The Relation between Virtue and Pleasure in Aristotle and Kant
‘Every action and choice is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.’ (Aristotle: 1094a1-3). Philosophy has always been concerned with trying to determine why we do the actions we do: what are we hoping to achieve by performing certain actions? The above quote is Aristotle’s opening sentence in the Nicomachean ethics, but how are we actually meant to achieve this good that we are aiming for? Many people in the world would be happy to support the claim that the good is achieved by being virtuous – but what exactly does this entail? For Aristotle, ‘moral excellence comes about as a result of habit’ (Aristotle: 1103a16-17) and ‘happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with complete excellence’ (Aristotle: 1102a1-2). It then seems we are safe to claim that the good, (“moral excellence”), corresponds with happiness, but was he right? And does this happiness include pleasure, or is it excluded? Are virtue and pleasure synonymous? Can they even exist harmoniously at all?
Throughout the history of thought, philosophers have attempted to discern that element of human nature that can be most aptly described as the action of taking pleasure in doing certain actions, and in the consequences that arise from any given action. The role of virtue in this pleasure process has been assessed and criticised for hundreds of years; does being virtuous give us pleasure, or does pleasure distract us from doing virtuous things? Is happiness the key to a moral life?
My aim in this essay is to address these questions, and related questions, according to the philosophies of Kant and Aristotle. In doing so, I aim to discover what the relation between virtue and pleasure really is, according to these two philosophers. My aim is to discover what the role is of both virtue and pleasure, and the connection between them, in the works of both philosophers, and try to establish where the two philosophies align, and where they are incompatible.
At first, it seems as though both philosophers are wholly incompatible in their views of where our morality, our motivation to strive for the good, comes from. Even how the two define what the good is seems to differ too much to offer any similarities. As I briefly mentioned in my opening paragraph, for Aristotle, the purpose of human life is the good, and ‘the highest of all goods achievable by action … is happiness. And [many] identify living well and faring well with being happy’ (Aristotle: 1095a16-19). For Kant however, the question of morality is wrapped up in the concept of “duty” – ‘he … does the action without any inclination, simply from duty; then the action first has its genuine moral worth’ (Kant 1997: 4:398).
In this essay I will explain exactly what both meant, and critically assess their ideas, with the ultimate goal of somehow reconciling the two seemingly opposing viewpoints. In the process of doing this I will first give an explanation of the foundations of these views – what part of each philosopher’s life’s work these ideas about morality have arisen from.
When examining any philosophical theory I think it is of vital importance to understand how those particular ideas have been formed – what part of the writer’s thought and theories have these ideas originated from? In this section, I will give a brief overview of whereabouts in their respective works do Kant and Aristotle expound their views on morality, in reference to both pleasure and virtue.
Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics is part of his practical philosophy (along with his Eudemian ethics), and is primarily a search for what the ultimate goal of human life is. Aristotle was a student of Plato, and as such was likely to have been influenced by his philosophy. It is nothing new to philosophy to be preoccupied with morality. Arguably Plato’s greatest work, The Republic is fundamentally an inquiry into morality and justice, and what sort of society would be best for cultivating “the moral man”. In book II of The Republic, Plato tells a story of the mythical ring of Gyges, which is a ring that renders the wearer invisible. Glaucon (the teller of this story in the dialogue) claims that no man, no matter how virtuous or just he is, could resist acting immorally if there was no danger of punishment (Plato: 359c-360c). Glaucon does not believe that any man who had no consequences to face would be moral – his claim is that we are moral because society forces us to be so, through fear of being reprimanded. In this case, morality becomes a social construct, and has nothing to do with the singular man – who would dismiss moral behaviour in an instant if he believed he could avoid castigation.
