Vice Vice Baby

By Sean Carroll | October 28, 2007 10:08 am

Book of Vice Academics, we’ve already decided, are sadly unfamiliar with guilty pleasures. But you know who are the true experts? Public radio show hosts.

Case in point: Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, has taken up the implicit challenge posed by William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, the very existence of which is a monument to the cherished American freedom to expound upon things to which one stands as a shining counterexample. Peter has responded with The Book of Vice, a work that is both infinitely more entertaining and ultimately more educational about the nature of right and wrong.

I can go on a first-name here, as I know Peter from my Chicago days, and we’ve even indulged together in approximately three of the seven types of vice he explores in the book. (I’m also “friends” with Carl Kasell on Facebook, but that’s not a very elite group.) Like any new author, Peter has now started up a blog, and I was able to prevail on our friendship to secure Cosmic Variance a place on its very elite blogroll. You are doubtless imagining a tensely-negotiated quid pro quo according to which I would agree to plug the book, and of course you are correct. But all this talk of virtue and vice activated some tiny shred of conscience that I hadn’t previously suspected, so I actually waited to read the book before I mentioned it. And: it’s great! Which saves me a certain amount of light stepping, book-review-wise.

The conceit of the book is that, unlike bilious blowhard Bill Bennett, whose greatest pleasure in life (other than chain smoking and dropping millions at slot machines) is publicly condemning the moral failures of others, Peter is a genuinely generous and good-hearted person, even shading toward the vanilla in the workings of his everyday life. Vice, in other words, just isn’t his bag. So when he brings his charming wife Beth along on a fact-finding (and strictly non-participating) mission to a partner-swapping swinger’s club, he reports back from the perspective of a fascinated anthropologist, not that of a jaded connoisseur. And, like any good social scientist, he doesn’t pre-judge, but let’s the experimental data determine the conclusions.

As a result, not all vices come in for equal measures of condemnation or celebration. Swapping sexual partners? Kind of boring, and ridden with self-deception. Modern high-tech gluttony? Awesome.

In case you were wondering.

  • Michael Nielsen

    Vanilla Ice is definitely a vice!

  • Pedro Morgado
  • John Ramsden

    Although not entirely sure, I think of the word “vice” as related to “vicarious” meaning “substitute”. On that basis, I suppose wife swapping would be pretty much the canonical example of a vice!

  • citrine

    As I didn’t see the earlier post on this topic (until now), I’ll post my belated response here.

    Guilty pleasures relative to the academic culture need not be the same as the behaviors falling under the general definition of the term. I don’t admit to my colleagues in academia that I (a) read Oprah’s “O” magazine (b) peruse fashion magazines (c) enjoy shopping (d) talk to neighbors’ cats and dogs in “baby talk” (e) spend a large fraction of whatever mindless downtime that I have mentally color coordinating clothes and conjuring up interior decoration color schemes. These behaviors are pretty harmless from an arbitary “x” (chromosome XX?) person of the population but have a completely different slant in the ivory tower – especially within certain academic disciplines.

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  • oxo

    It’s a good example of the degeneration of modern society in general, and american society in particular that it’s considered acceptable to go to a wife swapping party, whether you intend to participate or not.

  • John

    Never to worry….
    At the current rate of development of civilization, we will all be back in the middle ages, and part of some caliphate. Parts of Europe are struggling to get there as we speak. I don’t think they believe in wife swapping. So much for cosmologists and particle physicists as well.

  • Dave Bacon

    and part of some caliphate…

    Mmm, I love the smell of fearmongering in the morning.

  • John

    In response to 7
    Well, not to take us off-topic, but
    Let’s not confuse fear with facts. Europe will be majority muslim in a few generations.
    You tell me where they are going.. Will they all be turning into multiculturalists? Will the minority euros be able to put down the majority? Not exactly a liberal tendency. Catch 22 if there ever was one.
    America will be hispanic, which seems a lot better.

  • Dr. Free-Ride

    I haven’t joined the multitudes who are friends with Carl Kassell on Facebook, but I do have his voice on my answering machine.

    Sean, by your lights, were there any important vices that didn’t make it into the book?

  • spyder

    Paranoia is not a vice it is ignorance….

