A Dialectic of Morals: Part 3 – Pleasure and the Order of Goods

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


To make a fresh start, let us ask about the meaning of pleasure as a criterion of preference. Precisely what does the student mean when he says that he prefers A to B because A pleases and B displeases him, or because A pleases him more than B?

The student may be somewhat bewildered by this question, for he has already told us that such judgments as “A pleases me more than B” are equivalent to saying “I like A more than B.” In fact, he confesses, much of the discussion we have had so far has seemed to him to consist in making verbal substitutions of this sort. We started out by admitting that the fact of preference was equivalent to the judgment of “A-better-than-B-for-me” and that this in turn became equivalent to two other forms of statement: “A pleases me more than B” and “I like A more than B.” What has been gained by saying the same thing over and over again in different words? Pleasure and displeasure, it would seem, do not explain the fact of preference; far from explaining it, the fact of being pleased (or displeased) seems to be identical with the fact of preferring (or not preferring).

One thing the student says is false, but one thing is true. The falsity arises from his failure to remember that something was gained by introducing the notion of pleasure into our discussion. That, with the addition of considerations about quantity of pleasure, enabled us to formulate a universal rule of conduct, which he himself admitted should direct people’s choices, though in fact people do not always choose as they should, according to this rule. This very discrepancy, between what should be and what is, certified the character of the rule we formulated as moral rather than descriptive.

The truth in the student’s remarks was his observation that pleasure does not explain preference. That is precisely why we are now engaged in re-examining the connection between preference and pleasure. And the first thing we must try to discover is whether pleasure is the object of every choice, or merely the result of every choice which is successfully executed. We say “every” here because pleasure does seem somehow involved in every act of preference. If pleasure results from getting what we prefer, then pleasure cannot be the cause of preference, since preference precedes execution, and we may not always be successful in getting what we prefer. The student should be inclined to agree with the conception of pleasure as a resultant, since it was he who recently insisted that pleasure was not a cause.

Perhaps, says the student, but then I also return to my original insistence that there is no cause of preference. I only appear to explain my choice by speaking of pleasure, but preference is really inexplicable. And anyway, he adds, I don’t see what difference it makes whether pleasure is the object of choice, as against displeasure, or the result of getting what I have chosen, as against displeasure as the result of failure. Why can’t I say that I prefer something because I anticipate the pleasure I shall derive from getting what I want?

We must warn the student that in asking the last question he used the word “because” and thereby relaxed his resistance to our efforts at explaining preference. If he will stay relaxed for a moment longer, we may be able to get new light by following the lead of his last question. He must admit that making a choice precedes carrying it out in action, that deciding what one wants precedes getting it. Everyone knows, furthermore, that people do not always get what they want. Hence at the moment of choice, a person who has learned anything at all from experience must acknowledge the possibility of failure to possess what he or she has chosen and must therefore anticipate the displeasure of failure as well as the pleasure of success. Even though people may be able to calculate the probabilities of success and failure in particular cases, and even though it is true that people sometimes avoid choosing things they really want because they wish to avoid the displeasure of likely failure in seeking what is a little beyond their present reach, pleasure and displeasure as anticipated resultants of successful or unsuccessful seeking are, at most, only one factor in the determination of every choice.

The student was right in supposing that a person might prefer something because the person anticipated the pleasure to be derived from getting what he or she wanted; but he was wrong if he supposed this to be the only cause, for it is now also evident that unless a person preferred this thing to that, the person would not be pleased to get it, nor could he or she therefore anticipate the pleasure of successful seeking. The fundamental truth, which is slowly becoming apparent, is that the object of our preference is never the same as the satisfaction we experience in getting the object we prefer. Pleasure may be the object, or it may be the satisfaction, but it cannot be both without treacherous ambiguity in our use of words, and if it is not both there must be other factors than pleasure in the explanation of preference.

Or maybe preference cannot be explained, the student reminds us. But even if I waive that alternative to permit this discussion to go on, the student says indulgently, I am now at a loss to understand many points we have already agreed upon. Didn’t we agree that A is preferred to B when A is pleasing and B displeasing, or when A is more pleasing than B? Doesn’t that mean that A is a pleasure or a greater quantity of pleasure, and is not A the object of my choice when I prefer it, whether or not I succeed in getting it? If all this is so, then why can’t I stick to my original statement that pleasure and displeasure, or unequal quantities of pleasure, are the only objects between which people choose when they exercise preferences?

The student’s questions cannot be answered without begging him to be more attentive to words, for unless we now clarify our language we cannot accurately express our thought. At one moment, the student said “A is pleasing” and at another he said “A is a pleasure.” Pointing this out to him, we must ask whether it makes no difference which we say. If he replies, as he is likely to, that he sees no difference here, we must try to explain, for upon the discernment of this difference much depends.

Let us begin by reminding the student that, at the very opening of our discussion when the fact of preference was first introduced, we pointed out that the only people who could say they never preferred anything would be people who had never experienced desire of any sort. And we said: if people “admit having had the experience of desire, they can certainly be made to understand the difference between something which would satisfy that desire and something which would not. They can at least imagine a situation in which, given a certain desire, they would prefer one thing to another.” Let us now call the thing they prefer the object of their desire. The object-of-desire is certainly not the same as the desire itself, nor is either of these the same as the satisfaction of the desire which occurs when the object is attained.

