Can Aristotle respond to the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure?

By: Alessandro Barbieri, MSc Philosophy 2015, University of Edinburgh

In this essay I will discuss a problem facing Aristotle’s claim that virtuous activity is pleasant, which has been somewhat ignored by the literature. The issue is that it is in contradiction with his account of courage as well as particular instances of other paradigm virtues. This essay will defend Aristotle’s account by identifying a weaker reading of this thesis, which can evade the problem. The position will be argued for through the following structure: (I) Some preliminary remarks on pleasure and virtue; (II) The statement of the problem (henceforth, the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure); (III) The solution to this problem; (IV) An evaluation of the solution in terms of objections and responses.

Preliminary Remarks

First, a few introductory points must be made regarding Aristotle’s account of pleasure and its connection to virtue.

The Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth NE for short) presents two definitions of pleasure, one in book VII, the other in book X. The first is that Aristotelian pleasure is an unimpeded activity of “one’s natural state” (1153a17). To understand what is meant by this, some clarifications are in order. First, an agent can experience pleasure only in her natural state and, to be in her natural state, she mustn’t experience impediments. Furthermore, pleasure is an activity which attaches itself to other activities or states, as seen in the second definition below and at 1153a15. Thus, we cannot be in a natural state unless the activity or state pleasure is attached to is unimpeded. This is the sense in which pleasure is an unimpeded activity, i.e. that it is attached to a state or activity that is natural for the agent.

The second of Aristotle’s claims is that pleasure completes an activity, as a supervenient end (i.e. not an end we aim at by the activity, but one which comes as a consequence of the aimed-at end) “like the bloom of manhood on those in their prime” (1174b32). He takes an activity to be complete if its faculty is in perfect order (functioning perfectly) and it is directed at the best possible end it could be (1174b14-16, in relation to sight). Although, pleasure is not a constituent part of an activity, it is “part and parcel of performing the activity naturally” (Hughes 2001, pg 198, italics added). If there are no conflicts within the agent when performing the virtuous action, then pleasure will flow from it as a consequence, completing it.

It is worth noting that these two definitions of pleasure are oftentimes taken to be in opposition, or at best unrelated (e.g. Owen 1971-72). However, they should perhaps be better understood as being closely related definitions, as shown by a comment in Book VII by Aristotle: “no activity is complete when impeded” (1153b16-8). This is also clear from the explanation given above of how pleasure completes an activity: i.e. it is experienced and completes an activity when this is performed naturally. The paradigm Aristotelian case of an activity that is not natural is one where the agent is in conflict. Conflict is here taken to consist of impulses (e.g. emotions) capturing a consideration against some actions. This is the same as the understanding of “impediments” that is relevant to moral questions. Hence, a conflicted activity is equivalent to an impeded one. Thus, if an activity is impeded, it cannot be performed naturally, and pleasure cannot flow from it. Therefore, if an activity is impeded, neither is it complete. Given this close relation I will henceforth, for ease of presentation, focus on pleasure as unimpeded activity.

Turning to the connection between virtue and pleasure, it is a central tenet of Aristotle’s that the virtuous person will take pleasure in doing what is virtuous (1099a11-20). There are two reasons for this. One is educational, in that finding virtue pleasant will ensure that the young will be motivated to act accordingly. The second is that Aristotle took virtuous activity to be truly pleasant because it arises with the pursuit of the most noble and fine ends by means of excellent faculties. Hence the pleasantness of virtuous activity follows from the definition of pleasure. Thus, the standard reading of Aristotle on this point is that the virtuous person will always take pleasure in acting virtuously. However, as will be seen, this interpretation encounters a serious problem: The Problem of Virtue and Pleasure.

The Problem of Virtue and Pleasure.

This issue consists in two distinct sub-problems involved in the account of the relation between virtue and pleasure: the first is preoccupied with a conceptual point about Aristotle’s own account of courage, while the second is concerned with a substantive one about the appropriateness of taking pleasure in certain virtuous activities.

(a) The Problem from Courage. Famously, Aristotle’s account of courage appears to contradict his claim that virtuous activity is always pleasant. The conflict lies in the fact that courage necessarily involves fear, an experience that for Aristotle is in contrast with pleasure (e.g. 1117b1-11).

Aristotle’s paradigm of the courageous person is that of the free citizen soldier defending his polis and I will refer to this example in the following explanation. Acting courageously necessarily involves the overcoming of one’s fears in order to defend something noble and genuinely valuable (e.g. the safety of one’s city-state). This is not to be taken in the sense that one must become fearless in order to be brave. It is true that Aristotle claims that we ought to rid ourselves of certain fears, but these are only the fears of things that are not truly fearful. We still ought to fear the loss of what is truly valuable. This is precisely what is at stake in cases of courage: e.g. losing an ability, suffering an injury, failing to protect the noble thing we are defending and being killed. Moreover, the virtuous person ought to fear death more than others as his or her life is more valuable than theirs (1117b12-16). Thus, the virtuous person must be afraid whilst acting courageously, overcoming these some fears whilst retaining others, namely, the fear of losing what is valuable. Therefore, as fear is in contrast with pleasure (being at least closely related to pain), acting courageously cannot involve pleasure.

