19 November 2009

In the eleventh section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle looks at three arguments that “some people” make in opposition to the idea that pleasure is a, or the, Good. (Many of our panel of translators and commentators say that Aristotle is largely replying to the theories of Speusippus.)

  1. Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This because:
    1. Every pleasure is a sort of activity; but a good is a static end, not an activity.
    2. Temperate people avoid pleasures; but virtuous people (temperance is a virtue) don’t shun what is good.
    3. Practical wisdom teaches us how to avoid pain, but not how to pursue pleasure.
    4. Pleasures interfere with rational thinking; for example, it’s difficult to keep your syllogisms straight in the midst of a good rogering.
    5. Every good is a product of some art, but there is no such thing as an “art” of pleasure.
    6. Children and brutes pursue pleasure, so it isn’t the sort of ultimate end only refined people know to pursue.
  2. Some pleasures may also be goods, but most are not. This because:
    1. There are some pleasures that are “actually base and objects of reproach.”
    2. There are harmful, unhealthy pleasures.
  3. Although all pleasures are good, at least in so far as they are pleasant, the ultimate good cannot be pleasure. This because:
    1. As argument #1a also puts it, pleasure is a process and the ultimate good is an end.

Aristotle has already declared eudaimonia — happiness, fulfillment, flourishing — to be the ultimate end of human life, and he says that most people would consider pleasure to be at least a component of happiness (and wouldn’t you expect eudaimonia itself to be pleasant?). So he wants to investigate these arguments critically, which he will do in the following sections.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics