Pleasure and Pain: Necessary but not Sufficient for Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Development
Pleasure and pain are prominent features of the Nicomachean Ethics and scholars generally agree on the important role they play in the development of moral virtue. However, differences of opinion among scholars emerge when discussing the exact role they play in moral development. Many scholars who uphold the pleasure-centered view of moral development believe that pleasure provides a sufficient guiding role, eventually leading moral learners in the right direction. However, others argue that this view falls short because it doesn’t recognize any other potential factors that could also be shaping this development, most importantly the role of the moral mentor. In this paper, I will use some of the views expressed in Marta Jimenez’s paper “Aristotle on ‘Steering the Young by Pleasure and Pain’” as well as additional evidence in Nicomachean Ethics to show the ways in which pleasure and pain are necessary but not sufficient to the development of moral virtue. I will argue that the role of a moral mentor, the person guiding moral learners and influencing their development, is not adequately recognized by those who maintain the pleasure-centered view. I intend to respond to the pleasure-centered view and use this view as one of the main potential objections to my paper. I will also respond to an objection offered by a view similar to the pleasure-centered theory in which learners develop a desire to perform virtuous actions by association with external pleasures.
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Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes the way that pleasure and pain can be used to educate and steer the young. This has influenced many scholars to believe that pleasure and pain are the primary and sufficient guiding forces of moral development. While I agree with these scholars about the important role that pain and pleasure play in moral development, I argue that pleasure and pain are necessary but not sufficient forces guiding the pursuit towards moral excellence because focusing on pleasure and pain alone greatly undermines the necessary role that a moral mentor plays in this development for Aristotle.
Pleasure is a central topic in the Nicomachean Ethics and there is strong evidence indicating the ways in which correct calibration of pleasure and pain is necessary for moral development. In Nicomachean Ethics X.1 1172a20-22, Aristotle states that pleasure is an “ineradicable aspect of our humanity” and therefore “this is why those who educate the young try to steer them by means of pleasure and pain”. According to Aristotle, “excellence of character has to do with pleasures and pains” and a further proof of this fact is shown by the “practice of forcible correction, which takes place through pleasures and pains” (NE II.3, 1104b8-18). This seems to highlight the fact that moral development for Aristotle is clearly shaped at least in part by pleasures and pains and that they both play a major role in excellence of character.
However, pleasure and pain are not the sole factors influencing moral development. There must be someone that is correctly calibrating these experiences and acting as a mentor figure. In Nicomachean Ethics II.3, Aristotle likens the act of performing the “forcible correction” to medical treatment. Medical treatment for Aristotle is a type of technical expertise because it is “a productive disposition accompanied by true rational prescription” (NE VI.4, 1140a21). If calibration of correct pleasures and pains is similar to medical treatment, then it too must be calibrated by someone who has already developed this type of technical expertise and not just moral excellence. This can be expressed through an example that we may see in our everyday lives: often the parents of a child are virtuous people, however, their child is constant trouble-maker. The parents, despite their moral virtue, seem at a loss at how to correctly discipline their child and lead them to moral excellence. The correct calibration requires someone to act as the moral mentor and this person must have already developed excellence of character and also developed the technical expertise necessary to teach this. This is further supported by the fact that Aristotle explicitly says that excellence is “a disposition issuing in decisions, depending on intermediacy of the kind relative to us, this being determined by rational prescriptions and in the way in which the wise person would determine it” (NE II.6, 1106b36-1107a2). By stating that excellence must be completed “in the way in which the wise person would determine it”, he indicates the importance of the moral mentor and proves that pleasures and pains are not sufficient without this person leading the calibration.
Because excellence of character involves the practice and habituation of virtuous actions, the pleasure that is felt from virtuous actions must behave differently than bodily pleasures. As Jimenez (2015) explains, “learners should not only ‘become aware’ or ‘experience’ the nobility of the actions before they can take pleasure in them…they should also, as we learn in Nicomachean Ethics I.8 and III.10, already have love for the nobility of the virtuous actions if they are to find pleasure in such activities” (143). Aristotle highlights this distinction by explicitly stating that there is a difference “between pleasures of the soul, like love of honor and love of learning, and those of the body” (NE III.10, 1117b28-30). This proves that virtuous pleasure is distinct from appetitive or natural pleasure. The learners are not experiencing pleasure in these actions because the pleasure associated with them is natural or felt by everyone in relation to the body, but because they have learned to love these actions perhaps with the help of a mentor. This also proves that pleasures of the body cannot be used as the guide in moral development because the pleasures that are felt from virtuous actions are distinctly different. A mentor has the ability to help develop a love for these types of virtuous actions which then allows the learner to experience a pleasure in them. This pleasure is different because it is not naturally present. The combination of the role of a moral mentor and the unique pleasure felt from performing virtuous actions is then sufficient in guiding moral development.
Due to the unique way in which virtuous pleasure is set up in the Nicomachean Ethics, the commonly believed pleasure-centered view of moral development must be rejected because an understanding of the virtuous action must occur first before proper pleasure can be experienced. Virtuous pleasure can only be experienced after the learner has developed proper understanding of them. Therefore, pleasure cannot play a guiding role in helping to foster habituation in them. Aristotle argues that “each of the pleasures is ‘bound up’ with the activity that it completes” (NE X.5, 1175a29-30). Therefore, virtuous actions must first be understood and performed well before pleasure in them can be felt. While pleasure can be felt while acting virtuously, there must be something else that guides the learner to perform this virtuous activity in the first place. The pleasure plays a necessary supporting role instead of a primary guiding role.
One potential objection to my thesis is that pleasure is in fact the primary guiding role in moral development. The result of a good childhood is for the learner to acquire a love for the pleasures that come from virtuous activities and therefore, these pleasures alone lead to the learner appreciating the value of virtuous activities. According to Myles Burnyeat (1980), learning to be virtuous and to perform virtuous actions is “learning to enjoy” these type of pleasures (76). The learner will seek the pleasure that is felt by virtuous activities and continue to want to strive towards these and improve due to the pleasure. This process is driven by a desire for these types of pleasures and “does take time and practice – in short, habituation” eventually allowing the learner to “appreciate the value the makes them enjoyable in themselves” (78). The habituation occurs by feeling the pleasure from virtuous actions and then continuing to learn to appreciate this pleasure leading to more virtuous actions and further habituation. Therefore, by continuing to perform virtuous actions, the learner garners more and more pleasure from them guiding them towards full moral development. Pleasure is a sufficient guide toward moral development because, as Jimenez explains (2015), it has the qualities to “attract learners by the goodness of virtuous activities” (140). Pleasure is clearly presented in Nicomachean Ethics as an immensely strong guiding force because “all things, both brutes and human beings, pursue pleasure” (NE VII.13, 1153b25-27). Aristotle also states in Nicomachean Ethics X.1 that “those who educate the young try to steer them by means of pleasure and pain”. Therefore, Julia Annas (1980) argues it is reasonable to argue that pleasure plays the primary guiding role in the development of moral virtue because it is the object of pursuit for all sentient beings and will “lead in the right direction” (285).
However, in response to this objection, there are multiple places the pleasure-centered view falls short. This view of moral development falls short because these scholars are inverting the order of priority of learning virtuous actions and finding pleasure in them. Aristotle clearly states that, “one cannot get the pleasure of the just person without being just” (NE X.3, 1173b29-30). Therefore, Jimenez (2015) argues it is “performing the action well that produces the characteristic pleasure” (144). The pleasure cannot provide the primary guiding function or lead moral development because it cannot be felt without experiencing the virtuous act while being just. For example, someone who is a learner who has not developed moral virtue, most likely would experience little to no pleasure in the virtuous actions and may even find them painful. A just person may find noble pleasure in sharing half of their cookie with a friend even if they desired the whole cookie, but the learner would find the sharing of the cookie unpleasant and would be unmotivated to continue these types of actions without encouragement from a moral mentor.
