Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

24. Choice, virtue, and pleasure

It is initially puzzling that virtuous people decide to act virtuously for its own sake as a result of deliberation. If they decide on virtuous action for its own sake, then their deliberation causes them to choose it as an end in itself, not simply as a means. Decision and deliberation, however, are not about ends but about ‘the things promoting ends’ (ta pros ta telē, often rendered ‘means to ends’). Aristotle’s description of the virtuous person, then, seems to attribute to decision a role that is excluded by his explicit account of decision.

This puzzle is less severe once we recognize that Aristotle regards different sorts of things as ‘promoting’ an end. Sometimes he means (1) that the action is external and purely instrumental to the end; in this way buying food ‘promotes’ eating dinner. Sometimes, however, he means (2) that the action is a part or component of the end, or that performing the action partly constitutes the achieving of the end; in this way eating the main course ‘promotes’ eating dinner. Deliberation about this second sort of ‘promotion’ shows that an action is worth choosing for its own sake, in so far as it partly constitutes our end.

This role for deliberation explains how virtuous people can decide, as a result of deliberation, on virtuous action for its own sake; they choose it as a part of happiness, not as a merely instrumental means. Prudence finds the actions that promote happiness in so far as they are parts of the happy life. Such actions are to be chosen for their own sake, as being their own end; they are not simply instrumental means to some further end. The virtuous person’s decision results from deliberation about the composition of happiness; virtuous people decide on the actions that, by being non-instrumentally good, are components of happiness in their own right.

Aristotle’s demand for the virtuous person to decide on the virtuous action for its own sake is connected with two further claims: (1) the virtuous person must take pleasure in virtuous action as such; (2) in doing so, the virtuous person has the pleasantest life. In these claims Aristotle relies on his views about the nature of pleasure and its role in happiness (Nicomachean Ethics VII 11–14, X 1–5).

He denies that pleasure is some uniform sensation to which different kinds of pleasant action are connected only causally (in the way that the reading of many boring books on different subjects might induce the same feeling of boredom). Instead he argues that the specific pleasure taken in x rather than y is internally related to doing x rather than y, and essentially depends on pursuing x for x’s own sake. Pleasure is a ‘supervenient end’ (1174b31–3) resulting from an activity that one pursues as an activity (praxis or energeia) rather than a mere process or production (kinēsis or poiēsis).

Aristotle insists, following Plato’s Philebus, that the value of the pleasure depends on the value of the activity on which the pleasure supervenes (1176a3–29). The virtuous person has the pleasantest life, but the pleasantest life cannot aim exclusively at pleasure.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Choice, virtue, and pleasure. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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