Virtue and Pleasure
Live Like an Aristotelian
This is a two-day assignment. After completing the assigned exercises for today and tomorrow, write up a journal entry for both days tomorrow evening.
We must take the pleasures and pains that supervene on a person’s works as an indication of his states. For someone who abstains from bodily pleasures and enjoys doing just this is temperate, whereas someone who is annoyed is intemperate, and someone who endures terrible things and enjoys doing so—or at least is not pained by it—is courageous, whereas someone who is pained is cowardly. For virtue of character is concerned with pleasures and pains.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.3
Can we train ourselves to feel pleasure? You might think that taking pleasure in an activity is something outside of your control, since pleasure is a physiological response and nothing more. Yet if the virtue you’ve decided to cultivate this week is a character strength you really want to develop, then engaging in the sort of activity that displays this trait should be enjoyable at some level.
To get a better handle on this idea, consider the difference between “first-order” and “second-order” desires. Perhaps you’re not the kind of person who enjoys acting moderately, for example, and so you have no—as philosophers and psychologists put it—“first-order” desire to be moderate. But if moderation was a virtue you chose to develop this week, you probably have a “second-order” desire to be moderate: a desire to desire to be moderate. And when you recognize you’re satisfying that second-order desire, this should give you pleasure.
But will it? Well, you can try testing Aristotle’s hypothesis for yourself.
Today and tomorrow you’ll attempt to train yourself to take pleasure in acting virtuously. Continue cultivating the virtue you’ve been focusing on this week, but now select one more. This should be a character strength you expect it will be difficult for you to exhibit, though one that you identify with and want to develop, like the virtue you selected on Day 2. Again, if you need a list of virtues, see the addendum at the end of Day 1.
Your efforts today to turn your virtues into habits should involve the same method you’ve been employing for the past two days: deliberate action and the use of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. However, you now need to make a special effort to take pleasure—or at least not feel pain—in behaving virtuously.
Much here will probably depend on the degree to which you identify (or want to identify) with your chosen virtues. Remind yourself today why you find it important to develop these character strengths, and throughout the day ask yourself whether the pleasure you get from acting virtuously differs in quality (not simply in quantity) from the pleasure you get from other pleasure-providing activities.
Create another virtue log for yourself today in addition to the one you created on Day 2. Now add another column to both logs labelled “pleasure,” resembling the table in the image below. Fill out both logs with the usual information: the actions you did and the time when you completed them. But now also note, on a scale of 1-10, the pleasure that you took in completing these actions.