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 :]

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

Kant’s Response to Hume’s Challenges in Ethics

As you may have guessed from the last post, I am in the middle of teaching an ethics course in the Summer session. Lately I have been trying to formulate Kant’s response to Hume’s arguments. It seems odd to me that Kant would explicitly respond to Hume’s challenge on causation and yet not respond to his other well known challenges (though, I am in no way entirely up to date on the literature in this area).

The first challenge is Hume’s argument that reason, strictly speaking, never directly causes an action. I have come to believe that Kant basically accepts Hume’s arguments for this conclusion and then introduces a special moral passion which he calls ‘respect for the moral law’. As I see it his answer is that someone with the good will is someone in whom contemplation of the Categorical Imperative causes the feeling of respect. In many ways it seems the same to me as the feeling of rational compulsion one has when contemplating Modus Ponens. I know the standard line is that Kant claims that it is the belief alone that motivates one to act, but what is the argument for this? Does anyone have any thoughts on this, or sources?

The second challenge is the is-ought gap. I am definitely not up on this debate like I should be, but it looks to me that Kant’s endorsement of the ‘ought implies can’ principle commits him to denying that there is an is-ought gap. On the other hand since Kant sees the requirements of morality to be in some sense requirements of rational agency, and since rationality is itself a normative enterprise, you might expect that he would agree with Hume on this point. In fact the emphasis on a priori methodology may in part be explained by wanting to avoid crossing the is-ought divide. I can’t find any discussion of this in Kant or in the secondary literature. Any thoughts?

Kant on Suicide

I am no Kant scholar (thankfully!) but I do regularly teach ethics and so am constantly re-reading the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. I have never really known what to think about Kant’s argument in the section where he is discussing the formula of the law of nature and how it applies to suicide. Here is what he says:

…[the] maxim…is: from Self-love I make it my principle of action to shorten my life when its longer duration threatens more troubles than it promises agreeableness. The only further question is whether this principle of self-love could become a universal law of nature. It is then seen at once that a nature whose law it would be to destroy life itself by means of the same feeling whose destination is to impel toward the furtherance of life would contradict itself and would not therefore subsist as nature…

I have always interpreted this passage as expressing some kind of natural law theory rather than a deliverance of the categorical imperative. The function or role of self-love is the preservation of life. Using it in this way violates that natural function and so results in a contradiction of a sort but not the usual sort you find in the case of perfect duties. Of course the flaw in that reasoning is that it is not obvious why it must be the case that to use something contrary to its function is immoral (is it immoral to use a butter knife to screw in a screw?).

For full disclosure, I take myself to be a Kantian of a sort, though I would probably not be viewed as an orthodox Kantian (I, for instance, think we can derive Utilitarianism from the Categorical Imperative (like Hare did as well) and I think we can derive duties towards animals in much the same way). And I also take it that suicide is morally permissible in at least some cases and so I have always been happy to see something odd about Kant’s argument against suicide.  Yet today in class I found myself wondering whether this natural-law-remnant theory is the most charitable reading of that passage.

In the case of the other perfect duties we seem to find a pattern where in the imagined world the very thing that we are trying to do becomes impossible. Thus in the lying promise case the very act of making a promise becomes impossible. Since we cannot be coherently described as promising in a world where everyone makes lying promises we arrive at a contradiction. So, too, in the case of lying in general. In a world where everyone lies to avoid discomfort lying itself is impossible. So too for stealing. In a world where everyone steals stealing is itself impossible (since there is no ownership in such worlds and when we steal we take ourselves to be owners). So if we are to extend this general line to what Kant says here then it must somehow be the case that in the world where the maxim in question is a universal law suicide itself is impossible.

