‘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 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.
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 to demonstrate how this universal law of nature maxim can be put into use; the suicide candidate, the man who needs to borrow money, the man who gives in to pleasure, ignoring his natural gifts, and the man who is concerned only with himself. Here I will only go into more detail for the man who needs to borrow money example to demonstrate how Kant believed our duty should be understood. Kant also uses the examples to divide duty into two categories – perfect and imperfect duties, a distinction which he explicates fully in The Metaphysics of Morals. However, since Kant himself notes that ‘the division here stands only as one adopted at my discretion (for the sake of arranging my examples)’ (Kant 1997: 4:421), I will not go into the intricacies of the distinction here, as both types are still classed as duties, and my concern here is with duty in general and how it relates to pleasure.
Imagine that you need to borrow some money urgently and you will not be able to pay it back. However, the only way you will be able to secure a loan is if you make a lying promise that you will be able be pay the money back. Is this permissible? If we decide this course of action is permissible, then the maxim for this action would be ‘when I believe myself to be in need of money I shall borrow money and promise to repay it, even though I know that this will never happen.’ (Kant 1997: 4:422). But can this maxim become a universal law? And the answer is quite clearly no, because if everybody made promises that they had no intention of keeping, then of course, no one would ever believe someone who made a promise – the whole concept of a promise would become null and void.
We also need to take into account that the maxim of the universal law requires not only that we would be able to allow our course of action to become a law, but at the same time, also will that it is a law. ‘Some actions are so constituted that their maxim cannot even be thought without contradiction as a universal law of nature … in the case of others that inner impossibility is indeed not to be found, but it is still impossible to will that that their maxim be raised to the universality of a law of nature because such a will would contradict itself.’ (Kant 1997: 4:424). So even if the idea of the law does not cause a contradiction (unlike the lying promise example where this is the case), still a contradiction in the will may arise. Take the example of the man who is concerned only with himself, and will never come to the aid of another human being. While Kant agrees that such a maxim would be universalisable and such a society could exist, it is still impossible that one should will it to exist. Since ‘a will that decided this would conflict with itself, since many cases could occur in which one would need the love and sympathy of others and in which, by such a law of nature arisen from his own will, he would rob himself of all hope of the assistance he wishes for himself.’ (Kant 1997: 4:423).
The universal law of nature is, in Kant’s view the most important principle of morality, and although he does formulate two other laws, all three are ‘claimed to be reciprocally equivalent and to represent one and the same principle from different sides’ (Wood 1999: 18), but I only mention them here. The second law is formulated as such: ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.’ (Kant 1997: 4:429) The third law is: ‘Every rational being must act as if he were by his maxims at all times a lawgiving member of the universal kingdom of ends.’ (Kant 1997: 4:438).
In summary, our duty is whatever actions we can commit to, whilst at the same time willing that they become a universal law of nature, so that everyone acted as such in the given circumstances. For Kant, we are virtuous when we do our duty, which we discern by utilising the categorical imperative. Our actions can only have genuine moral worth if and only if they are the manifestation of doing our duty, for duty’s sake, i.e. if we are motivated by any other reason other than duty, to do the actions that duty would require, then those actions have no moral worth. However this is not to say that these actions must be condemned instead. But where does pleasure come in all of this? Is it related to our duty, or is it completely independent of it?
Kant is often quoted as believing that if we take pleasure in an action, then we are no longer doing it for duty’s sake, so the action no longer has moral worth. The passage that leads people to believe this is when Kant discusses the case of the misanthropist. Imagine a man who has great sympathy for his fellow human beings and is as such moved to aid others from the goodness of his personality, and he takes great satisfaction in doing so, conforming with duty in his actions. However, this type of action although it may ‘conform with duty … has nevertheless no true moral worth’ (Kant 1997: 4:398) – the sympathetic man’s actions are not virtuous. Compare this man with the misanthropist, who takes no pleasure in helping others. He merely helps others because his duty requires it, and if this man ‘does the action without any inclination, simply from duty; then the action first has its genuine moral worth’ (Kant 1997: 4:398).
It seems as though Kant is claiming that the man who enjoys his duty is actually no longer doing his duty at all – he is doing the right actions but for the wrong reasons, so we cannot attribute any moral worth to his actions, because only actions done from duty can be said to have genuine moral worth. But is this the same as claiming that pleasure nullifies the dutiful intent that was there initially? Certainly some critics in the past have claimed this to be Kant’s view, some even going as far to claim that ‘compared to an agent that does his duty with pleasure, Kant must prefer an agent with strong desires that run contrary to the moral law who does his duty … with resentment towards the moral law which thwarts his desire’ (Weber 2007: 66).