Aristotle’s ethics do not follow this way of reasoning, he believes that man can be moral within himself, and also that a man is not virtuous simply by performing virtuous actions, ‘his action must [also] proceed from a firm and unchangeable character’ (Aristotle: 1105a32-33). Aristotle is often misquoted about what he really meant, due to a mistranslation of the original Greek. Aristotle describes the goal of human life as eudaimonia, which is oft translated as happiness. However, the original meaning of this word is something more akin to being ‘blessed as regards one’s own spirit’ (Pakaluk 2005: 47), or more literally, human flourishing. Pakaluk (2005) goes on to explain the fundamental differences between our commonplace definition of happiness and how we must understand it as a translation of eudaimonia. Most importantly we must understand that Aristotle’s happiness is not a hedonistic happiness where ‘pleasure is regarded as the chief good, or the proper end of action’ (OED 1989). Eudaimonia is a stable, lasting condition, one that does not fluctuate according to day-to-day events – it is an ultimate goal rather than a temporary one. It is also objectively universal – it is not a subjective condition based upon the wants of each individual – it is a state of being, not a mood or inclination, which is similar for all human beings and is characterised as living well – ‘the happy man lives well and fares well’ (Aristotle: 1098b20).
Aristotle’s definition of virtue is also similarly misunderstood. The original Greek is arete which means ‘any sort of excellence or distinctive power’ (Pakaluk 2005: 5). Thus being a virtuous person means possessing a certain sort of excellence (of character) which leads us to act virtuously. This form of morality bases the value of any action on the character of the agent – an agent must be ‘a certain type of person who will no doubt manifest his or her being in actions or non-actions’ (Pojman 2002: 160). We cannot take morality from the actions in themselves, because virtue can be demonstrated through the conscious omission of any certain action – morality must instead be based upon the agent.
For Kant, his views of how pleasure can affect the goodness, or virtue, of any action can be found most clearly in The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. The Groundwork (1786) comes between the two different versions of the Critique of Pure Reason that were published (1781 and 1787), and there is certainly a crossover of concepts, with Kant utilising some of the arguments of the Critique in the Groundwork. Namely, his distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, respectively, the world as it is in itself and the world as it appears to us. This distinction between the true essence of things, and their appearances provides us with ‘two standpoints from which [man] can regard himself and cognize laws … for all of his actions’ (Kant 1987: 4:452).
The aim of the Groundwork is to ‘proceed analytically from common cognition to the determination of its supreme principle’ (Kant 1997: 4:392). In other words, Kant wants to start from the common perception that every action has some sort of moral value and discover what the underlying principle of morality is, that causes this presupposition.
This supreme principle that we uncover must be a synthetic a priori one – we must be able to deduce it from what we already know, because we are trying to discern how we ought to be from the evidence of how we are. The Groundwork is the quest to discover what this principle is. According to Kant a virtuous person is someone who performs the right actions for the right reasons (which seems to be similar with Aristotle’s view – the action itself does not hold any value – the value instead lies within the agent’s intent). A person who acts thus demonstrates a good will, which is the only thing to which we attribute total merit – ‘It is impossible to think of anything … that could be considered good without limitation except a good will’ (Kant 1997: 4:393).
This good will possesses worth completely independently of any circumstances, both the means and the ends are good. ‘Even if … this will … should yet achieve nothing, then [it is still] something that has it full worth in itself’ In other words, the good will does not need to achieve its end in order to be good, merely the attempt is so.
Kant then introduces the concept of duty in order to explain how we are able to manifest the good will in our actions. The concept of duty ‘contains that of a good will though under certain subjective limitations and hindrances, which, however, far from concealing it and making in unrecognizable, rather bring it out by contrast and make it shine forth all the more brightly’ (Kant 1997: 4:397). If we do our duty from duty (i.e. for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do, rather than due to some other inclination or motivating desire) then we are doing the right actions for the right reasons – we are being virtuous.
Kant uses formulations of his categorical imperative in order to demonstrate how we can determine what our duty is, although I will not go into them in this chapter. Kant shows that any system used to deduce our duty must be categorical, and not hypothetical, because a hypothetical imperative tells you how to achieve a certain end – if you will x, then you must also will y in order to be able to achieve x. A hypothetical imperative is conditional, it depends on something else. A categorical imperative cannot be so – it tells us what we ought to do unconditionally, not on the condition of something else. Kant uses his formulations of the categorical imperative in order to demonstrate when we can say an act is done from duty or not. If an act is done from duty for duty’s sake, then it is a virtuous action, if not, then it is not, even if the action is not necessarily “bad”.
