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Unethical Ethics

DO WE NEED TO LEARN THAT PLEASURE IS AGREEABLE?

By Alice von Hildebrand | May 2006
Alice von Hildebrand is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The market is flooded with textbooks on ethics. Having taught this subject for many years in a secular university, I have been struck by the fact that all publications referring to a topic in which most students are interested — namely, “how to live” — give a prominent place to thinkers such as Aristippus of Cyrene, Baruch Spinoza, and Jeremy Bentham, to limit myself to the best known. We are entitled to assume that when a person writes a book on ethics, his concern will be to shed light on a way of life that is wise, worthwhile, and desirable, and that can be presented as a model, as something we should all strive for in order to live a human life worthy of the name. One is therefore baffled upon discovering that a prominent place is given to thinkers whose outlook on life is centered exclusively on pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Do we really need a “teacher” to learn that pleasure is agreeable and pain is hardship?

A brief perusal of the above-named thinkers’ “ethical” views inevitably leads to the question: Why are their works categorized as “ethics,” a branch of philosophy dedicated to the study of “good” and “evil”?

Aristippus claims that good univocally means pleasure, and that the wise man will therefore pursue this “good” in the most intelligent and efficient way possible to ensure for himself the greatest degree of satisfaction. Following this line of thought, Aristippus gives his disciples four basic rules which, if faithfully followed, will give them a key to the greatest possible amount of enjoyment and the smallest amount of pain. These four rules are:

Between two pleasures, always choose:

1. The most intense one.

2. The longer lasting one.

3. The one easiest to attain. (If in order to achieve a pleasurable experience one must undergo trials, pains, and discomforts, it would obviously detract from the pleasure obtained at such a high cost.)

4. The one that has no unpleasant consequences. (If a pleasure inevitably leads to pain and discomfort, its enjoyment will be severely flawed.)

How ludicrous is it to call this formula “ethics”? It becomes obvious when we realize how grotesque it would be for someone to “accuse” himself of having selected a less-than-delicious dish in a restaurant and having “a bad conscience” for his choice. Pleasure is, by its very nature, subjective — what is pleasant for one person might not be pleasant for another. Likes and dislikes cannot be discussed because the final word will always be: “I like it” or “I do not like it.” There are people who like Coca-Cola, there are those who loathe it. Cigarettes are “good” to a smoker, but are intensely disliked by non-smokers. Some like warm weather; others prefer cold temperatures. Wine is “good” to the wine imbiber; he cannot do without it. The person’s subjective taste is the deciding factor. There is no way of convincing a person that something is pleasant if it does not appeal to him.

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