However, it is not right to claim that an action which is done out of motivation for pleasure, is the same as an action done out of motivation to do one’s duty, which then causes pleasure in the undertaking of that act, as an additional side-product. If an action is embarked upon because of the motivation of duty, but the agent then gains pleasure in the undertaking of that action, I do not think this means that the resulting pleasure causes the action to be no longer done from duty, and so cannot be said to have moral worth. It seems absurd to claim that any unintentional resultant pleasure would nullify the dutiful intent that caused the action in the first place, especially since ‘the rightness or wrongness of a volition depends wholly on the nature of its motive. It does not depend on its actual consequences’ (Broad 2000: 177). In other words, duty does not need to be successful in order to be present – the moral worth of an action is based on whether or not it was done from a motive of duty. So as long as the action is done from a motive of duty, then even if the act is not successful, or the desired consequences are not achieved, still the moral judgement stands, because the motive was right.
Henson (1979) claims that Kant is misunderstood in this way because he fails to address what Henson calls “overdetermination”, which he defines as ‘cases in which one has two or more logically independent motives for x-ing, and does x, and would have done x from any one of those motives even in the absence of the others.’ (Henson 1979: 42). What this means is that duty is not actually needed in the face of these other motives in order to achieve the desired end that duty would produce, but both are present in sufficient amounts, and would each be sufficient to cause the action if the other were not present. This is an example of acting in conformity with duty, but not necessarily from duty – how do we know which inclination was strongest, and so thus caused the action? Does the presence of any other motives mean that there is no possibility that we are still acting from duty?
Henson criticises Kant for failing to address the idea that cooperating inclinations may be present in sufficient degree to cause action, but it is not necessarily so that they are the cause of the action, rather than duty, which is also present in sufficient amounts. He goes on to claim that if Kant were to answer this criticism then he believes Kant would come up with three possible responses:
1. That duty by itself would have sufficed, so we can say the action was done from duty (whether or not any cooperating motives were present).
2. Cooperating motives were present, so the act was not done from duty.
3. We cannot know for sure which motive was strongest, thus we cannot determine the cause of action. (Henson 1979)
Henson does not wish to condemn Kant by insisting that he believes 2), that the presence of any cooperating motives nullifies the dutiful intent. He states that it is possible to have a motive or reason for acting, but never acting on it. For example, if your brother is to leave you all of his money in his will, this is a reason to kill him, but it does not mean you are ever going to act upon that reason. Ross agrees, stating ‘it can be maintained that it is possible to have a direct inclination to do a certain act and yet do it purely from a sense of duty.’ (Ross 1962: 17). Just because cooperating inclinations (such a pleasure) are present, does not mean that we are not doing the act out of duty, for duty’s sake. Taking pleasure in an action does not necessarily mean that it cannot at the same time be done from duty and have moral worth. A pleasurable action can be virtuous.
I agree with Henson and Ross that it is possible that pleasure can interact with duty without detracting from the moral worth of the dutiful action. In fact, Kant himself is open to the idea that pleasure can actually be caused by your duty, which Kant describes as ‘the susceptibility to feel pleasure or displeasure merely from being aware that our actions are consistent with or contrary to the law of duty.’ (Kant 1996: 6:399). Here, pleasure is an indicator that we are indeed doing our duty, and the absence of pleasure would mean the absence of duty. Therefore, pleasure and virtue cannot be mutually exclusive, as many in the past have mistaken Kant to believe.
Just because an action has no moral worth because it is not done from a sense of duty, but from an inclination of pleasure or enjoyment, is not to say that it is a morally “bad” act and should therefore be condemned. It is rather that it should not be praised as being a virtuous act. It is important to remember the distinction between acting from duty, and acting in conformity with duty. Acting from duty means doing the action that duty requires, for duty’s sake. Acting in conformity with duty means that you do the action that is required by your duty, but you do it for some other reason, a cooperating inclination. This second type of action, whilst it delivers the desired consequences is done for the wrong reasons, and from the wrong motivation, and so therefore the action possesses no moral worth.
If an action is done from any motive other then duty, then it has no moral worth. However, this is not to say that if there are other motives present alongside duty, then they cause the duty to no longer be valid. It is only when no cooperating inclinations are present that we can be sure that an action is done solely from a motive of duty. Even with other inclinations present, the action may still have been done from duty. Other inclinations, although they may be sufficient to have caused the action had the motive from duty not been present, could quite easily be weaker inclinations than that of duty. So even though both are sufficient to cause the action if the other were not present, in some cases when both are present, duty is still the motivator, because it is the stronger of the two. But of course, there is no definite proof in situations such as this, that duty is in fact the true motivation, so we can only say for certain that an action has moral worth, that it has been done from duty, if no other inclinations are present. This does not mean that pleasure nullifies duty, but merely that it muddies the water for anyone trying to discern what the true motivation for the action is.