This seems implausible but it might not be. Suicide is the act of taking one’s life out of self-love. If self-love is itself not possible then suicide is not possible. So maybe what Kant had in mind was that self-love is by definition the thing which impels us towards life and so in the suicide-maxim world there is no self-love since there is no universal drive towards life, but rather only a limited drive towards life-as-long-as-it-is-agreeable or some such. Since there is no self-love there can be no suicide (which requires that you act from self-love). This would still be a questionable argument (since the limited thing still seems like self-love enough to do its job in ‘normal’ circumstances) but might be a more fair way of reading Kant’s claim in the above passage.

Emotive Realism and Moral Deviance

On my view a moral judgement consists in a moral emotion or sentiment as well as a belief about the correctness of that sentiment. So to judge that slavery is wrong is to have the moral sentiment of condemnation and the belief that condemnation is the correct emotional reaction to have. I also claim that we express both of these attitudes at the same time when we say that slavery is wrong but that this is not the meaning of the sentence ‘slavery is wrong’.

Last night while having drinks with my colleague Aaron Rizzieri he brought up what he thought was a problem for my view from what I will call moral deviance. Take, for instance, someone who has a genuinely positive emotional reaction to the thought of violence against women but at the same time knows that this is the wrong way to feel. This person might say “Violence against women is wrong, and I feel the wrong way about it”. It may seem that on my view ‘violence against women is wrong’ is used to express moral condemnation of violence against women (i.e. the moral emotion of condemnation and the belief that this is correct way to feel about it), but this person does not morally condemn violence against women since they have a positive emotional response to it so it looks like he is contradicting himself, even though the sentence itself is not contradictory. However, in this case the person most likely means that they understand that moral condemnation is the appropriate attitude to take towards violence against women and is saying that the attitude that they actually have towards such violence is the wrong attitude to have. This is not a problem for my view because I only claim that we typically use these sentences to express our moral sentiments, not that we do so in every case. This person is using the sentence in a non-standard way, but we often use sentences in non-standard ways. The only claim I want to make is, as already said, that the speech acts that I am pointing out are done by us as well. And that these speech acts capture what we might call distinctively moral speech acts.

Now Aaron raised a slightly different objection from moral deviance. When our moral deviant says that violence against women is wrong he is not performing the speech act that I have called moral condemnation but is he expressing a moral judgment at all? Saying no seems implausible but if yes then it doesn’t seem like my account captures what is essential to moral judgements. It seems to me that they do make a moral judgment but that it is deformed. Deformed moral judgments seem to me common and useful. The hope is that one’s belief will eventually lead to one having the appropriate moral emotional reaction and thus to the appropriate behavior.

One might see this kind of objection pushing one towards the view that the moral judgment should be identified with the belief in question.  So on this reading our moral deviant would be expressing the belief that the moral emotion of condemnation is the correct emotional response to violence against women but ultimately this just doesn’t seem right to me. Real moral judgments just seem to me to be rooted in emotional reactions.

4th Annual Felician Ethics Conference

I have presented at two of these conferences and each time it has been a fun and rewarding experience. I strongly encourage people to submit something!

The fourth annual meeting of the Felician Ethics Conference will be held at the Rutherford campus of Felician College on Saturday, April 24, 2010, from 9 am – 6 pm. (Felician’s Rutherford campus is located at 223 Montross Ave., Rutherford NJ, 07070.)

The plenary speaker is Christopher Morris (University of Maryland, College Park), speaking on the topic, “Why Be Just?”

Submissions on any topic in moral philosophy (broadly construed) are welcome, not exceeding 25 minutes’ presentation time (approximately 3,000 words). Please send submissions via email in format suitable for blind review by Feb. 1, 2010

Alternatively, send surface mail to:

Irfan Khawaja, Conference Coordinator

Dept. of Philosophy

Felician College

262 S. Main St.

Lodi, NJ 07644

Undergraduate submissions are invited for a proposed session consisting of undergraduate papers.

If you have any questions, or would be interested in serving as a commentator and/or chair for individual sessions, please contact Irfan Khawaja, (201) 559-6000 (x6288),