Virtue and Pleasure in Aristotle
Virtue can be taken to have several different meanings; the dictionary definition is ‘conformity of life and conduct with the principles of morality; voluntary observance of the recognized moral laws or standards of right conduct; abstention on moral grounds from any form of wrong-doing or vice’ (OED 1989). For Aristotle the idea of virtue is the mean between two vices, stray but a little from the middle, and you are no longer being wholly virtuous. This Aristotelian view of virtue is often seen as in direct opposition to the Kantian view of virtue – that the virtuous man is the man who acts solely from the motivation of wanting to do his duty, without enjoying the act at all. I will explain in full whether this common view of Kantian ethics is correct in the following chapter, and in this chapter I will explain what I mean by my definition of Aristotelian virtue, and exactly what that signifies in relation to pleasure.
Aristotle’s ethics are usually defined as virtue ethics – they are agent centred, and depend (like Kant) not on the act that is done, but instead on what sort of person we need to be, what sort of character we need to have, in order to be able to commit virtuous acts. Aristotle starts off the Nicomachean ethics by trying to discern what the goal of human life is, and in book one manages to come up with what standards he thinks this goal must adhere to – what are the characteristics this ultimate goal must have in order to be classed as such?
Aristotle states that ‘we call complete without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be: for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else’ (Aristotle: 1097a34-1097b1). Our ultimate goal, the highest good, must be desired for itself only, and not as a means to something else. Aristotle refers to this ultimate goal of human life as eudaimonia, but what does this really mean? Does eudaimonia equate to hedonistic pleasure? Accordingly to Aristotle, eudaimonia is not synonymous with pleasure, he states that ‘happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with complete excellence’ (Aristotle: 1102a1-2), so happiness is the achievement of pure excellence, or of complete virtuousness. Human flourishing is what we achieve when we successfully fulfil the human function – when we excel at what it is that makes us distinctly human.
This means, that in order to understand this ‘human flourishing’ which is the ultimate goal of human life, we also need to understand the function of human beings – ‘Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man.’ (Aristotle: 1097b22-25). Aristotle believed that everything in the world has an “ergon”, a function, which is ‘that for the sake of which it exists; therefore the achieving of this work, or, more precisely, its doing so well, is its good; but only a good thing of a kind achieves its function well’ (Pakaluk 2005: 75). For example, the function of a knife is to cut things, so a good knife must be able to cut things well, therefore a good knife must be sharp. If there is to be a human function, then it will be what makes us essentially human – what it is that separates us from everything else in the world – the thing that we are best capable of. But what makes Aristotle believe that humans necessarily have to have a function?
Aristotle claims that it is merely common sense that man should have a function, because everything else in the world does – ‘Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and man has none? Is he naturally functionless?’ (Aristotle: 1097b29-30). It seems clear that man must have a function just as any other thing does. So what is this function? If something only achieves its function well if it possesses the certain virtues that make it a good thing of its kind (like sharpness for the knife) then the human function must be something that is best achieved by humans more than anything else in the world. Or even, it may be something that is only achievable by human beings. ‘A virtue is a trait that makes a thing of a certain kind good and in view of which we call a thing of that kind “good”.’ (Pakaluk 2005: 75). In this way, Aristotle’s function argument follows on to an investigation into what qualities human beings possess, what virtues they possess in their character, that makes them distinctively human.
In order to find out what the human function is, we need to find something that is distinctive to humans. It cannot be merely living, as that is shared with even plants, and it cannot be perception, because although that rules out plants, it still includes the animal kingdom. Instead the human function must be ‘an active life of the element that has a rational principle’ (Aristotle: 1098a3-4). In other words the human function, that element of human beings which is characteristic to us alone, is our capability to reason; our rationality.
Of course, this definition of the human function as rationality causes some problems in the case of people who have diminished rationality – what does this mean for them? Take, for example, the mentally handicapped who have reduced capacities of reason through no fault of their own – are they really less capable of living fulfilling and flourishing lives than “normal” people? Are they “less good”? It seems as though, according to this argument, we are required to count them as worth less. However, I will not dwell on this problem, as I am more concerned with what this idea of a function implies for the role of pleasure in Aristotle’s ethics.
