Is pleasure an intrinsic good according to Aristotle? Let’s say that something is intrinsically good when it is valuable just because of the kind of thing that it is and never valuable for relational reasons. To answer this question I had to re-read Book VII ch. 11-14 of the Nicomachean Ethics (forget about Book X -for now-). At first it may seem that he does think so. He certainly seems to think that pleasure is necessarily good and to be honest, I find that I am mostly sympathetic to the kinds of things he says (e.g. that pleasure must be good in some sense for otherwise it could not be a part of the virtuous life, that if pain is bad then pleasure must be good, that both humans and animals pursue it and that should tell us something, that it is a mistake to think that if it is bad for this or that task then it is bad full stop, that pleasure is a byproduct of an activity rather than a state, etc). But after thinking about it a bit I think that he is committed to the claim that pleasure is not intrinsically good. Let us turn to the text.
In particular in Book VII ch 12 he seems to be making a distinction between that which really is a pleasure and that which merely seems to be a pleasure. For instance at 1152b 30 he says
…while others are not even pleasures, but seem to be so, viz. all those which involve pain and whose end is curative, e.g. the processes that go on in a sick person” (Barnes translation, yes I am old).
Further on, at 1153a 5, he elaborates this into a distinction between pleasures that are so by nature and those that are merely incidentally pleasures.
…that the others are incidental is indicated by the fact that men do not enjoy the same things when their nature is in its settled state as they do when it is being replenished, but in the former case they enjoy the things that are pleasant without qualification, in the latter state the contraries as well; for then they enjoy even sharp and bitter things, none of which is pleasant either by nature or without qualitifaction. Nor then are the pleasures; for as pleasant things differ, so do the pleasures arising from them.
The idea here seems to be that that natural pleasures are produced by those things which are naturally pleasant and so if something which is not naturally pleasant produces something then whatever it produces cannot be naturally pleasant.
He goes on to say a bit later in ch 14 (1154b 15-20),
But the pleasures that do not involve pains do not admit of excess; and these are among the things pleasant by nature and not incidentally. By things pleasant incidentally I mean those that act as cures…things naturally pleasant are those that stimulate the action of a healthy nature
Ok, so it seems clear that Aristotle thinks that when we are not in our natural healthy state we may mistake as a pleasure something which really isn’t a pleasure (or: the pleasure is merely incidental pleasure not natural pleasure). But then the crucial questions is: Is the vicious person in their natural and healthy state? It seems to me that the only answer we can give, from Aristotle’s point of view, is that they are not. But if that is the case then we seem to be lead to the conclusion that the ‘pleasure’ derived from wicked activity is not really pleasure, it merely seem to be pleasure to the vicious person. Or to put it the other way, these are only incidental pleasures and are not natural pleasures.
So now it seems to me the lesson from the above is that pleasure is not to be desired for its own sake but rather is only desirable when it ‘stimulates the action of a healthy nature’. That is, whether we should desire a certain pleasure is a function of how that pleasure was produced and not merely a function of the kind of thing it is (pleasure). The alternative to this, it seems, is to hold that only the natural pleasures are really pleasures and they are intrinsically good. But this seems like a very strange view. The pleasure the serial killer experiences as he sees his victim squirm and beg for their life is (I assume) phenomenologically indistinguishable from the pleasure one may have when they see their offspring flourishing. If so then it is highly artificial and contrived to call only one of those ‘pleasure’.
If this is right then pleasures must be instrumentally good, and this seems right to me (on Aristotle’s view). They are instrumentally good in that they are the chief sources of actions and so can be used to produce virtuous activity. In fact this seems to be what he recommends when he discuses moral education.
[P.S. in case anyone cares, this was prompted by my writing an exam for my Ethics and Moral Issues course :]