In the fifth section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues to examine pleasure.
He has said before that pleasure is a sort of epiphenomenon that crowns and completes certain robustly-pursued activities. Here he says that there seem to be different kinds of pleasure, depending on which kinds of activities they accompany. For example, the pleasure that comes from delighting the senses is a different sort of pleasure than that which comes from engaging in pleasant contemplation.
A pleasure intensifies and spurs on the activity it is related to, so that, for instance, the best mathematicians will be those who take pleasure in manipulating numbers and discovering proofs. On the other hand, pleasures that are not related to a particular activity can hinder that activity. For example, if you take great pleasure in music, you may have a difficult time paying attention to a lecture if there is music playing nearby. In this way, a pleasure that isn’t associated with a particular activity can be just as distracting and discouraging as a pain that is.
If you are engaging in two activities at once, the one that gives the most pleasure will tend to dominate your attention. If you’re scarfing down popcorn at a bad movie, you’ll be paying attention to the popcorn; at a good movie, you’ll be paying attention to the movie.
Since pleasures are particular and each is associated with certain activities, just as some activities are virtuous, others are vicious, and others are neither, some pleasures are good, others are bad, and others are neutral. The pleasure that comes from virtuous activity is a good pleasure; any pleasure that comes from behaving viciously is a bad sort of pleasure.
Pleasure is kind of like desire in this respect (that some desires, like some pleasures, are good and others are bad, depending on what sort of activity they are associated with). But pleasure is more tightly-bound to activity than desire is, since pleasure is coextensive with the activity, whereas desire precedes it or may even exist in its absence.
So pleasures can be ranked in their goodness based on the goodness of the activity with which they are coupled. Some pleasures are better than others. But this isn’t true in an absolute way, but only relative to the being that is perceiving the pleasure. For instance, what sort of pleasure is good for a person isn’t the same as what sort of pleasure is good for a dog.
So what pleasures are most good for people? Between people there is variety in what individuals find pleasing, and even in a single person, different things will be pleasing to them in different circumstances. To answer the question of what pleasures are the best ones, look for what the most virtuous people find pleasant. If we know what are the best and most virtuous activities, we simultaneously know that the accompanying pleasures are the best ones. (Any pleasures that are said to accompany vice hardly deserve the name of pleasure at all.)
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
- Book Ⅰ
- Book Ⅱ
- Book Ⅲ
- Book Ⅳ
- Book Ⅴ
- Book Ⅵ
- Book Ⅶ
- Book Ⅷ
- Book Ⅸ
- Book Ⅹ