I believe that the ethical theories of Aristotle and Kant are, to a degree, compatible. The first obvious similarity between the two is that whilst both believed that pleasure was not the ultimate goal of human life, or the point of morality, it nevertheless has some import in both their ethical systems – pleasure cannot be quickly, or easily, discounted by either of them. Many philosophers are quick to state that Kant believed that if we take pleasure in any action then we nullify the original dutiful intent that was present, but as I have argued in the previous chapter this is not actually the case.
Even though the moral law cannot be based on happiness for Kant, in order to be able to claim this of Aristotle, it would be a gross mistranslation of his use of the Greek word eudaimonia, if we say that it merely means fleeting arbitrary pleasure-induced happiness, thus making happiness the ultimate good. Although the easiest translation of eudaimonia is happiness, it is ‘a life, enjoyable and worth while all through’ (Ackrill 1980: 19), and ‘all agree in using the word eudaimonia to stand for that which is “the highest of all practicable goods,” and that all take the expressions “living well” and “doing well” to be equivalent to it.’ (Ackrill 1980: 17).
What this means is that Aristotle’s happiness (eudaimonia) is not equivalent to Kant’s happiness (that emotion which is brought about through pleasure). Instead we need to compare Kant’s account of happiness, with Aristotle’s account of pleasure, in order to appreciate where they both stand with regard to its relation with virtue. Whilst Kant is not opposed to happiness as some claim (because, some claim that an act done from happiness precludes it from being done from duty, so that act can have no moral worth), neither is Aristotle opposed to its counterpart in his philosophy; pleasure (in so far as the right pleasures, in moderation, can in fact be the mean between two vices in his theory of morality). But whilst neither requires the absence of these elements, both deny that it is the ultimate good, or the ultimate reason for morality.
For Aristotle, as I have shown, it is acceptable to enjoy pleasurable activities, so long as they are ‘to the right extent, at the right time, with the right aim, and in the right way’ (Aristotle: 1109a27). For Kant also, the presence of pleasure does not necessarily mean that duty cannot be present also, although in cases where other inclinations are present, it means that we cannot be certain whether someone is acting from duty or not – ‘though much may be done in conformity with what duty commands, still it is always doubtful whether it is really done from duty and therefore has moral worth.’ (Kant 1997: 4:406).
‘Just as Aristotle sees pleasure as a good by-product of virtuous activity – as the completion and perfection of virtuous activity – so Kant sees happiness as the rightful corollary to the attainment of virtue’. (Murphy 2001: 277). In other words, pleasure for both can be caused by the attainment of our virtue, and the enjoyment which that achievement brings with it. Pleasure does not necessarily have to mean that we are either being overly hedonistic, or that we have failed to do our duty – it can in fact be the product of the completion of virtuous activity.
However, there are areas where the two are not so harmonious. Although neither of them propose an action-based form of moral accreditation, and both lay an emphasis on doing the right sort of actions as dependent upon the agent (the agent for Kant must be doing his duty, the agent for Aristotle must have the right sort of character), they do not wholly agree. For Aristotle, ‘we can learn to desire higher and finer things so that the virtuous man takes pleasure only in the higher and finer things.’ (Murphy 2001: 278). However, even though we are not wrong in claiming that Kant does not require the complete absence of pleasure in order for us to be able to do our duty, the truly virtuous man does not act on his desires at all. For Aristotle ‘the challenge of moral development is not so much to repress one’s desires: a virtuous person, Aristotle says, is not without desires’ (Murphy 2001: 278). However, for a true Kantian, this should be the case – ‘the universal wish of every rational being is to be altogether free from them [our desires]’ (Kant 1997: 4:428). We should aim to repress our desires, so that we can act purely from duty, with no other motivations present leading to doubt over whether we have actually been motivated by duty or not, so we can be sure our actions do possess moral worth.
Although for Kant, if an action is done out of motivation for pleasure, for enjoyment of the act, rather than out of duty, it means that the act has no moral worth, this does not at the same time mean that the act therefore should be condemned. Such an act, in conformity with duty, but not done for duty’s sake would ‘deserve praise and encouragement, but not esteem’ (Ross 1962: 15). In this way, Kant’s view of pleasure is once again similar to Aristotle’s. If the wrong kind of pleasure is pursued, then the resulting action is deplorable and should be condemned. However, if the right kind of pleasure is pursued, then the action can be virtuous. Although for Kant the act cannot actually be virtuous even if the right kind of pleasure is pursued (that kind of pleasure that is in conformity with duty), the similarity lies in the fact that the wrong kind of pleasure must be condemned, whilst this is not necessarily true for the right kind of pleasure (although even the right kind of pleasure could be condemned for Aristotle, if it is done in excess and the path of the mean is not adhered to).
