Aristotle Says Pleasure Ain’t All Good

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a letter from the IRS, but I got one yesterday.

Oddly, after such a long time, this was just a letter of complaint (a “Letter 2050”) requesting that I get in touch with them about my overdue taxes from and reminding me of the penalties and interest accruing. No new enforcement action or even any threats of imminent enforcement action, just a vague “your account has been assigned to this office for enforcement action, which could include seizing your wages or property.”

I seem to have been moved to their back-burner for the time being.

In the trailing sections of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle criticized several arguments that pleasure was not good, or at least was not the good.

In the second section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins to look at the arguments of the hedonists, who suggested that pleasure indeed was synonymous with the good.

He ascribes these arguments to Eudoxus of Cnidus, and since no works of Eudoxus have survived, we’ll have to take his word for it:

  1. All creatures aim for particular things that are good for them; a good indication of what the chief good is would be that which all creatures aim for; whatever specific things creatures aim for, they all ultimately aim for pleasure; therefore, pleasure seems to be the chief good.
  2. Similarly, pleasure’s opposite − pain − is universally avoided, which provides additional support for the idea that pleasure is universally considered good.
  3. People don’t seek pleasure as a means to something else, but as an end in its own right.
  4. Any other good that you can think of would be better if pleasure were added to it, and it is only by good that good can be increased.

Aristotle thinks the fourth of these may be a good argument for pleasure being a good, but not for it being the good. Plato used a similar argument against hedonism, saying that any pleasure you can think of would be better with wisdom added to it, so pleasure itself cannot be the greatest good or it could not be made better in this way.

The other arguments he does not meet head-on here. Instead he launches into a defense of common-sense, experimental reasoning on ethical questions like these. He’s answering philosophers who say that even if all creatures aim toward pleasure and avoid pain, perhaps they are all mistaken. He thinks this sort of approach is ridiculous:

For we say that that which every one thinks really is so; and the man who attacks this belief will hardly have anything more credible to maintain instead.

There is something both attractive and frightening about a statement like this one. I read it and think, “well, okay, that’s a pretty good heuristic maybe, but can you really discount the possibility that there’s something that everyone thinks really is so but that you could discover was indeed not so? What is it that Einstein did, for instance, but prove that what everyone thought about time and space turned out to be incorrect?”

But I think you can read Aristotle here to be saying something a little more restrained. More like: “Don’t think you’re being clever by redefining your terms so that they don’t match what everybody else means by them. Of course you’ll discover fantastic paradoxes and curious enigmas that way, but they’ll only be the result of traps you’ve set for yourself by misusing language.”

Aristotle finishes this section by looking at the argument that while pain and pleasure may be opposites of each other, they may equally be opposite of good − in the same way “too much” and “too little” are opposites of each other, but also opposites of “just right.” Aristotle thinks this reasoning is faulty. According to him, this sort of logic only applies to things that are in the same class, and pleasure and pain are not:

For if both pleasure and pain belonged to the class of evils they ought both to be objects of aversion, while if they belonged to the class of neutrals neither should be an object of aversion or they should both be equally so; but in fact people evidently avoid the one as evil and choose the other as good; that then must be the nature of the opposition between them.

In this way, the pleasure-pain continuum is different from, say, the boorish-buffoonish continuum of a virtue like good humor. All other things being equal, more pleasure is always better than less. But sometimes more light-heartedness is a good thing, and sometimes more sobriety is a good thing: the virtuous person aims for the golden mean.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics