’t the nineteenth century’s only ascetic. I’ve encountered a reflection of my own renunciation in the poetry of Christina Rossetti, the novels of George Eliot, and the story of Søren Kierkegaard breaking his engagement with the woman he loved. I met another kindred spirit in the autobiography of John Stuart Mill.
In 1789, Jeremy Bentham published the treatise that firmly established him as the father of classical utilitarianism. In that work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham assigned units to degrees of pleasure so that the good could be mathematically quantified. Seventeen years later, Mill was born to a utilitarian father, who was determined to educate his son to the very cognitive limits of a young and impressionable mind. Boy meets utilitarianism: as Avril Lavigne puts it, “Can I make it any more obvious?”5
“I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world,” Mill writes of his younger self in his autobiography. “My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.”6 But this utilitarian devotion to reforming the world proved costly. When Mill realized, in his early twenties, that the idea of a perfect world—the goal of his life—left him cold instead of ecstatic, depression set in, and for a long time his despair was irremediable.
Mill’s problem was that he’d lost the ability to feel emotion. He believed that utilitarianism’s insistence on analysis instead of sentiment had rendered him permanently apathetic: “I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else.”7
Mill remained a utilitarian, but only with the help of William Wordsworth, the poet whose work he credits with helping him feel again. Mill’s new utilitarianism amended the rigid system that Bentham had created by prioritizing intellectual pleasure, creating a place for emotional health, and valuing beauty. In his treatise On Liberty, Mill warns against conflating utilitarianism with self-deprivation. For me, though—and, I think, for Singer—the two have become intertwined so tightly that the practice of the first necessarily means the exercise of the latter. To be a good utilitarian is to be an ascetic, redistributing your marginal utility to the neediest so that it maximizes the global total of pleasure. At its core, this is an economic principle: I must decrease so that others may increase.
The same friend who tried to convince me that Peter Singer was wrong fell in love with me. He was quick-witted and quick to put others at ease, generous with time and energy and conversation, full of delight in the world and its people. We’d been spending a lot of time together—he was earnest and fun and good to talk with, and my days felt richer when he was around. I didn’t want to see him leave at graduation; I wanted him to stick around forever.
A few weeks after he’d told me that he had feelings for me, I remember pacing across campus and weeping. I was begging God aloud to take away that firm wall inside me, the hard kernel of withholding that had been blooming inside me ever since I could speak. I’d never dated anyone before, and now it seemed that my habits had solidified into an inflexible way of being. When I came across a line from Mill’s autobiography the next fall—“And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in [my] mind . . . fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire”—I felt it as my own cry.8
Romance seemed both a superfluous luxury and an unattainable desire, and I felt pushed, almost against my will or perhaps by it, to choose solitude instead of this wonderful human who wanted to be with me.
You should do without, something in me said.
And so I did.
While I was immersed in feverish research about Singer’s stance on charity, one of my philosopher friends emailed me the paper “Jesus and Affluence” by Thomas Crisp, a professor at Biola University. In the paper, Crisp argues that Jesus’s teachings align with the demands of utilitarianism—a claim Singer makes as well, in his book The Life You Can Save. I’d already had my suspicions, of course, with advice like “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31 NIV), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19), and “Sell all that you have . . . and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).
In “Jesus and Affluence,” Crisp reconciles biblical commands to give selflessly with occasional celebration, all without any apparent angst. He sums up the situation of the world’s pain in an apt analogy: “You have been pulling [drowning] children from ponds for ten hours now and are exhausted. As you look further down the road, there is pond after pond after pond, as far as the eye can see, millions of them, each one containing a child in need of help. There are years and years of work before you.” In light of this infinite burden, Crisp contends that it is reasonable—maybe even essential—to cultivate the fortifying practice of joy. As he puts it, “We could remove all celebration from our common lives and give the resources freed up thereby to the vulnerable, but it would come at cost to our ability to engage in long-term service to those very vulnerable.”9
It’s a step in the direction of balance, certainly. But this logic still conveys the sense that every action without tangible usefulness is a means to an end, that humans are mere life-saving machines that occasionally need a rest. Certainly this is not what Crisp is suggesting; utilitarianism itself is displaying its poverty here. As Mill found, if we dedicate our lives to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, we may find that the pesky quality of beauty, with all its corresponding emotional resonance, will go missing.