What then, does it mean that the human function is our capacity to reason? The human function is what we must achieve excellence in, in order to be “good” (just as the knife must achieve excellence in its function of sharpness, in order to be a good knife). This means that morality, and consequently virtue, are intrinsically linked to the human function, to our rationality – it is our reason that allows us to achieve virtue. We must use our reason in order to discern what is virtuous. Our function of rationality is what allows us to achieve our excellence, to achieve our virtue.
So how does our reason allow us to achieve our virtue? It allows us to choose whatever course of action we feel would allow us best to achieve our happiness, our telos (ultimate goal). Hursthouse (1991) reads Aristotle as meaning that an action is regarded as “right” because it is what a virtuous person would choose to do, but is it not the other way round? Does a virtuous person not choose to do certain acts because they are good? This problem is obviously reminiscent of Euthyphro’s dilemma from the platonic dialogue of the same name – is a certain act considered good because God says it is so, or does God say it is so because it is good.
For Aristotle the ability to choose the morally right action in any situation is an ability to follow the moral mean – ‘that moral excellence is a mean, then, and in what sense is it so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency’ (Aristotle: 1109a1-3). So for example, the virtue of bravery is the mean between cowardice and rashness. Aristotle also states that virtue is dependent on our character – if we have the right character we will be predisposed to commit actions of the right sort. ‘Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit … states arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind’ (Aristotle: 1103b20-22). Therefore, if we habitually perform the right sort of action, then we will generate the right sort of character, thus enabling us to almost automatically choose the correct action, which sits in the middle of this scale between virtue and vice. Our eudaimonia is more and more fulfilled by each instance in which our character “automatically” chooses the virtuous action.
Does this idea of virtue as the mean between two vices imply that pleasure is then a vice, being the vice at one end of the scale of the virtue of moderation, whilst the other end is despair? A virtue can be best described as the course of action that allows us to achieve our eudaimonia. So is pleasure more suited to this task than despair (if we take despair to be the other end of the scale)? Would the mean on the scale in actuality lie closer to the end of pleasure than the other? Is this a purely arithmetical mean, the exact midpoint between two extremes, or is it something more flexible? Just as everyone requires different amounts of food in their everyday life (such that everyone’s “mean” between scarcity and gluttony differs), would it not make sense that the mean of enjoyment is different for everyone as well? Such that enjoyment of life, whilst it does not mean a slavish commitment to complete hedonistic pleasure, could mean that pleasure does play an important role in our lives. I believe that Aristotle would agree with me here, since he states that ‘no one nature or state is or is thought the best for all, neither do all pursue the same pleasure’ (Aristotle: 1153b29-30). In other words, we do not all desire the same pleasures to the same degree, instead we pursue only those pleasures which are best suited to helping each of us, as an individual, to achieve our eudaimonia.
We can therefore agree with Sherman’s reading of Aristotle, that ‘moral habituation is the cultivation of fine (or noble) pleasures and pains’ (Sherman 1989: 190). In this way, virtuousness does not mean a complete abandonment of all pleasure, but instead tells us that we should be interested in only those pleasures which are “worthy” of the rational mind. In some ways this bears similarity with Mill’s recalculation of Bentham’s utilitarianism – that some pleasures (of the intellect) are worth more in the hedonic calculus than mere physical pleasures (Mill 2001). However, appreciation of the right pleasures is a taught skill also. By that I mean one of habit, such as virtue is according to Aristotle, and as such ‘we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained in the things that we ought’ (Aristotle: 1104b11-13).
What is slightly problematic is that Aristotle gives two seemingly wholly different accounts of what pleasure is. In Book II he states that ‘it is on account of pleasure that we do bad things’ (Aristotle: 1104b10), by this meaning that a love of pleasure for itself will lead us to ignore the virtuous path and live a life of pure hedonism, thus failing to achieve our telos of eudaimonia. In Book VII he states that ‘the view that pleasures are bad because some pleasant things are unhealthy is like saying that healthy things are bad because some healthy things are bad for the pocket’ (Aristotle: 1153a17-18). This view is nonsensical, and would lead us to having to avoiding almost every type of activity. Some pleasures are bad, but this does not necessarily make all pleasures bad.
