When I was growing up, skiers dominated the lake where I spent my summers. These days, however, I find the lake of my boyhood increasingly littered with people riding inner tubes. I find this notable because it takes skill to ski, while inner tubing requires no such skill. Learning to ski was once a rite of passage, but now it seems that many are bypassing the opportunity to learn a legitimate water-sport in favor of the instant gratification of participating in a mediocre substitute.
I present this degradation—and having experienced both activities, I can say with confidence that it is a degradation—as a microcosm of the decline in virtues in our society. In both we see that discipline is forsaken in exchange for instant gratification. The training necessary before one can enjoy the pursuit of excellence in skiing mirrors the initial discipline needed to begin a life of virtue. And just as any skill begins to come naturally once it is acquired, so the virtues grow gradually easier the more they are lived.
Inner-tubing, by contrast, requires little to no skill, and the same goes for hedonism. The trend these days seems to be pointing away from the pursuit of excellence, towards the wanton pursuit of fleeting pleasure, not because hedonism yields greater happiness than the virtuous life, but because it is easier and faster. In fact, the virtues help us to become truly human, in a way that hedonism cannot. And only by moving in the direction of our telos—that is, being truly human—can we experience anything more than merely animal pleasure.