Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pleasure and pain

In chapter 3, Aristotle argues that doing things well or poorly involves pleasure and pain, and the pleasure or pain that is associated with any given activity is a sign of how developed one's skills are.

For instance, if I stand up to a danger and delight in that, I am courageous, but if I stand up to that danger and it pains me to do so, then I am a coward. The idea here seems to be this: when you delight in doing the right thing, you have developed your skills fairly well, but if it still pains you to do the right thing, then you need to keep working at it. 

This is a subtle point. Aristotle is not saying that we should decide which activities are good and which are bad based on whether they bring pleasure or pain. Now, sex (for instance) is always pleasurable, while doing the right thing often involves pain. Aristotle openly admits that we often do the wrong thing precisely because it is pleasurable, and we don't do the right thing because it might be painful.

But that doesn't mean (according to Aristotle) that we should always indulge in sex, or always avoid doing the right thing. On the contrary, thinks Aristotle, we should avoid excesses and do the right thing, even if it is not as pleasurable as indulging.

But Aristotle's point, I think, is that when we have developed our skills well enough, it will, in the end, bring us pleasure to exercise those skills correctly. Conversely, if our skills are underdeveloped, it may be painful to exercise them correctly. So the enjoyment we get from exercising our skills correctly is a sign of how developed they are. When we delight in the proper exercise of our skills, we know that our skills are reaching a high degree of development.

This is why I said earlier that developing skills to do the right thing involves emotional training. Doing the right thing is not simply doing the right thing but feeling something different. No, as Aristotle sees it, we need to bring our emotional responses in line with the right thing to do. So we should delight in the right thing to do, not feel conflicted about it.

Aristotle also makes the point that training from childhood is important, for otherwise, he seems to think, we would always just indulge in the pleasurable (like sex) and avoid the painful (like abstaining). We need, he says, to be trained from a very young age to delight in doing the right thing.

So, says Aristotle, pleasure and pain accompany all activities, but we need to be careful about following or avoiding the pleasurable or painful. It is easy to pursue the pleasurable, but this may be wrong. On the other hand, once we have developed our skills sufficiently, doing the right thing becomes pleasurable indeed.

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