Not by Bread Alone: Morality and Wine

Tom Wark’s blog post,”The Moralist the and Wine Blogger” struck a nerve, in part because I’ve had this debate with myself.

Wark, a wine publicist and widely-read blogger, summarizes a conversation he had with someone who insisted that time devoted to drinking, promoting, or writing about wine is wasted time.

It’s just that the consequences of selling wine and wine blogging don’t really play an important role in anyone’s lives. It doesn’t help people. People’s lives aren’t bettered and they don’t really flourish more because you write press releases and go on about wine ratings or wine laws or natural wine…Let me put it more bluntly: If you are not working to improve the well being of others then you are missing the opportunity to live a good life and wasting the most precious commodity we all possess—a life lived in close proximity to other conscious, living beings.

In response to the obvious rejoinder that wine gives some people great pleasure and many wine lovers find wine writing to be engaging, Wark’s critic accused him of selfish rationalization.

The claim that moral concerns ought to outrank any other consideration is not new. In fact the dominant moral theories in our moral tradition—Kantian and utilitarian theories—both entail that we have categorical duties to help others in need that invariably outweigh the satisfaction of personal desires or the pursuit of personal pleasure.

But such moralism (whether theoretical or practical) is just a load of bunk.

There are saints among us, people who seem capable of genuinely taking up the cause of humankind, of sacrificing everything personal for the sake of the common good. It is an odd psychology, worthy of understanding and celebrating.  But most people are not like that. For most of us , if we are to be effective, if we are to get up each day full of motivation and drive, we must do what we love. But we cannot love everything or everyone. There is no love without discrimination. To love something is to hold it in higher regard in comparison to what is unloved. If you love your spouse, other people are less deserving of your attention.

And a life without love is not worth living.

The difficulty with moralists is that their demands are infinite. There are simply too many people in need, so to take up their cause is to crowd out all personal satisfaction from one’s life in a never ending and ultimately failed attempt to alleviate human suffering. The moralist’s demand is thus a demand to blot out what one loves—in a word, nihilism. (With all due respect to The Dude and his cohorts, it is best to avoid nihilism.)

Now, of course, from the fact that I cannot serve everyone, it does not follow that I should serve no one. But it does follow that only the piecemeal serving of individuals is possible and a general prescription to serve everyone is incoherent. So how do I choose who to serve? The only coherent answer is to serve those you love first and everyone else can get in line. (Which is not to say we aren’t traumatized by the destitution of those we cannot love)

Which brings us back to wine, because for Tom Wark and his readers (of which I am one), it is wine they love. Perhaps this is the crux of the moralist’s argument. She may be on board with my prescription to serve those you love as long as we’re talking about people. But wine is just a beverage, a commodity, not worthy of serious concern.

And now the moralist’s problem is becoming clear. She simply does not drink enough wine having not had that moment of revelation that unites wine lovers, that finds extraordinary beauty in, say, a cuvée from the hills behind Beaune.

But more seriously, artists, artisans, writers, musicians, actors, intellectuals, and, yes, winemakers, are engaged in creating something all human beings desperately need—culture. Human beings do not live by bread alone, we seek meaning and we are always in danger of losing it.  Through culture we transform the organic, physical, instrumental, impersonal flotsam and jetsam of experience into symbols that express and sustain meaning. It is where the creation or destruction of what we value is enacted, where we decide what has significance and what does not.

So nothing is more important to human flourishing than to keep culture alive.

We especially need beauty in our lives, for beauty arouses the desire to draw things near, it impels love and a thirst for knowledge. The loss of beauty is like the loss of love. Without it, everything is reduced to a forgettable, discouraging sameness that is another road to nihilism.

An acquaintance with beauty will not by itself make a person better, but pervasive ugliness will surely make her worse.

Moralists have every right to censure the vicious; but they should leave the creators of culture alone (if indeed they are not vicious) because they are as necessary to human flourishing as food and water.

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