However, whilst these two accounts do differ, there is a common theme between them, which is that pleasure is not necessarily bad, and can exist in harmony with virtue. However, we need to qualify exactly what pleasures we mean here, as not all pleasure can be called good. Annas (1980) interprets Aristotle as believing that pleasure is only good when done by the virtuousness man, because the habit of his character will lead him to only choose to act on those pleasures which are virtuous – ‘it is right for the good man to seek pleasure; pleasure will point him in the right direction.’ (Annas 1980: 286). Whereas the man who is immoral in habit will only persue those pleasures which ‘confirm the deplorable tendencies of [him], since it will strengthen his habits of wickedness and weakness’ (Annas 1980: 286-7). Here, the important point is not that we need to avoid pleasure, but that we need to be sure that we are pursuing the right kind of pleasure before we act upon it – the pleasure of the virtuous man, not the deplorable man.
The obvious problem with this interpretation is that Annas at first glance seems to be claiming that only a good person can access pleasure in a good way. Where does this leave the immoral man who wishes to reform his character? Is there no possibility that he will be able to choose those pleasures that are good for his character? Is this what Aristotle is really saying when he claims that virtue is a matter of habit, of character? ‘If the things [the good man] finds tiresome seem pleasant to someone, that is nothing surprising; for men may be ruined and spoilt in many ways; but the things are not pleasant, but only pleasant to these people and to people in this condition.’ (Aristotle: 1176a19-22). This quote for one certainly seems to be suggesting that the virtuous man will be able to steer clear of immoral pleasures, whilst the immoral man will not.
Aristotle emphasizes several times the fact that his ethics is based upon repeated behaviour, on habit, and ‘a short time [or virtuousness], does not make a man blessed or happy’ (Aristotle: 1098a18-19). What this means is that a period of immorality in a man’s life does not necessarily preclude him from ever achieving his eudaimonia, and similarly, a brief period of virtuousness does not make a man wholly virtuous. Aristotle’s ethics is a system of right and wrong that demonstrates itself through habit, and habits can change, although it may be hard to dispose of bad habits, of immoral habits, because ‘it has grown up with us all from our infancy; this is why it is difficult to rub off this passion [for immoral pleasures]’ (Aristotle:1105a2-3). This does not mean that it is impossible, indeed it must be possible to change our character, otherwise what we are taught in our youth would be how we remain for life, meaning that whether we become a good or a bad person depends more on our teachers, rather than any attempt at morality by ourselves.
We cannot be deprived of a chance at our eudaimonia just because we fail to receive the right training of character in our youth. It must be possible to reform and for the immoral man to pursue good pleasure – or how else can he become a man who chooses only good pleasures out of habit? Some might claim that this seems unfair. If moral virtue is merely an act brought about by habit, then it is far easier for the good man to be virtuous that it is for the bad man to be so – so where is the incentive for the bad man to change his ways and attempt to cultivate the right sort of character in order to be good by habit? But ‘even the good is better when it is harder’ (Aristotle: 1105a10), and the bad man will be rewarded if he perseveres. If a bad man successfully changes his character to that of the virtuous man, then he is satisfying the human function, the human ergon, and he will be able to achieve the ultimate telos for human beings – eudaimonia – his human flourishing. The incentive for the bad man to change his ways, no matter how difficult it may be, is that he will achieve the ultimate goal of complete happiness. In this way does the right sort of pleasure, lead first to the cultivation of a habit of character of complete excellence or virtue, which in turn then leads to ultimate happiness.