I think the main similarity between the two lies with the fact that both lay a great amount of import with the intentions, or mindset, of the agent. For Aristotle, a man is able to commit a virtuous act if he is virtuous in character – if his mind is set on virtuous acts. For Kant, the same is true – a man is able to commit virtuous acts if he aims to do them in accordance with virtue, i.e. if he aims to do those actions which duty requires, which means the resulting actions will possess moral worth. For both, pleasure may or may not be involved, and for Kant, as long as it is not the ultimate motivation for the action, then the action can be virtuous. The difference with Aristotle is that the act, and the man, can be virtuous even if pleasure is the sole motivator.
In conclusion, although often in philosophy, people are quick to claim that Kant’s deontological ethics are the polar opposite of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, I do not believe that this is a wholly correct interpretation of either of the two philosophers. Whilst it is true that the ultimate principle of morality for Kant is that it must be done according to our duty, and for the sake of our duty, with no regard for pleasure, this is not the only relevant part of his ethics.
The main criticism against Kant that would refute my conclusion is the claim that when Kant wrote ‘and suppose that now, when no longer incited to it by any other inclination [he] … does the action … simply from duty; then the action first has its genuine moral worth’ (Kant 1997: 4:398), he was actually claiming that only when an act is done from the motivation of duty, with no supporting inclinations or motives, can it be said to be truly done from duty, for duty’s sake, so only thus can it possess any moral worth. However, I believe this to be a misinterpretation of what Kant actually meant. I agree with Ross (1962), when I claim that instead Kant meant that we can only be sure that an act is done solely from the motivation of duty when it has no supporting motives – ‘Kant maintains that we can be sure that a man is preserving his own life from a sense of duty only if his own life is so wretched that he has no inclination to preserve it.’ (Ross 1962: 15). This does not mean that an act cannot be done from duty, if there are supporting motives present, merely that we will have no certainty over the matter. And if this is true, that pleasure can be present during an act of duty, then no longer does Kant’s theory wholly contradict that of Aristotle, whose claim is that it is possible for pleasure to lead us to the ultimate goal of complete happiness.
For Kant an action can only have moral worth, can only be virtuous, if it is done from duty. Contrast this with Aristotle, where an action can only be virtuous if it is the moderate mean between two vices. For Aristotle this means that pleasure can in fact be virtuous, as the virtue of pleasure would be the mean on the scale between pure hedonism and despair (to use my earlier example). For Kant, whilst pleasure is not a virtue it itself, it can be a by-product of our virtuous action, and can indeed be an indicator that we have in fact achieved our duty. Kant states (as I quoted earlier) that happiness can be an indication that we have done our duty properly, for duty’s sake, and so thus our actions can be said to have moral worth – for Kant happiness can be an indicator that an action is virtuous (cf. Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue, Book II, as quoted in my fourth chapter).
Similarly, for Aristotle, pleasure can be present at the same time as virtue. Indeed, the most virtuous action in any given situation may in fact be the most pleasurable one, although this is not always the case, and sometimes wholly non pleasurable actions are what is required by virtue. The obvious difference is that for Kant, if pleasure is the motivation, then an action cannot be virtuous, whilst this is simply not true for Aristotle. For him, pleasure can be the motivation that causes a virtuous action, although this does not mean that pleasure is always synonymous with virtue. Here, Aristotle can claim similarity with Kant, in that pleasurable actions done to excess would no longer be the mean on the scale for virtue, and so thus these actions done from pleasure have no moral worth. Both also claim that actions done solely from a motivation of pleasure may have absolutely no relation to what course of action would be virtuous in any given situation.
I think that the two theories have a lot more in common than many people give them credit for, since many look no further than the obvious difference that Kant does not allow for pleasure to be a motivation, whereas Aristotle does. Whilst there are many differences in the two theories, for example Kant’s belief that a motivation of happiness is not virtuous, contrasted with Aristotle’s belief that we can be motivated by pleasure, and still achieve virtue, there are fundamental similarities which cannot be dismissed. Kant and Aristotle both believed, that whilst happiness and pleasure, respectively, could not be the ultimate good, they could equally not be completely passed over in any ethical theory.
Although they are often misinterpreted, I think if we take Aristotle’s pleasure (instead of his “happiness”, his eudaimonia) to be synonymous with Kant’s happiness (that of enjoyment), then we are able to see far more similarities in their theories than many first believe. In this way, Aristotle’s pleasure and Kant’s happiness are defined as enjoyment, which can co-exist with virtuousness for both. For Kant, because we are able to take enjoyment in the fact that we have our achieved our duty, and because pleasure as a motivation can co-exist with duty, as long as it is not the true motivator, and for Aristotle, because pleasurable acts can be virtuous ones, as long as they are done in moderation.
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