By Marcus Teo
At the heart of Aristotelian virtue ethics is Aristotle’s pursuit of the life well-lived, or Eudaimoina. To this purpose, Aristotle postulates that an individual who has lived such a life – a Eudaimon – is one who has successfully sought out the greatest good, also referred to as Summum Bonum (SB). Here, the SB cannot be inferior to any other good. That is, the SB must be – in itself – complete and wholly self-sufficient. A candidate for the SB cannot, thus, be instrumental towards any other good. The present short work aims to re-examine pleasure’s candidacy as SB, arguing for its consideration as the greatest good towards which humanity must strive.
To begin, it is useful to consider any given instance or token of anything at all that we may ascribe the property of “being good”. For example, an example of an act that we might consider good includes donating to charity; an example of an object that we might consider “good” is a vacuum cleaner that is powerful enough to clean a home without causing much grief to its user. Much like Descartes’ basket of apples, we may endeavour towards a similar process in examining everything which we think is “good”; filial piety, charity/philanthropy, food, sex, God, et cetera – the inexhaustible list goes on. With enough contemplation, the reason behind our ascription of the property “good” to any given thing, tangible or not, is due to the nett-positive mental state that we experience with the achievement of such goods.
Consequently, Pleasure’s claim to being the SB is due to its omnipotence in every instance of goodness we can rationally conceive. Here, Pleasure can be defined as a nett-positive mental state that is independent of loci (i.e., it does not matter whom experiences said mental state), and time (i.e., it does not matter when someone experiences said mental state). While it seems underwhelming as the greatest good, it takes no more than some Socratic inquiry to support such a notion.
Let us consider the example of God, or living by the will of God. A theist is likely to consider this the prime candidate for SB. Applying basic Socratic inquiry, however, it seems that the theist is hard-pressed for a satisfactory justification for his theism. Truly, why else would one seek out a God-fearing life, if it were not for a positive mental state that doing so brings? I imagine that there are only two outcomes for justifying a life lived by the will of God – that is 1) an endeavour to enter paradise in the afterlife, or 2) ascribing oneself the social property of being a God-fearing individual, which brings one closer to being one’s ideal self. In both outcomes, the theist derives pleasure from her living by the will of God. Consequently, it becomes apparent that living by the will of God becomes an inferior good to pleasure as it becomes instrumental towards attaining pleasure. On the other hand, it is absurd to consider that pleasures in life are instrumental towards God’s will. Apart from the many instances of denying pleasures to a believer (e.g., abstinence from certain foods, drinks, sex, et cetera), it is also unintuitive to consider performing an act that one derives pleasure from to the sole purpose of fulfilling God’s will. While one can suggest that pleasure is a by-product of living by God’s will, one can never call pleasure an inferior good to God’s will – this begs the question; why would one bother will living by God’s will?
The same process can be repeated across any other good. Charity, for example, makes for a good demonstration of pleasure as the greatest good. While literally giving way one’s money is hardly pleasurable to him, the goodness of charity comes from the pleasure that the beneficiaries experience from one’s philanthropy. As mentioned above, pleasure’s claim towards its candidacy as the SB is independent of loci. Thus, cost of disutility or discomfort to an individual may be justified by the overall nett positive mental states it brings about. Forgoing an expensive meal or two, for example, would easily qualify as being an act we ascribe the property of being good if it means that ten other starving children get food for a day.
Thus concludes my reductive argument for pleasure as the SB. While it seems superficial and therefore unsatisfactory to many, the challenge remains to single out an instance of something being ascribed the property of “being good”, without that thing being instrumental towards some sort of nett positive mental state independent of loci and time. All goods, from pleasures of the flesh to divine goods, are instantly inferior to pleasure as long as pleasure is derived from their pursuits – this makes pleasure the superior good, from which all other goods derive their goodness. Insofar as a contribution to meaning is concerned, this brings to mind the plausibility that our pursuit of pleasure is what gives anything meaning. If pleasure is the end goal for anything and everything “good” we pursue, the life of pleasure is thus the life well-lived, or synonymously the meaningful life.
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