Aristotle Says Pleasure Ain’t All Bad

In the third section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addresses more arguments against pleasure as a good:

Pleasure is not a quality, while good is, so pleasure cannot be a good.
Aristotle rejects the idea that a good must be a quality. Virtue and eudaimonia are goods, he insists, and they aren’t qualities either.
Pleasure admits of degrees, that is, something can be more or less pleasant, whereas a good is simply good.
Here, too, Aristotle rejects the premise that a good must be binary. Justice, bravery, and temperance, for instance, are good, and you can certainly say of a person that they are more or less just, brave, or temperate. Health, too, is certainly good, and you can be more or less healthy; you don’t merely have the choice of being healthy or not.
Pleasure is a kind of process or coming-into-being, while the good must be a static and perfect end-state.
Aristotle doesn’t think that this characterization of pleasure as a process or coming-into-being is right. For instance, he notes that movements may be fast or slow, but people don’t characterize pleasures as being fast pleasures and slow pleasures (we may become pleased rapidly or slowly, but this is something different). Aristotle also addressed this argument in book seven.
Pain is what happens when some aspect of a person’s body deviates from its normal equilibrium, while pleasure is merely the restoration of this equilibrium.
Aristotle thinks that this is a case of overgeneralizing from the particular cases of hunger/nourishment and thirst/quenching. There are other pleasures, like the pleasure of learning, the pleasure of smelling pleasant odors, the pleasure of listening to music, the pleasure of reminiscence, and so forth, that don’t have to do with quenching the pain of being out of equilibrium. This argument, also, Aristotle addressed in book seven.
Pleasure cannot be a good, because some people are pleased by vicious and disgraceful things.
Aristotle says that it is unwise to rely on pathological cases to make arguments like these. You wouldn’t say that the sun must not be bright because blind people can’t see it, you would just add an exception to your general rule for people who can’t see properly. Similarly, you might say of pleasure that pleasure is desirable, though being pleased at vicious and disgraceful things is not, just as wealth is desirable, though ill-gained wealth is not. Or you might say that there are different sorts of pleasures, and the ones derived from virtuous action are qualitatively different.

But, having dismissed several arguments against the idea that pleasure is a, or the, good, Aristotle ends by backing off from hedonism, and putting forth some arguments of his own:

  • A friend is better than a flatterer. A friend looks out for what is good for us, not just what we want or find pleasant, and this makes a friend more valuable than a flatterer. This seems to show that we value something more highly than pleasure.
  • Although children can have ecstatic raptures of pleasure such that adults can only wistfully envy, no adult would really choose to live their life with the intellect of a child in order to have access to this. This too seems to show that we value some things above pleasure.
  • Given the opportunity to gain pleasure by doing some disgraceful deed, even if you knew you’d never be caught and punished, you still wouldn’t do it (would you?). This shows, also, that some things we value more highly than pleasure.
  • There are other things that Aristotle thinks we would still value highly even if pleasure never accompanied them: “seeing, remembering, knowing, [and] possessing the virtues.”

He concludes by taking the middle ground: Pleasure is not the good, and some pleasures are not good at all, but some pleasures are good, either because of the sort of pleasure they are or because of what prompted the pleasure.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics