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What is the connection between virtue and pleasure? The question came up in my discussion with Elisa Freschi on the previous post, and is in some respects a central question in the early history of Western ethics. At December’s Eastern APA conference, Lorraine Besser-Jones gave a really interesting talk on Aristotle’s approach to this connection, informed by some discussions in contemporary psychology. For Aristotle, she claimed, pleasure is an intrinsic part of virtue: nobody would call a man generous who does not enjoy acting generously. Besser-Jones wished to dispute this claim, on the grounds that virtuous activity is often not pleasurable.

The key psychological distinction, for Besser-Jones, was between intrinsic motivation – when one engages in an activity for its own sake, because it is its own reward – and extrinsic motivation, when the activity is solely a means to another end. (This distinction is very close to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the goods internal to and external to a practice, respectively.) The problem, she argued, is that while intrinsically motivating activities (basically by definition) are those we don’t engage in for their consequences, most virtuous activities we do engage in for their consequences. Even if we have a tendency to enjoy helping others, she said, the activities we do to help others are not themselves going to be enjoyable. Picking up a stranger’s wallet and running through the mud to give it to her is not enjoyable on its own, independent of the goal of helping others. It is therefore not intrinsically motivating.

Julia Annas had drawn a connection between Aristotle’s view and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s psychological conception of “flow,” a state in which one is so absorbed in a complex and challenging activity that one forgets time, fatigue, everything but the activity itself. A rock climber never loses sight of goal of attaining the summit, but that’s not what motivates her in the moment; it’s the challenge of finding footing on a difficult wall. For Annas, this is the best way to describe the experience of Aristotle’s virtuous person. But most virtuous actions, Besser-Jones said, are not like this. Perhaps the flow experience describes activities requiring courage, like those of a firefighter, but not more mundane activities requiring justice or compassion, like returning the wallet in the mud.

Others in the room took Besser-Jones to task, rightly I think, on a number of points. Her respondent, Michael Formichelli, objected primarily that Besser-Jones’s had relied too much on Annas’s interpretation of Aristotle. According to Formichelli, Aristotle doesn’t actually himself think the virtues are intrinsically motivating. Formichelli agreed with Besser-Jones that one couldn’t defend the version of Aristotle found in Annas, where the virtues are indeed intrinsically motivating; he offered an alternative interpretation of Aristotle, which he thought worked fine. I’m not going to take a side on what Aristotle actually meant. But unlike either Formichelli or Besser-Jones, I will defend the ideas that Annas and Besser-Jones attributed to Aristotle: that for the truly virtuous agent, virtue is indeed intrinsically motivating. Several others in the audience agreed with me.

One questioner, whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten, argued that the truly virtuous agent could find an intrinsically motivating flow experience in virtuous action itself, even an action like returning the wallet. She referred to Confucius’s self-description in Analects II.4, of having set his heart on learning at age 15, and by age 70 finally being “able to follow my heart without overstepping the line.” Sufficient training in virtue allowed Confucius to find it internally motivating; but it required great practice to be this skillful at it, as any other difficult craft does.

Chenyang Li, Besser-Jones’s fellow presenter, followed up this defence with a related important point: it matters how you characterize your activity. “I’m doing philosophy, which is intrinsically pleasurable,” he said, “but I’m also moving my mouth, which isn’t necessarily.” Returning to the example of running through the mud to return a stranger’s wallet: if the action is characterized as helping others rather than as running through the rain, it might very well be pleasurable. As MacIntyre rightly notes in After Virtue: “To the question ‘What is he doing?’ the answers may with equal truth and appropriateness be ‘Digging,’ ‘Gardening,’ ‘Taking exercise,’ ‘Preparing for winter’ or ‘Pleasing his wife.'” (206)

Besser-Jones responded that if you do characterize a virtuous activity like returning the wallet as helping others, it just means that helping others is the goal: it’s extrinsic motivation, it’s the consequence. But I argued in response: the key is whether you can take pleasure in running to give the wallet even if you fail. I don’t think I’m good enough to be able to do that. But our hypothetical 70-year-old Confucius might be. He could do his best to return the wallet, slip and fall in the puddle and miss the person as they round a corner, and still take pleasure in the activity because that activity was the right thing to do. (Even, perhaps, if his now-frail 70-year-old body broke a hip in the fall!)