Aristotle Says Pleasure Ain’t All Bad

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

First, he notes that pain certainly is bad. Some pain is just plain bad without qualification; other pain is bad because it interferes in our pursuits. This doesn’t meet any of the original objections head-on. It seems to me to suffer from some of the same problems as the blanket objections to pleasure that Aristotle is arguing against. Even if pain is typically a bad to be avoided, isn’t it sometimes something to be sought out? The pain of hunger is to be avoided… unless you’re trying to lose weight and then it’s a sign that your body is burning fat. The pain of nausea is to be avoided… unless you’ve been poisoned, in which case, reach for the ipecac.

Aristotle’s point is that if pain is clearly bad, its opposite, pleasure, must be good.

Aristotle is responding to the views of Speusippus, which must have been very tempting to him, since they have a very Aristotelian find-the-happy-medium feel to them. To Speusippus, both pain and pleasure were deviations from the good in opposite directions. So to him, pleasure wasn’t the opposite of pain, but pleasure and pain were equally opposite to the happy medium — the same way Aristotle’s opposing vices (e.g. cowardice and rashness) were opposites to the virtue (courage).

Aristotle next responds to some of the specific arguments he outlined earlier:


Some pleasures may also be goods, but most are not. This is because there are some pleasures that are “actually base and objects of reproach.”

Aristotle’s answer:

  • “[I]f certain pleasures are bad, that does not prevent the chief good from being some pleasure, just as the chief good may be some form of knowledge though certain kinds of knowledge are bad. Perhaps it is even necessary, if each disposition has unimpeded activities, that, whether the activity (if unimpeded) of all our dispositions or that of some one of them is happiness, this should be the thing most worthy of our choice; and this activity is pleasure. Thus the chief good would be some pleasure, though most pleasures might perhaps be bad without qualification.”
  • You must consider pleasure to at least be part of a happy life; a person who is virtuous in every other way but is experiencing great pain, not pleasure, can’t be said to be happy.


Good and Pleasure are different sorts of things, so no pleasure can be a good. This is because children and brutes pursue pleasure, so it isn’t the sort of ultimate end only refined people know to pursue.

Aristotle’s answer:

  • This is actually a point in favor of the idea that pleasure is the chief good. If everybody, even brutes and children, pursues pleasure, there must be something to it.
  • People who pursue base pleasures don’t necessarily have the wrong idea about what is good, but are kind of like moths who fly into lanterns by mistake, guided by a generally-correct instinct to aim for light.

In this section, Aristotle comes very close to endorsing hedonism: the idea that pleasure is the ultimate end of activity. This is not the conclusion he comes to in book ten, however.

Some of our panel of translators and commentators, particularly Muirhead and Stewart, have tried to reconcile the two points of view.

They suggest that “pleasure” has two subtly different meanings in the books seven and ten. In this book, book seven, Aristotle defines pleasure as a thing, as the unbridled exercise of a faculty, which is itself a good thing. In book ten, Aristotle defines pleasure more as an epiphenomenon that crowns or accompanies the unbridled exercise of a faculty, where it is the activity itself, and not the pleasure that accompanies it, that is the good.

So in book seven, Aristotle says that pleasure is the unbridled exercise of a faculty; the unbridled exercise of a faculty is good; therefore, pleasure is good. In book ten, Aristotle says that the unbridled exercise of a faculty is pleasant; the unbridled exercise of a faculty is the good; therefore the good is pleasant. A different perspective, but not exactly contradictory.

I was reminded, while reading this, of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. In this thought experiment, Nozick asks you to imagine that you can plug yourself into a machine that thoroughly simulates reality for you in such a convincing way that you cannot help but believe that it is reality. Furthermore, you can program this simulation to maximize your pleasure beyond anything possible in real life. Would you plug in?

Nozick noted that there’s something repulsive about the thought of plugging in to this machine, and concluded that this repulsiveness means we must want not only to feel pleasure, but to feel it as part of our real participation in the real world. He decided that therefore hedonism must not be correct — that the ultimate good must be more than just pleasure.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics