Against Deferred Gratification

Every now and then I see a slogan that’s credited to Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” It seems like the worst part of the sixties in seven words — the mindless hedonism and self-involvement that made the counter-culture such fertile terrain for commodification. We serious opponents of capitalism know better. We recognize that deferred gratification was what capitalism was all about and that the first industrial workers had to be taught not to quit once they’d earned enough to survive for a while, the way peasants generally do. But we also know we have a lot of work to do and very little time. No pleasure, please; we’re building socialism.

But perhaps I am being unfair — unfair to Mr. Cohen himself, who’s out of the ice cream business now and works hard as a political activist, and unfair to his slogan. The more I think about it, deferred gratification seems like a really bad idea.

You can build a pretty satisfactory culture without it. Most hunting people are said to have an inability to defer gratification, which irritates those who devote themselves to improving other people’s lives. But the other side of this inability — which is really only a cultural choice — is the identity of means and ends. An Inuit whale hunt, for example, is clearly an economic activity, but it’s also the whale’s voluntary sacrifice for his people — a religious ritual more full of meaning than a Catholic Mass. And it’s an expression and redefinition of some of the major social relations in the community and an exciting adventure. One does not hunt a whale in order to acquire the wherewithal to purchase these ends or the time to pursue them; the means and ends are the same. Many hunting people know this, and they’re disinclined to accept a way of life in which most activity is insignificant, boring or even harmful, and is undertaken merely to provide the means to a completely separate end.

We pay a high price for inventing and maintaining this separation. Life becomes a lot less interesting, for one thing, and generally far less satisfying. The retiree who can’t slow down to enjoy retirement is one victim: the chosen end was a life without money problems, but the means took too large a toll. Our resigned acceptance of the brutal, dangerous or merely boring and mind-numbing quality of most work is another price exacted by the regime of deferred gratification. So is the the institutionalization of most every practice and the commodification of ends as entertainments and commercialized experiences like “vacation packages” and “retirement lifestyles.”

Even more pernicious, perhaps, is the way our notions of morality have been transformed. Once means and ends get split apart we need overt principles of selection and justifications for the ends we pursue. This raises all the problems of modern ethics, and it also tends inexorably to instrumentalize means. We set a high standard for our ultimate goals; it’s no longer enough to rely on the exemplars of myth or our affective responses. We must, as Kant insists, become legislators over ourselves. But the territory of morality then shrinks until means to our self-legislated ends occupy a kind of ethical demilitarized zone.

Deferring gratification has opened the door to some of humanity’s worst moments. All over the United States, children are taught that the Nazi Holocaust was an outbreak of hatred. This is a dangerous misconception. The peculiar horror of the Holocaust was it was supposed to be carried out without any emotional involvement at all.

We mustn’t think that the SS men and the concentration camp commandants enjoyed killing Jews and Romany. They took pride, instead, in their own revulsion. The end — removing the cancerous growth of sub-human Jews and other inferior races — was fully justified; one had only to read the science books. Though the means were dreadful, they were the only ones available. So it was a testimony to their courage and humanity that they did their task in spite of their sympathy for the victims. This was the gist of one of Himmler’s best-known speeches:

Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And … to have seen this through and — with the exception of human weakness — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned. . . . We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who would kill us. . . . We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, or in our character.

He was hardly the only one to reason this way. Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote:

I had to exercise intense self-control. . . . I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feelings. . . . My pity was so great that I longed to vanish from the scene; yet I might not show the slightest trace.

What is this except the most extreme form of deferred gratification? The worst of all jobs carried out for the highest of rewards, and a self-pitying preening about the deep Teutonic emotions that they were strong enough to resist?

Maybe it would have been better if Himmler and Hoess had wall posters that reminded them every day, “If it feels like shit, why do it?” One isn’t compelled to do everything one feels like doing. But the cost of ignoring our visceral judgments is dangerously high.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats. He will give a reading from his book on Thursday, October 6, 2005, at Robin’s Book Store (108 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 — Tel: 215-735-9600).