    Hedonism, on the other hand, can be incredibly fun. And since most of those cardinal sins are now promoted as virtues (accumulation of wealth and property, abundance that leads to never having to actually do anything, increased objective selfishness, lies and deceit as the markers of political and media success), we need to relish the inclusion of greater diversity of virtuous vices. Is it not more virtuous to gamble with your own money rather than that of your shareholders and/or mutual fund contributors??? Is it not more wise to engage directly and publicly in the realms of various adult entertainment environments, than to sit closeted in a public bathroom (cough cough) or one’s own home hidden from view paying for content provisions??? And might it be more wise to be one’s own pharmacological resource than trust the vast corporate structure that puts profit (see new virtues above) well ahead of safety and public health??? Vice starts to sound like wise.

  • tyler

    What a bizarre set of responses.

    Judging how fun non-vanilla sex can be by going to a banal suburban swinger’s club is like passing judgment on fajitas after dinner at TGI Friday’s.

    oxo, whatever it is exactly that you wish modern society was like, I am deeply thankful I don’t have to live in it. When was “modern society” so great? The 50’s? 19th century? Hunter-gatherer tribal period?

    Now, just to be clear, I’m married, with no swapping or other addenda on the sex life. I works me job and pays me taxes, and have even been known to watch TV. But just Lost, Galactica and a little football, I swear!

    But for many years I enjoyed life as a semi-pro hedonist. My motto was, “too much of everything is just enough.” Everything fun that I wanted to do, I did, until I had done it enough; I left no cards unplayed when I walked away from the table, which I didn’t do until I had won – which in my case meant finding True Luuuuuv ™ and deciding that I was ready for a change of pace.

    I had a great time, and love the fact that there are still people out there living that kind of life. I despise anyone who thinks it is their right to impose their moral judgements on the rest of us.

    Yeah, you can take it too far. I got kinda lucky. There’s nothing good or liberating about a heroin addict, or a poor girl forced by poverty into prostitution or degrading pornography, and there’s certainly nothing good about a Hummer with DVD players and air conditioned seats. Slothful stoners who pull bong hits before getting out of bed are wasting their lives, fine, true…

    But each of us is living our own life and we deserve the freedom to live it how we want, and if that includes a little depravity, then anyone who doesn’t like that can just stuff it.

    Do you really want to be on your deathbed and have nothing to look back on but work, TV shows and a bunch of regrets?

    Live the life you dream about, have fun, do something a little dangerous but be careful, and take a little time to annoy the uptight control freaks – you get bonus points for that.

  • Belizean

    …unlike bilious blowhard Bill Bennett…

    Good thing we don’t have any blow-hard-like behavior on this blog, where we’re free to check in for the latest developments in physics and receive complimentary and unlimited doses of Leftist political opinions.

    And thank Evolution that we have a dedicated supporter of the Daily Kos — that gentile journal of sober, nuanced, and dispassionate thought — to identify for us the commentators that are truly bilious.

  • Sean

    Dr. F-R, I think the real lesson of the book is that the concept of “vice” isn’t an especially useful way to categorize behaviors. Peter’s definition involved activities from which one derived pleasure, but later suffered feelings of guilt and/or societal disapprobation. But some of them were actually healthy and fun, some were harmful or self-deluded, and some are good or bad depending on circumstance.

    So what matters isn’t the catalog of vices, it’s the demystification of the concept.

    I take it that you must have won a call-in contest on Wait Wait? Don’t tell me that Carl Kasell just goes around making random answering-machine messages.

  • Philip


    So start your own blog, whydoncha?

  • John Ramsden

    Although my post was meant as tongue in cheek, I think there’s an element of truth in the idea that a vice, or many types of vices even if not all, can be defined as a substitute activity to attain a goal which is undeserved or could (and a moralist would argue should) be achieved with more effort and commitment.

    I’m curious to know if the author tried to define the concept in general. He’s probably right to claim it is rather nebulous. Might even order the book to see what he says (not for salacious reasons – I’m sure there are plenty of far more saucy books and websites for that!)

  • John Baez

    John wrote:

    At the current rate of development of civilization, we will all be back in the middle ages, and part of some caliphate. Parts of Europe are struggling to get there as we speak. I don’t think they believe in wife swapping.

    Who needs to swap ’em when you’ve already got three?

  • Dr. Free-Ride

    I take it that you must have won a call-in contest on Wait Wait? Don’t tell me that Carl Kasell just goes around making random answering-machine messages.

    Yes, I had to deal with a Hasselhoff-related “bluff the listener” round. My brother, on the other hand, managed to get a picture taken with Carl (and autographed by Carl, too) without having to demonstrate any special knowledge. It just doesn’t seem fair.

  • TomC

    I was under the impression that all rational humans, regardless of political stripe, could agree that William Bennett is a bilious blowhard.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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