Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Why Is Virtue Naturally Pleasing?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Why Is Virtue Naturally Pleasing?

Article excerpt

Book 10 of Nicomachean Ethics opens with a number of important claims about pleasure. Aristotle says:

After these matters we ought perhaps next to discuss pleasure. For it is thought to be most intimately connected with our human nature, which is the reason why in educating the young we steer them by the rudders of pleasure and pain; it is thought, too, that to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought has the greatest bearing on virtue of character. For these things extend right through life, with a weight and power of their own in respect both to virtue and to the happy life, since men choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful.(1)

A great deal is compressed into this passage; pleasure is associated in important ways with our nature; it has a crucial role in moral education; we can be pleased and displeased correctly or incorrectly, and this has a place in making character; and pleasure is something that matters all through a human life. Some of the themes are introduced and discussed at earlier places in the Ethics; some receive fuller treatment in book 10. The idea that some things are naturally pleasant and that the virtuous find pleasure in the correct things first occurs in book 1.(2) The centrality of pleasure to Aristotle's ethical inquiry is perhaps not obvious right away, but it is unmistakable when the Ethics is considered as a whole. Its relation to good is fundamental.

The relation between pleasure and good is one of the central and enduring issues of ethics. We might be tempted to think that whereas the relation is obscure, pleasure at least is not. Here, however, is a case in which it is plain that familiarity does not breed intelligibility. Recognizing pleasure is one thing, understanding it is another; and Aristotle's account of pleasure and the relation to good that he indicates are crucial resources for an adequate conception of pleasure and its place in the geography of ethics. The present discussion is largely an exposition and defense of the basic elements of Aristotle's account of pleasure and its relation to good, with a particular emphasis on the notion of good activity being naturally pleasing.

It is part of Aristotle's conception of human nature that desire is essential to it. By desire he does not mean just wanting this or that; rather he means that the activity of leading a human life involves striving for a kind of completion or actualization. A human being realizes its nature by organizing and articulating desire into rationally informed activity. A human being is not just a being that has desires or has desires that figure in some way in its practical reasoning. An individual's life-history is, in a sense, a history of enacting conceptions of what the person takes to be good; and what the person takes to be good is a matter of how his nature as an appetitive being is disposed. Desire can be well or ill-ordered, attached to the right objects or ends or to the wrong ones. Given people's second natures - the dispositions that are their character - they take pleasure accordingly in what they tend to desire. A practical being aims at what it thinks good, and tends to be pleased by what it thinks good. Pleasure, then, is ethically significant in its relation to activity, character, and conceptions of what is choiceworthy. This discussion is not an attempt to give a diagnosis of pleasure generally or to outline an account of its explanatory role with respect to action. It is a consideration of why virtue is naturally pleasing, and it is, with a few excursions into related matters, confined to that issue.

That virtue is naturally pleasing is defensible even if we do not endorse Aristotle's overall teleology of human nature. There need not be a best kind of human life or a unique specification of the successful realization of human potentialities in order for there to be desires which are right desires or pleasures which are best, that is, which are naturally pleasing in a normative sense. …

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