(b) The Problem From Inappropriate Pleasures. Hughes (2001) highlights another class of problem cases which are distinct, though related, from those above. The issue is that there are particular virtuous actions for which it would be inappropriate for the agent qua virtuous to experience pleasure. I will clarify this by means of an example: If in order to be honest, “I have to tell [someone] some very uncomfortable truths, […] are such virtuous actions satisfying or pleasant? Indeed, would the person who enjoyed having to do such things be a good person at all?” (Hughes 2001). This example demonstrates how there are cases of virtuous action where experiencing pleasure is inappropriate. Doing so would be an indicator of a less-than-virtuous character. We would even expect a virtuous person to experience distress due to their empathy for the other’s pain.

Thus courage is not the only problem for Aristotle’s account of pleasure. The Problem from Inappropriate Pleasures demonstrates the more general nature of the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure. Furthermore, it also undermines certain solutions to the latter, such as Curzer’s (2012) and Broadie’s (1991), where the pleasure of virtuous activity is attached to the success of our virtuous enterprises, hence dismissing fear and similar emotions experienced whilst performing an action as irrelevant. Although this may be a plausible approach to the Problem from Courage, it cannot be extended to the Problem from Inappropriate Pleasures. It will be equally inappropriate to take pleasure in virtuous actions such as the honesty case after their success, as it was to do so during. Furthermore, responses claiming that some pleasure will still be present as part of the activity (as 1117b17 could be interpreted as suggesting) would similarly fail, in that even these enjoyments would be improper.

Solution to the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure.

(a) Diagnosis. A solution of the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure must start with an account of its root. We must answer the question “what causes the unpleasantness of the problem cases?” This is that the fear and pain experienced in these scenarios are impulses capturing considerations that are in conflict with the performance of the virtuous activity. However, as has been seen, these cannot be brushed aside as indicative of a less-than-virtuous character because they seem to follow from being virtuous (more on this at §IV.b). This entails that these virtuous activities qua virtuous are impeded. As Aristotelian pleasure is unimpeded activity, this would disqualify the activity from being pleasant. For instance, courage would not be a case of pleasurable virtuous activity because the activity is necessarily impeded by fear. Fear features as an internal impulse that must be overcome throughout its performance. Similarly in the honesty scenario above, where being honest is impeded by the consideration of the distress this will cause the other. This impeding consideration is what causes us not to take pleasure in being honest.

(b) Solution. The problem then rests with the conflict between the assertion that virtuous activity is pleasurable and that certain virtuous actions are impeded by conflicting virtuous considerations. Finding a solution to this is particularly urgent as we would otherwise have to ascribe an outright contradiction to Aristotle: virtuous activity is pleasant; pleasure is unimpeded activity; some virtuous activity is impeded; therefore, some virtuous activity is not pleasant. Invoking the appeal to charity that is often used when interpreting Aristotle (e.g. Nussbaum 1993), then, we should strive to solve this apparent inconsistency.

The proposed way to formulate such a solution is to distinguish between two interpretations of the thesis that virtuous activities involve pleasure: a strong thesis holding that all virtuous activity is pleasant (S), and a weak one maintaining that virtuous activity is prima facie pleasant (W). By prima facie pleasant I mean that it is the kind of activity that in itself, other things being equal, would be pleasant. This allows for cases where virtuous activity is not in fact pleasant, because of virtuous considerations that are in conflict, and hence impede, its performance.

To clarify, the prima facie pleasantness is associated with the worthiness of the end the activity is aimed at. However, there may be other worthwhile and fine ends that happen, in particular cases, to be in conflict with the ultimately virtuous one. The virtuous agent must be aware of these, through considerations and impulses, such as fear, as they are genuine features of moral reality. So, taking courage as an example, consider the free Greek citizen fighting to ensure the safety of his polis (the worthy end). This is something that, in itself, would bring pleasure to citizens, in particular if they are contributing to it. On the other hand, if the virtuous activity by which they achieve this end involves other virtuous considerations that are in conflict with its performance, then the pleasantness of the end may be obscured. In the case of courage this is inherent in the kind of activity that it is, as it necessarily involves putting oneself at risk (which is fearful). The virtuous agent should act according to the end of the virtuous activity, despite any other conflicting virtuous considerations.

