Aristotle on Pleasure

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 :]

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4 thoughts on “Aristotle on Pleasure

  1. You probably don’t remember me and I barely remember you, but didn’t you study with John Glanville at UCFS in the late 90s or early 2000s? I’ve run across your blog several time over the past year when searching for something concise about Aristotle. Pam Schmidt

  2. Hi Richard,

    Firstly, thanks for your post. As a psychoanalyst I’m always interested in Aristotle’s moral psychology, especially from a philosopher’s perspective.

    I apologize in advance for any bad English and after many years I think that Aristotle can be summed up by such: “Since domination is grounded on words, strive to hold the right words by setting down the phenomena.” I think the best way to understand our friend Aristotle here is first to take his view on incontinence:

    1. Sweet food is bad
    2. This is sweet
    C- This is bad

    Thus, according to Aristotle, whilst the incontinent man kind of possesses the knowledge that this is sweet, he doesn’t actually hold this knowledge when seeing the food. So, since the conclusion of his practical syllogism is essentially his action, and, like you say, Aristotle thinks the opposite of bad is good, the incontinent’s reasoning virtually goes like such:

    1. Sweet food is bad
    2. This isn’t sweet
    C- This isn’t bad
    C’- This is good

    Now, like you explain, Aristotle holds that all men who deviate from the right reason (ho orthos ho logos) experience incidental or remedial pleasures (Let pleasure = means of domination over one’s physiology per se; I’m hinting at my beginning quote but you’ll see more clearly and distinctly why I say this soon). So, the incontinent man experiences a remedial pleasure from eating his food. If he can be cured of his incontinence, Aristotle says, then he will actually hold the knowledge that he possesses – namely, that the food is sweet – and will rather experience a natural pleasure from the food. The point is that either way the man will experience a pleasure, natural if the man is in a healthy state or remedial if he’s in a diseased state. As you and I know, however, the natural pleasure is the correct or right pleasure and is in accordance with virtue.

    Now, I hope you’re beginning to see my point. The goal is to move a man from experiencing remedial pleasures to experiencing natural pleasures. This is exactly what I do as a psychoanalyst! Further, I argue that the incontinent man is what we call nowadays the neurotic. The famous example we use in psychoanalysis to illustrate neurosis is the Rat Man, who, when he sees food associated with rats, he gets a guilty pleasure from that food. Even though the Rat Man knows the food isn’t sweet, because of his neurotic complex, he acts essentially like Aristotle’s incontinent man and experiences a remedial pleasure from the food.

    That’s why in psychoanalysis we try to cure the neurotic of his “incontinence” by setting down the phenomena for him. I have to run out for lunch now but I’ll try to explain it better when I’ve got the chance.

    All the very best,
    – Tony

  3. Hi Richard, I mean “when he sees food associated with THE WORD rats”. Buona notte. I will explain it better tommorow when I get the chance….Tony

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