On The Pleasant And The Good

Simply because we live in an age where many people seem to religiously avoid anything unpleasant as if to be unpleasant is to be evil, it is all too easy for people to fall into the opposite ditch and view things as good simply because they are unpleasant. This too is an error, an error that leads people to counsel things because they are unpleasant, assuming that everything that tastes bad is good for you, or that feels bad is for one’s benefit. This is as incorrect as to believe that everything that is pleasing to the eyes or that gratifies the desires of the flesh is good, and for the same reasons, namely that principles of right and wrong and the principles of pleasure need not have any relationship with each other. Even the same activities that are unpleasant to one person in one situation may be pleasurable to another person in another situation, without being morally wrong in the latter case.

To the extent that one is a virtuous person, whose desires are properly ordered by what is right and proper, the good is pleasant and the bad is unpleasant. This is not to say that many people even approach the correct standards of morality in their lives, but to the extent that people are just and righteous people, they will enjoy doing the right thing and not enjoy doing the wrong thing. For such people, the pleasure principle can be a guide to morality because their desires are governed properly, so properly, in fact, that the self-regulation involved is not a burdensome matter, but rather is felt lightly and cheerfully. It is for the continent people, those who do what is right, but do it with extreme difficulty, and contrary to their fallen and corrupt human nature, that what is right is most strongly opposed to that which is pleasant. Such people still desire to do what is wrong, but fight against their wrong desires. We ought to praise the ability for people to successfully fight against the baser elements of their nature to do what is right in spite of themselves, but we ought not to consider such people as virtuous, or their devotion to the unpleasant to be a sign of their moral progress, but rather of the desires that they have still yet to bring into subjection.

How is it that people have their thinking about the pleasant and the good to be so entangled? There are at least two sorts of errors involved in this thinking. Both errors are understandable, and lamentably common when it comes to human thinking, but are not the less flawed for all of that. One of the mistakes is to judge pleasure as bad simply because those who are evil enjoy doing what is bad. The fact that some people enjoy doing what is wrong does not mean that enjoyment is evil in itself, or that the right thing to do cannot be enjoyed. If we see people enjoying at least some of what they do, it does not mean that their enjoyment of something makes that which they do to be some sort of idol. To be sure, there can often be a problem with balance in that people will be naturally inclined to do that which brings them enjoyment and disinclined by nature to do that which is unpleasant, but the fact that people must be encouraged to do that which is right but that which does not come easily or pleasantly and must be discouraged from seeking pleasures which are wrong does not mean that right pleasures are to be viewed as evil because they are enjoyed. Such cases, in contrast, are a small taste of righteousness, in providing people with the recognition that to the extent that they are properly in alignment with God’s ways, more and more aspects of doing what is right will become pleasant to them, which is in general something that ought to be encouraged rather than discouraged.

If the frequent unpleasantness of moral progress leads people astray in being hostile to the pleasant rather than hostile to what is evil, so too the incorrect targeting of pleasure as bad in itself rather than bad when it is combined with wrong behavior leads to a mistaken entanglement in our thinking that leads us to view God as a being who is not merely indifferent to our pleasure but actively hostile to it and to view this life as something merely to be endured rather than enjoyed. And to be sure, there is much that has to be endured in this life. But, even with all of life’s imperfections, there is much to be enjoyed, even if that enjoyment generally decreases with the ravages of age, poverty, and poor health. To someone who is healthy, a jog around the block can be the source of rich pleasures, from the endorphin rush of the exercise itself to the enjoyment of the beauties of creation, or of friendly interaction with others one may see along the way. The unpleasant aspects of increasing one’s own physical fitness is not in itself virtuous, but rather an expression of how our existence is frequently less than ideal. We must not conflate the two.

Let us therefore conclude our discussion for the moment. Many people who would consider themselves to be righteous and good are, in fact, not. If they were good, they would enjoy doing the good, and find pleasure in doing the right thing. To the extent that we do not enjoy doing what is right but must fight against our own nature and inclination to do that which we should do, we are not in fact good, but merely strong enough that our will to do what is right overcomes our desire to do what is wrong. And, to be sure, we ought to prefer the strength to overcome a bad nature to be superior to the lack of strength that leads the incontinent to fail to do what is right. But strength of will is not goodness. The truly good and righteous people, to the extent that such people may be found at all in our evil world, will enjoy doing what is right and they will have comparatively little to resist because their nature more closely resembles that of God above. To the extent that we can find some small taste of the pleasure of doing what is right and enjoying it, we should celebrate it rather than mourn it or think evil of it in ourselves or others. There is enough that is unpleasant that must be endured, let us enjoy those moments when we can do well and find honest and simple pleasure in doing what is right because our nature in some way is right.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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