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The pleasure-centered view also falls short because it fails to mention the importance of the moral mentor. The pleasure-centered view fails to adequately describe how the learner is initially taught which actions are virtuous or even how to distinguish between bodily pleasures and noble ones. Using the cookie example, the mentor could step in and continue to encourage the learner to perform virtuous actions and even help them begin to recognize the noble pleasure that can be felt. The habituation that is a prominent feature of the pleasure-centered view seems overall unrealistic without a mentor because the learner would most likely not know to pursue these actions in the first place. This is further supported by the fact that Aristotle explicitly says that excellence is “a disposition issuing in decisions, depending on intermediacy of the kind relative to us, this being determined by rational prescriptions and in the way in which the wise person would determine it” (NE II.6, 1106b36-1107a2). By stating that excellence must be completed “in the way in which the wise person would determine it” shows the importance of the moral mentor and proves that pleasures and pains are not sufficient without this person leading the calibration.
Another potential objection offered by Jimenez (2015) to my thesis is that the role that pleasure plays in moral development is a “model analogous to the way in which behaviorists describe learning by association” (144). In this model, it is clear the primary guiding role pleasure has is teaching learners to perform virtuous activities because “learners acquire a taste for virtuous and come to find them attractive or repulsive by associating them with rewards or punishments” (145). Through practice, learners start to ascend the ladder of pleasures and eventually develop a love for the noble pleasures in themselves. In the beginning of learning, “the pleasures and pains involved in the rewards and punishments are ‘external’ to the activities to which they are linked” (145). However, eventually through practice and continuous association, the associated pleasure for virtuous activities is able to transform into pleasure in the virtuous activities for themselves. For example, if a parent wanted their child to develop a love for chess, they could provide rewards for not only playing chess but also additional reward for winning the game. This association will lead the child to practice and learn how to win so they can maximize their reward from this activity. The idea of this model is that eventually the child will develop a love for chess in itself and will no longer need to external rewards as the motivation for playing has shifted to a more virtuous type of pleasure (146).
However, this model of learning has multiple flaws and is not consistent with Aristotle’s views of moral development. This model falls short because Jimenez (2015) explains “there is no explanation of how the conditioning through external rewards might lead to developing a taste for chess in itself” (146). It seems very unlikely that the simple and repeated association will create this transformation of motivations. In Nicomachean Ethics X.5, Aristotle states that “each of the pleasures is ‘bound up’ with the activity that it completes” (NE X.5, 1175a29-30). This establishes a very close connection between pleasures and activities ultimately making learning by association impossible. It is also important to point out that the pleasures that would be used in learning by association are appetitive pleasures and are not the same as noble ones. Aristotle also makes a distinction between proper and alien pleasures where alien pleasures are the appetitive ones that those who try to teach though association may be using. Aristotle says that “alien pleasures have been stated to do much the same as pain; they destroy the activity” (NE X.5, 1175b23-24). Therefore, once again, learning by association is impossible for Aristotle because these alien pleasures are not helpful, in fact, they are detrimental to moral development.
As I have shown, pleasure and pain are necessary but not sufficient forces guiding the pursuit towards moral excellence. Focusing on pleasure and pain alone greatly undermines the necessary role that a moral mentor plays in this development for Aristotle. This view of moral development challenges the work of scholars who have long upheld the pleasure-centered view; however, this new interpretation also has implications for anyone who endorses Aristotelian virtue ethics. Ultimately, what is it at stake here is whether pleasure and pain is enough to drive proper development towards moral excellence or if, as I have argued, the role of the mentor is a necessary addition to this process. This view introduces unique consequences for the development of moral excellence potentially limiting the breadth of accessibility for all learners. Without a mentor, then the development will overall be unsuccessful, however, having a mentor seems to be something reserved for a very fortunate group of learners. Further analysis should examine the detailed role the mentor may have in this process and how active of an interaction with learners is necessary for proper moral development.
- Annas, J. (1980). Aristotle on Pleasure and Goodness. In Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 285–99. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Aristotle, Rowe, C. J., & Broadie, S. (2004). Nicomachean ethics. Oxford: University Press.
- Burnyeat, M. F. (1980). Aristotle on learning to be good. Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy,259-281. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511974069.016
- Jimenez. (2015). Aristotle on “Steering the Young by Pleasure and Pain”. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy,29(2), 137. doi:10.5325/jspecphil.29.2.0137
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