Day 5:
Virtue and Pleasure (cont'd)

Live Like an Aristotelian

This is the second day of a two-day assignment. After completing the assigned exercises for yesterday and today, click here to access the prompt for tonight’s reflection and to submit your 1-2 paragraph journal entry.


Their life, then, has no need of a pleasure that is superadded to it, like some sort of appendage, but has its pleasure within itself. For besides what we have already said, the person who does not enjoy doing noble actions is not good. For no one would call a person just who did not enjoy doing just actions, or generous if he did not enjoy doing generous ones, and similarly as regards the others. If that is so, however, actions in accord with virtue will be intrinsically pleasant. But they are also good, of course, and noble as well. Further, they are each of these things to the highest degree, if indeed an excellent person discerns them correctly—and he does discern them that way.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.8

Aristotle holds that pleasure is not “superadded” to the good life as a supplement or an external good, but is instead somehow internal to virtuous activity itself. This is why a virtuous person’s actions are “intrinsically pleasant.” Elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics, he makes it clear that he is no hedonist about the human good, for he claims that what a virtuous person “discerns” and responds to in acting virtuously is not the pleasure supplied by the activity, but its nobility—which is to say, its virtue. The goal of acting virtuously on this view isn’t to receive pleasure but to exhibit virtue.

For various reasons, then, living well for Aristotle cannot lie in the experience of pleasure alone. As we know, he holds that the good life for a human being lies in fulfilling our rational function virtuously. And he goes further: since the pleasure that a virtuous person takes in an activity depends on the nature of that activity, and since some activities accord with virtue and some with vice, it follows that some pleasures are better for us and others are worse: “Just as activities differ,” Aristotle argues, “so too do the corresponding pleasures” (NE X.5). If this is right, not all pleasures are equally good for us. Some can be bad. And it’s possible therefore to take a stand on the quality of our pleasures.

Today's Exercise

Continue the exercise you began yesterday in training yourself today to take pleasure in acting virtuously while employing Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. As you do so, however, be careful that you don’t make pleasure the motive for your action instead of virtue. Remember that Aristotle doesn’t believe it’s for the sake of pleasure that a virtuous person acts virtuously. Rather, you should regard the pleasure you experience as a hidden bonus for doing the virtuous thing.

Once more, fill out the two logs for your chosen virtues, and as you go about your day reflect especially on the quality of the pleasure you experience in acting virtuously. How does this pleasure differ, if at all, from other feelings of enjoyment in your life?  If you found some of the activities painful to carry out, do you find yourself feeling differently about them after some time has passed?