Aristotle on Pleasure and Pain

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In the twelfth section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins to answer the arguments against pleasure as a/the good that he noted in the previous section.

Some of his counter-arguments address multiple arguments at once, and so it can be hard to keep track of which is which, but I’ll try to bring them under some sort of ordering scheme here and in the sections that follow.

Arguments:

1a
Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This is because every pleasure is a sort of activity; but a good is a static end, not an activity.
3a
Although all pleasures are good, at least in so far as they are pleasant, the ultimate good cannot be pleasure. This is because, as argument #1a also puts it, pleasure is a process and the ultimate good is an end.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • Remember that there are two types of goods: things that are good in and of themselves, and things that are good for something. This is also true of things, states of being, processes, and the like: some are good, or bad, in general; others only good or bad with respect to some particular person or circumstance.
  • While it’s true that the pleasures of, say, quenching hunger or thirst can be thought of as incidental pleasures accompanying our transition to an end-state of satisfaction, you can also think of these pleasures as accompanying the unimpeded activity of our activities of drinking and eating: in other words, the pleasure is in the activity itself, not in the end-state it’s aiming for. Note that there are other pleasures of unimpeded activity (the pleasure of contemplation, for instance) that don’t involve returning our bodies to a satisfied end-state but that are pleasurable all the same. Note also that there are different sorts of pleasures involved in eating whatever is put before you because you are famished, and eating a delicious meal with just an ordinary appetite; gustatory pleasure isn’t just the pleasure of banishing hunger.
  • Not all pleasures are means towards ends. Some indeed are themselves ends. They don’t just arise from attaining some end, but they arise from the process of engaging in activity. Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination.

Argument:

1d
Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This is because pleasures interfere with rational thinking; for example, it’s difficult to keep your syllogisms straight in the midst of a good rogering.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • While there are pleasures that can impede rational thought, there are also pleasures that accompany rational thought and don’t impede it at all.

Argument:

2b
Some pleasures may also be goods, but most are not. This is because there are harmful, unhealthy pleasures.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • It’s a case of bad logic to say that because some pleasant things are unhealthy, pleasures must not be good. It would be like saying that because some healthy things are expensive, healthy things must not be good. There’s just no connection. If a pleasure is unhealthy it is bad at promoting health, but is not simply bad for that reason.

Argument:

1e
Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This is because every good is a product of some art, but there is no such thing as an “art” of pleasure.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • Arts concern the creation of things; pleasure is a variety of activity. So there is no such thing as an art of an activity, though there can be an art of exercising a certain faculty that gives rise to an activity in pursuit of a concrete end. So, okay, if you grant that every good is the product of an art, perhaps pleasure cannot be such a good.
  • But in some sense, the arts of the perfumer or the gourmet are arts of pleasure, are they not?

Arguments:

1b
Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This is because temperate people avoid pleasures; but virtuous people (temperance is a virtue) don’t shun what is good.
1c
…and because practical wisdom teaches us how to avoid pain, but not how to pursue pleasure.
1f
…and because children and brutes pursue pleasure, so it isn’t the sort of ultimate end only refined people know to pursue.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • Again, there are some pleasures that are good without qualification, and other pleasures can be good or bad for different people and in different circumstances. Children and brutes pursue the latter sort without the benefit of practical wisdom; the temperate person knows to avoid those pleasures that can lead to lack of self-control and other types of excess, but even the temperate person has pleasures.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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