Furthermore, this could help us understand 1117b17: “it is not true, then, except in so far as one achieves the end, that the exercise of every virtue is pleasant” (italics added). That not “every virtue is pleasant” is a clear denial of S. Further, “except in so far as one achieves the end” can be taken as espousing the prima facie approach of W: i.e. considering only the fact that the activity’s (worthwhile) end has been achieved, the activity is a pleasant one (so, in itself, other things being equal), which allows there being other considerations that, in fact, bar it from being pleasant. This is a particularly plausible interpretation of the extract given that the preceding passage claims that the pleasantness of the end, in these virtuous activities, is obscured (1117b1-11).

Arguing for the Weak Thesis.

(a) Objection 1. A problem can be raised at this junction. In his discussion of moral training and of virtue, Aristotle clearly argues that the truly virtuous person mustn’t be conflicted about their acting virtuously. To be virtuous agents, we must not only have desires to act virtuously, but also lack conflicting ones. Our emotions and desires must reflect the moral aspects of a situation or activity. Hence, if the activity really is virtuous, whilst acting, we shouldn’t experience any pain-like and distressing emotions. These would obscure the reality of the action in question as virtuous and they can prevent us from acting virtuously, so from the point of view of moral training, we should rid ourselves of them.

A dilemma then arises: if we experience internal impediments to acting virtuously then either (i) we are not truly virtuous (because we are conflicted about acting virtuously), or (ii) the act is not actually virtuous, our emotions being an indication of the truth. Both horns are unacceptable as both would involve rejecting Aristotle’s account of courage as well as our intuitions in §II.b.

Response. This criticism misunderstands Aristotle’s account of the role of emotions and desires in the deliberative process of the virtuous agent. Our emotional reactions should reflect all aspects of a moral situation. The more advanced our training, the more aspects and subtleties of a situation should be reflected in it as considerations. The appropriate pleasure, pain and desires to be experienced in a situation by virtuous agents are not just fixed by what the virtuous thing to do is. Rather, they should reflect all relevant aspects of a moral situation. So pain must feature in our experience of a situation involving the loss of something valuable or the gaining of something harmful, despite this being the right thing to do. This is clear in his discussion of courage, for instance. Fear is necessarily featured in courageous activity because the activity must involve the endangering of something valuable, such as our lives.

If the reality of some situation stops us from performing some action, then either the action in question wasn’t virtuous or we are not fully virtuous afterall. Truly virtuous agents must experience distressful that impedes virtuous activity if they are reflective of some morally relevant aspect of this situation and, while recognising this, also understand that it is still virtuous to act counter to these impulses. To clarify, the courageous person must experience fear when their life is endangered, because this is the reality of the situation they are in: something truly valuable, their life, is in danger. They must understand this, but then act despite it given that they also realise that defending something noble is the truly virtuous thing to do. Acting while failing to understand that our life is in danger or its value would not constitute courage, but a blindness as to the reality of the situation (whether because of an excess of confidence, i.e. rashness, or a deficiency of fear).

(b) Objection 2. Though fear of something truly fearful must be experienced as an impediment for someone to be courageous, this is not the case with all possible impediments. For example, some physically strenuous act may be necessarily a part of some virtuous action. However, such physical strain is certainly not considered by Aristotle as a relevant impediment. But if no activity can be pleasurable if it encounters an impediment, what is to bar these kinds from being relevant as well?

Response. The answer to this criticism is, quite naturally for Aristotle, to appeal to what the virtuous agent would experience as a genuine impediment. Fear, unlike physical strain, is an impediment to acting in a certain way for them. Physical strain can only be an impediment to the success of the activity. This is because fear is relevant to the moral evaluation of an action as it reflects the endangering of something valuable (our life), which is itself morally valuable. By contrast, the physical strain involved in an activity is not relevant to the evaluation of its moral status, and hence is not a genuine impediment to the activity. Thus, in the language of §III, these are not prima facie reasons for not performing the virtuous action.


In conclusion, the Problem of Virtue and Pleasure is solved by interpreting Aristotle’s claim that virtuous activity is pleasant in the sense of W: virtuous activity is prima facie pleasurable. This position is found to be not only compatible with Aristotle’s wider philosophy, but also a non-contradictory reading of his claim that virtuous activity is pleasant.



ARISTOTLE, Nicomachean Ethics, CRISP, R., trans., ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000).

BROADIE, S., Ethics with Aristotle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

CURZER, H.J.,Aristotle and the Virtues, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

HUGHES, G.J., Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics, (Oxon: Routledge, 2001)

NUSSBAUM, M.C., “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach” from Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen ed., The Quality of Life, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), Ch. 18, pp. 244-67.

OWEN, G.E.L., “Aristotelian Pleasures”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 72 (1971-1972), pp. 135-152.


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