Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book II: Chapter III - Pleasure and Pain — The Test of Virtue

Summary

To determine whether or not one is in full possession of a particular virtue or excellence, the pleasure or pain that accompanies the exercise of that quality can be used as an index. This is because moral excellence is primarily a matter of concern with pleasure and pain. The following points are relevant here:

  1. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the main causes of evil action, for pleasure can make men do base things and pain can deter them from doing noble things. This is why Plato said that right education is a matter of making men feel pleasure and pain for the right reasons.
  2. Virtue is concerned with actions and feelings or emotions and these may be accompanied by pleasure or pain.
  3. Pain is used as an instrument of punishment, for nature works by means of opposites and pain can have a remedial effect in the case of vicious men.
  4. Every characteristic of the soul shows its true nature in regard to those factors which can make it better or worse. Men become corrupted through pleasure and pain, either by pursuing or avoiding pleasure or pain of the wrong kind, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. This indicates that the object of ethics is to learn to feel pleasure or pain for the right reasons. We may assume that virtue enables men to act in the best way in matters involving pleasure and pain, and that vice does the opposite.

At this point it has been determined that moral goodness is a quality disposing men to act in the best way while dealing with pleasures and pains, and that vice disposes them to act in the worst way in the same situation.

There are three factors which determine our decisions in all our actions: (a) the noble or morally fine, (b) the beneficial or expedient, (c) the pleasurable; and there are three factors that determine avoidance in our actions: (a) the base, (b) the harmful, (c) the painful. In dealing with the effects of any of these, it is most likely the good man who will be able to make the right decision and the bad man who will make the wrong decision, especially in matters pertaining to pleasure.

Furthermore, the capacity for pleasure, which men share with the animals, is ingrained in human beings. In all actions, to some extent, pleasure and pain are used as a standard. Thus, to feel pleasure and pain wrongly is an important factor in human conduct. It has been said that it is harder to fight against pleasure than it is against anger, but both virtue and art have always been concerned with that which is harder, for success in something is proportionate to the difficulty of achieving it. Virtue is not to be interpreted as freedom from pleasure and pain. Rather, these are the materials which, when molded into the right form, enable us to become virtuous.

To sum up, the following conclusions can be made:

  1. Virtue or excellence is concerned with pleasure or pain.
  2. The actions which produce virtue are identical in character with those that increase it.
  3. These same actions differently performed can destroy virtue.
  4. Virtue finds expression or is actualized in the same activities which produce it.

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