It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a letter from the
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
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.
He ascribes these arguments to
Cnidus, and since no works of Eudoxus have survived, we’ll have to take
his word for it:
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
Similarly, pleasure’s opposite − pain − is universally avoided, which
provides additional support for the idea that pleasure is universally
People don’t seek pleasure as a means to something else, but as an end in
its own right.
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
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.