Aquinas on Pleasure as the Measure of Morality

In his treatise on the passions in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas, discussing the goodness of pleasure, asks whether pleasure is the measure or rule for judging moral goodness or badness. He argues that it is, on the basis of the three principles that (1) moral goodness depends upon the will, that (2) the goodness of the will depends chiefly upon the end to which it is directed, and that (3) pleasure or delight is most of all an end, since it is not desirable for the sake of anything further.

Moral goodness or badness depends chiefly on the will, as was said above (q. 20, a. 1); and it is chiefly from the end that we discern whether the will is good or evil. Now the end is taken to be that in which the will rests, and the rest of the will and of every appetite in the good is pleasure. And therefore man is judged to be good or bad chiefly according to the pleasure of the human will, since that man who takes pleasure in the works of virtue is good and virtuous, and that man who takes pleasure in evil works is evil (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 34, a. 4).

The difficulty we encounter, however, is that pleasure itself always has a further measure–we take delight in an action that which we find or perceive to be good. Thomas consistently affirms that actions themselves are the ends of pleasures, in the sense that pleasures are explained by actions (e.g., we find pleasure in eating, and in seeking truth, because these things are naturally good for us). Now the most fundamental relationship we have to the good is not that of taking pleasure in it, but that of love for it. So it seems the criterion of the just man, or of the humble man, should be that he love justice or humility, not that he take delight in them. This is also fits with of virtue as the "order of love." If we look at virtue as St. Augustine does, as the "order of love" within us (ordo amoris), it seems we should rather say that love is the measure of moral goodness, rather than pleasure or delight.

From the perspective of historical influence and authorities, one thing to remark here is that Aquinas is here following Aristotle's Ethics in describing pleasure as the measure of moral goodness. The only other place I'm aware of where Aquinas unfolds this view of pleasure as the measure of goodness in detail, is in his Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics.

Is Thomas Aquinas simply being inconsistent here, putting together the Augustinian (and his own) view where love has priority in regard to moral, human, and Christian goodness, with Aristotle's view? No, Thomas himself is aware of the difficulty, and addresses it in the first objection and reply to it in this article. The objection argues that love and desire come prior to pleasure, and therefore have more the character of a governing principle or measure. In response, Thomas says:

Love and desire precede pleasure in the order of generation. But pleasure precedes them with respect to the account of an end, which in actions has the account of a principle, by which judgment is most of all made, as by a rule or measure.

The "end" here is that which one comes to last, and which thus manifests everything that comes before it. The reason why an act of justice is morally good is indeed the love for justice from which it springs, but the manifestation of the goodness of justice is the delight the just man takes in acting justly. And since a measure or rule has to be readily known, it is pleasure which is described as the measure of goodness, rather than love.

4 thoughts on “Aquinas on Pleasure as the Measure of Morality”

  1. I don't have anything to add here, but I've been interested in the role of pleasure in action for a long time. One of the most striking features of modern ethics (which has been explicit since Kant, but has always been with us) is that the most virtuous life would be one not enjoyed. St. Thomas, on my reading, simply would find such a life impossible- even for a short period of time. I've been struck for years by this quotation from II-II 35 4 ad 2:

    necesse est quod ex tristitia aliquid dupliciter oriatur, uno modo, ut homo recedat a contristantibus; alio modo, ut ad alia transeat in quibus delectatur, sicut illi qui non possunt gaudere in spiritualibus delectationibus transferunt se ad corporales

    "Necesse" is very strong here. The motion to rejoice/ delight/ take pleasure in is not something to which we are undetermined.

    This is sheer hypothesis (and probably wrong) but I doubt that St. Augustine would have denied a primacy to gaudio or even delectatio. Scripture would have stood too much in the way. But the center of gravity in these concepts is toward voluptas- which Aristotle notes too (who could miss it)- and taken in this way pleasure (which in some ways is a field of concepts) has more the notion of a terminus a quo of the virtuous life.

    Random note: it is very enlightening to read how the "Imitation of Christ" makes continual appeals to pleasure. The book prima facie is very austere, but the last time I read it I was struck by just how often it appealed to pleasure concepts as ends.

    1. I wasn't really intending to oppose Augustine to Thomas, but more to raise the question more intensely–how do we unite the claim that love, as the greatest law, the standard for Christian action, and the formal cause of the highest goodness in acts of all other virtues, with the claim that pleasure/delight/joy is the measure of the moral goodness of acts?

      I think, in the sense that pleasure makes evident the intensity of love (whether one is speaking of natural or acquired sensitive love, or the love of charity), Augustine would agree that the degree to which we delight, e.g., in good things for our enemies, corresponds to and is a measure of the perfection of love.

  2. By "manifestation" in your last sentence do you mean:

    1.) That which manifests itself to the will as the principle of its action, or

    2.) Not that which is manifested, but that by which we know or confirm the goodness of something.

    If you drop everything up to the comma in two, it could be both.

    I take the difference as this: does moral goodness show itself as a sort of delightful thing, or does it show itself as something else, and through our pleasure we confirm that we love morally? There may be no difference here, but it is a possible confusion in the critical word "manifestation".

    1. I meant the latter.

      The former is true as well, as long as it isn't understand in the sense of sole, or even primary principle of action. That may be applicable for some kinds of desires and actions–for example, precisely as dessert (rather than considered as part of a nourishing meal), it may be appropriate to love ice cream exactly on account of the pleasure I find in it, and to the degree that I find pleasure in it. But the same thing can't be said in cases where the pleasure is not simply natural, but is due to my love for the thing in question. The pleasure I would take in finding an new, previously lost work of Aquinas, would be on account of my love for Aquinas, rather than the other way around.

      In regard to things naturally desired, however, there is a certain priority of desire for pleasure over (conscious) love, and it is tricky to think about. I wonder whether a failure to adequately take it into account has made Christopher Malloy in his article "Thomas on the Order of Love and Desire: A Development of Doctrine" (The Thomist 71 [2007]: 65-87) exaggerate the shift in Aquinas's thought, corresponding to his shift in language.

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