Aristotle Says Pleasure & Pain Are Important in Ethics

In the first section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle takes a fresh look at pleasure, reminding us of the reasons why a study of pleasure and pain is important to the ethicist.

First, virtue is all about developing a well-formed character, and this must crucially start in childhood. Pleasure and pain (positive and negative reinforcements, if you like) are the rudders by which children are educated.

Second, pleasure and pain remain primary motivators throughout life. The mark of a virtuous person is that he or she takes pleasure in acting virtuously.

The hedonists believe that pleasure is itself the ultimate good at which activity does, or ought to, strive. Other people say that, on the contrary, pleasure is actually bad and should be avoided.

Some of these people who think pleasure is bad are actually persuaded that this is true; others merely say that it is true because they think people would be better off if they believed it, as people tend naturally to over-indulge in pleasures unless they are strongly dissuaded. Aristotle thinks this deceptive teaching style is unwise, since a teacher who strategically teaches that all pleasure is bad but at the same time pursues certain pleasures he or she actually believes to be good, is exhibiting a hypocrisy that will certainly be noticed by students and will tend to discredit the teaching in general. It is better to teach by making statements you believe to be true, as these will be more likely to line up with the facts as your students perceive them directly, and will enhance the credibility of your teaching.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics