The Idea of Pleasure and Pain in Aristotle’s The Nichomachean Ethics

The underlying motive of the unfashioned narrative of pleasure and pain in Aristotle’s Ethics is to tell us how we should act to exhibit virtue.


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

According to Aristotle, ‘the pleasure or pain that accompanies people’s acts should be taken as a sign of their character’, ‘because the person who abstains from bodily pleasures and finds his enjoyment in doing just this is temperate, while the person who finds doing it oppressive is intemperate; and the person who enjoys facing up to danger, or at least does not find it painful to do so, is courageous, while he who does find it painful is a coward’.

aristotle-pleasure-and-pain
Aristotle

The reason for this is the fact that excellence in character is concerned with pleasures and pains. As the great Aristotle says, ‘it is because of pleasure that we do bad actions, and pain that we abstain from noble ones.’

Here, Aristotle outlines the importance of upbringing from childhood in a particular way, ‘so that we may find enjoyment or pain in the right things’.

The ‘final good’ that Aristotle says in Nichomachean Ethics (hereafter, Ethics) is ‘happiness’ or ‘eudaemonia’. Attaining happiness requires an account of virtue, or excellence (arête). Character is one of the two types of virtues. And, since character is influenced by pains and pleasure, virtue itself is concerned with pleasures and pains.

Again, Aristotle notes that ‘if the virtues are concerned with actions and feelings, and every feeling and every action is always accompanied by pleasure or pain’, then it naturally follows that ‘virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains’. ‘The fact that punishment is based on pleasure and pain is further evidence of their relevance; for punishment is a kind of cure, and cures by their nature are effected by contraries.’

Aristotle also insists that ‘it is because of pleasure and pain that people become bad- through pursuing or avoiding the wrong ones, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong manner, or in any other of the various ways distinguished by reason’.

In this manner, the character of a person is also altered because of the nature of the action- pleasurable or painful.

Virtue and vice are concerned with the same things. Aristotle gives us three considerations to explain this to us. The noble, the useful, and the pleasant are the three objects of choice, whereas their contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful are the three objects of avoidance. In respect of all these, especially pleasure, the good person tends to go right, and the bad person to go wrong. This is common to all animals, and accompanies all objects of choice, because what is noble and what is useful appear pleasant too.

It is true that pleasure has grown up with all of us from our infancy and is consequently a feeling that is difficult to remove, ingrained as it is in our lives.

‘And, to a greater or lesser extent, we regulate our actions by pleasure and pain….the person who manages them will be good, while he does so badly will be bad.’

Aristotle concludes the Chapter with the passage that ‘virtue is to do with pleasures and pains; that the actions which produce it also increase it, or, if they assume a different character, corrupt it; and that the sphere of its activity is the actions that themselves gave rise to it’.

Critical Engagement with what Aristotle says about Pleasure and Pain in Ethics

nichomachean-ethics-aristotle
The Nichomachean Ethics

If we critically examine the whole of Book II we find that the virtue of character is a result of habituation.

‘None of the virtues of character arises in us by nature’.

Since character is the result of habituation then there is enough space for pleasure and pain to play an important role in an individual’s character formation. That is why Aristotle says that character should be moulded from the early stages of a person’s life so that he or she can be taught what is the right pleasure or pain.

Pleasure and pain also plays an important role in a person’s disposition as well. The action of a person is always accompanied by pleasure and pain. The pleasure or pain that is associated with any given activity is a sign of how developed one’s skills are. For example, if I enjoy facing upto danger and do not feel pain in that, then I am courageous. But contrary to this, if I am painful to do so, I am a coward.

However, Aristotle is not saying that we should determine which actions are good or bad based on whether they bring pleasure or pain. For instance, spending some good time with a girlfriend or boyfriend is more pleasurable as compared to reading a difficult text of philosophy which is usually painful! I suppose I’m not wrong on that!

But Aristotle says that we often do the wrong thing because it is pleasurable, and we do not do the right thing because it is painful.

Here, fro Aristotle, the origin and means of the development of each virtue are the same as those of its corruption. To quote Aristotle,

“the person who enjoys every pleasure and never restraints himself becomes intemperate, while he who avoids all pleasures- as boors do- becomes, as it were, insensible. Temperance and courage, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency, and preserved by the mean”.

Therefore, ‘virtue will be the sort of state to do the best actions in connection with pleasures and pains, and vice the contrary’.

In fact, moral virtue or excellence in virtue is an ability to act in the best way concerning pleasure and pain. In other words, pleasure and pain should accompany one’s actions ‘in the right way’. One should feel pleasure and pain ‘in thee right things’ or one should be situated ‘in the right manner’ and ‘at the right time’ with respect to pleasure and pain.

The underlying motive of the unfashioned narrative of pleasure and pain in Aristotle’s Ethics is to tell us how we should act to exhibit virtue. Of course, the best way is to follow the mean which is between the two extremes.

However, Aristotle says more than that.

‘What people enjoy or dislike has a strong influence on what they do, so that pleasure and pain are very important aspects of any moral education.’

It is with pleasure and pain that moral virtue or character is concerned. According to the choices a person makes in accordance with what is pleasurable or painful to him, the person’s character is known. (Well, whether pretension or procrastination should be considered in this scenario needs to be dealt separately). Likewise, one’s character is altered by the very nature of the action- pleasurable or painful. Pleasure and pain determine what the character of a person is. Pleasure and pain determine whether the person intends to do the noble action or the bad one.

I want to conclude with a personal comment that all our actions are concerned with pleasure and pain. We are easily tempted or in fact we want to pursue what is pleasurable though this may not be the right thing to do. What we find right pleasure is when we pursue the right action. However, finding out or knowing the right action is another issue, yet Aristotle’s solid advice would be to go for the ‘golden mean’.


NOTE: This article looks into two questions worth examining in every person’s life:
The pleasures or pains that follow an act are signs of an individual’s character. What does this imply?
How does one’s character alter whether an action is pleasant or painful?
(Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 3).

Reference

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Penguin, 2004).

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