In his part-cookbook, part-theological reflection Supper of the Lamb, the priest Robert Farrar Capon tells a parable about a dinner party. The host, playing matchmaker, invites a man and a woman who he thinks are perfect for each other. During the dinner, the woman complains of the lack of variety in the animal kingdom. “If only we could invent a few more kinds of meat,” she laments, “then my cooking wouldn’t be so dull.” The man, in turn, argues that multiple kinds of meat are inefficient; if given his way, he’d streamline the animal kingdom into one species. The other dinner party guests are confused when the man and woman, despite their obvious disagreement, leave the party hand in hand.10
The host explains the affinity between the pair this way: “What they had in common was a total lack of . . . the sensus lusus, or playful spirit—the sense by which the ordinary man is glad that veal is not beef, and that the world does not require him to choose between chicken and duck; the sense, in short, by which he relishes the elegant superfluity, the unnecessary variety of the world.”Capon has no patience with the utilitarian impulse to treat the world as a means to an end. “To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but, for all that, the world is still good in itself,” he writes. “Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it, only delight.”11 Capon is emphatic on this point: we are not only here to reform but also to play.
Once I’d glimpsed it, this delight in the unnecessary kept surfacing within the Gospels: Jesus turning the water into wine, even though water itself would quench, or praising the woman who lavishes perfume, worth a year’s wages, on his feet. Even the incarnation and the atonement can be told as missions of delight—it is unorthodox to say that God needs our company; God must, then, simply want it.
And now I had my own miracle of superfluity. My friend’s love was such an unexpected, unasked-for delight that, even after going without it, the realization that it had happened struck me periodically with a stunned and happy wonder. For a while I lived in the dark-black shock of losing a chance at that love by my own Kierkegaardian hand. But when I had steadied myself, I could see that the wonder engendered there had only dissipated, leaving the world stricken with traces of light.
Two former Ethics Bowl teammates and I meet for lunch. They’re fresh from a visit to a monastery; the more melancholy of the two is considering taking monastic vows. Over our food, his friend—my anti-Singer friend, the friend I did without—comes from every angle trying to dissuade him.
The waitress asks if we want dessert. To my left, my friend’s eyes sparkle. He orders a chocolate mousse, nimbly trying to convince our waitress it’s for me (“You want some mousse, Veronica, right? Right?”). “I don’t enjoy sweets,” the other demurs, as we slice the dessert with spoons and hoist pieces onto small white plates.
I do enjoy sweets. As the two argue over our mousse about the merit of religious ritual, I take small, rich bites of cocoa. My friends are well-rounded people in their own right; I know this and love them for it. But at this moment they are a tableau of my sparring instincts: asceticism and celebration; resignation and delight. I do not know which will win. I cannot say whether Stephen will find his way into a life rich with marriage and academia and dessert, or whether we will be visiting him years from now in a small monastic cell, marveling at the glow that going without has given him.
My friend of the sensus lusus picks up the tab. When he sees my discomfort with this—he knows I like to pay my own way, to depend upon myself and not have many affairs—he just smiles, laying down a profusion of dollar bills to beat me to the tip. It occurs to me that, sometimes, the closest synonym to superfluous is grace.
Veronica Toth earned an MA in literature and culture theory at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she also fell in love with Lake Michigan and public transportation. Veronica teaches American literature, ethics, and biblical literature at University Liggett School in Michigan. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Ruminate, Rock & Sling, Windhover, and Relief. She blogs at Tasting Twice.