However, as Hutchinson (1986) points out, there is a problem with this idea that, ultimately, restraint over which pleasures we decide to pursue is how we describe virtue. If ‘discipline produces virtue and, when misguided, defect of character, by means of pleasure and pain, the virtues (and vices) are dispositions for enjoying and disliking things’ (Hutchinson 1986: 79). Hutchinson goes on to state that this cannot be so, because children are rewarded in the study of arithmetic through pleasure and pain. So then ‘arithmetical skill is a disposition to enjoy or dislike certain mathematical operations. And that is not true; it is simply a disposition to come to the right answer’ (Hutchinson 1986: 79). For Hutchinson Aristotle’s argument is unsuccessful merely because it is too vague, a vagueness which allows for the arithmetical comparison to be made, and this would not be a fault suffered if the argument was constructed with more care. Ultimately, this means that although the argument is open to criticism, it leaves Aristotle quite confident in his claim that virtue is a form of character, created by the repeated habit of choosing the correct moral path – that of the virtue at the mean point between two vices. And it is this mean point which will ultimately lead to eudaimonia. As long as pleasure is taken in moderation, it can still be synonymous with virtue, and allows for pleasure to be a part of our eudaimonia, the ultimate goal of human flourishing.
Virtue and Pleasure in Kant
For Kant being virtuous means acting in accordance with duty, for duty’s sake, and not due to some other motivation in the place of duty (even if the same action would result).There are some philosophers (I will go into detail further on) who have claimed that Kant’s notion of duty eliminates the possibility of pleasure – that is, if you take pleasure in any said action, it eliminates any dutiful intent that was previously present. However, I do not believe this is actually what Kant meant, and in this chapter I will explain why I believe this and attempt to elucidate exactly what Kant meant when he talked about duty, and the implications this has for our conception of pleasure.
For Kant, an action can only have moral worth (i.e. be virtuous) if and only if it is done from duty, for duty’s sake. So, in order to understand exactly when we can claim under Kant’s theory that we are being virtuous, we need to understand exactly how we are meant to do our duty, and to do this, we need to examine the categorical imperative. Although Kant does state that there is only one categorical imperative, ‘he offers three different formulas of that law’ (Sullivan 1989: 149) so sometimes in philosophy the term is used more generally to describe these three formulas (and their associated examples) as a whole, rather than just the first formula by itself.
Kant states that ‘there is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative’ (Kant 1987: 4:421), but what is it, and how does he come to this conclusion? As I mentioned before, any categorical imperative must be synthetic because defining our morality depends on being able to formulate a synthetic a priori principle. A synthetic principle adds something new to our knowledge, and if it is also a priori, it means that this new knowledge does not depend on experience – we are able to deduce this synthetic principle independently of any particular experience; we are able to deduce it by examining what we already know to be true about the world. This is because, for Kant, moral judgements are based on how the world ought to be, not how it is, so we cannot depend on our experiences of the world as it is to show us how the world should instead be. Morality cannot be based on experience, because we need an ethical theory that is capable of telling us what we should do, even in entirely new circumstances.
The categorical imperative is essentially a law, because while everything in the world is subject to the laws of nature, only rational beings possess autonomy, possess a “(free) will”, so are capable of choosing to act according to any given law. ‘The idea of an objective principle in so far as it is compelling to the will, is called a command of reason, and the formula of the command is called an imperative.’ (Russell 2007: 644) Therefore, a theory of practical morality would be a theory of commands about how to act according to certain laws. A theory of morality would be a theory consisting of imperatives. Kant refers to his categorical imperative as the only one, because ‘logically there can be only one ultimate moral law [although] each of the three formulas emphasizes a different aspect of the same moral law’ (Sullivan 1989: 49).
The aim of the Groundwork is to prove that such a principle (what Kant calls the categorical imperative) does exist. Such a principle would be ‘the supreme principle of morality’ (Kant 1997: 4:392), in other words, the categorical imperative is synonymous with morality. Kant describes the categorical imperative, through three different formulas. The first is the formula of the universal law – ‘act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’ (Kant 1997: 4:421). This law is Kant’s ‘single categorical imperative’ (Kant 1997: 4:421); however this is not exactly what our duty is, since the ‘universality of law in accordance with which effects take place constitutes what is properly called nature.’ (Kant 1997: 4:421). This means that in order for something to be our duty, it must be determined in accordance with universal laws, because duty is not subjective to each individual, but is something that is the same for all rational beings, in so far as we are rational. This means that our duty can and should be phrased as: ‘act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.’ (Kant 1997: 4:421).
Kant uses four examples