There are three terms, then, which any careful analysis of preference must distinguish. They are irreducible to one another. And it is in the light of this fundamental distinction that the student can be made to see the difference between saying “A is a pleasure” and “A is pleasing.” The latter statement means that A is pleasurable or a source of pleasure. The former statement means that A is itself identical with pleasure. But if A is both, then we are saying that that which is itself pleasure is a source of pleasure. If A is not both, then we must decide which A is, and upon this decision will depend whether we regard pleasure as the object of desire, or as the satisfaction which results from attaining the object of desire, for the object of desire is, when possessed, the source of satisfaction.

But, says the student, why cannot pleasure be both object and satisfaction? And even if we decided that pleasure was always one and not the other, what difference would it make?

The difference it would make is great. For if A is not itself a pleasure, and B a displeasure, then A and B as the objects between which preference is exercised must have some other determinate character. Let us suppose that A stands for wealth, or a course of action leading to its acquisition, and B stands for health, or a course of action leading to its preservation. Many people have been faced with these as alternatives to choose between. Let us further suppose that we use the words “pleasure” and “displeasure” to name the satisfaction and dissatisfaction of desire. Then the reason why, for a given person, wealth may be more pleasing than health, or conversely, is that he or she desires it more. We obviously cannot say that the person desires it more because it is more pleasing, for unless the person initially desired wealth more than health, the person could not anticipate being pleased or satisfied if the course of action he or she pursued eventuated in its acquisition even at the expense of loss of health.

Should we make the contrary supposition, however, that pleasure and displeasure are the objects of desire, rather than its satisfaction and dissatisfaction, then we can return to our original explanation of preference, namely, that we desire A more than B because A actually is a pleasure and B a displeasure, or because A is a greater pleasure than B. Here we do not say that A is a greater pleasure because we desire it more, but rather that we desire it more because it is a greater pleasure. The crucial question, in short, is whether desire is to be explained in terms of pleasure, or pleasure in terms of desire. If the latter is the case — and the student himself seems to have rejected the former in his earlier remarks about the failure to explain preference by identifying the preferred object with pleasure — then we must push further to explain why one object is desired more than another.

But, says the student, I still don’t see why pleasure cannot be the object of desire, as well as its satisfaction. I see nothing wrong in saying that I desire or like pleasure and that pleasure pleases me. Before you go on to any further explanations, I’d like this point cleared up.

The student’s insistence is justified, for there is a meaning of the word “pleasure” in which it does name an object of desire, and our whole problem here is to distinguish that meaning from another meaning of the word in which it names every satisfaction of desire. Once this basic ambiguity of the word “pleasure” is eliminated, and two quite distinct notions are distinctively expressed, we shall be able to proceed. It should be noted at once that “pleasure” cannot be used to name every object of desire, but only one sort of object among many others; in contrast, “pleasure” can be used to name every experience of satisfaction.

As objects of desire, wealth and health are not the same as pleasure, although wealth and health can be pleasurable, i.e., they can be sources of pleasure in the sense that when possessed they satisfy the desire which led us to seek them. As pleasurable (i.e., pleasing, a source of pleasure), pleasure as an object of desire is no different from health and wealth, for every object of desire is pleasurable. But to say that every object of desire is pleasurable in this sense is not to say that every object of desire is pleasure. If one were to say that pleasure is the only object of desire, one would be denying that such things as wealth and health are desirable objects.

This denial is not avoided by saying that wealth and health are desirable only because they are pleasurable, for, in the first place, that would apply to pleasure itself as an object of desire; and in the second place, it would amount to saying that an object of desire is desired because it will satisfy the desire when possessed. Since this applies to every object of desire, it cannot explain the preference for one over another; hence if wealth is preferred to health, it must be due to some difference between wealth and health as diverse objects of desire. Nor will quantity of pleasure help us here, for to say that we find wealth more pleasurable (i.e., a source of greater satisfaction) than health is to say no more than that we desire it or like it more; and we still have to explain why we do or should, in terms of something about the nature of these two objects, in themselves and in relation to ourselves.

Finally, pleasure itself as an object of desire is sometimes opposed to other objects, so that we are forced to choose between pleasure and other things. Thus, the person who seeks to gain great wealth must often forgo pleasure, as the person who seeks certain pleasures often sacrifices health in the process. In both these cases, pleasure can be regarded as an object of desire, competing with other objects which, as such, are simply not pleasure at all. Let A stand for pleasure as an object, B for wealth and C for health. Then to say, in the first instance, that a person prefers B to A is not to say that B is the greater pleasure, for it is not pleasure at all; it is rather to say that B will give the person more pleasure, in the sense of more satisfaction, because the person desires it more. Similarly, in the second instance, to say that A is preferred to C is to say that pleasure is more pleasurable than health, i.e., it will give greater satisfaction because it is more desired. And since to say that “pleasure is more pleasurable” is to say that “pleasure will give more pleasure” we are here plainly confronted with the ambiguity of the word “pleasure.” It cannot mean the same thing when it names one object of desire (obviously one, since there must be some other object which gives less pleasure), and when it names any satisfaction (obviously any, since both objects give pleasure though in different degrees).

Not only is the ambiguity of the word “pleasure” thus revealed, but we can now help the student to understand what sort of object is named by “pleasure” when it is used in that sense. Pleasure as an object of desire is a bodily condition, the opposite of which is the bodily condition known as pain. For want of better words, let us refer hereafter to sensual pleasure and sensual pain. Using words this way, we are certainly reporting the facts of human preference when we say that sensual pleasure is only one of the objects people desire, or that people often prefer other objects to sensual pleasure, or that some people actually prefer sensual pain because, under pathological conditions of desire, they derive greater pleasure from it. Furthermore, to call pleasure (as object-of-desire) sensual does not mean that pleasure (as satisfaction-of-desire) is inexperienceable. We experience satisfaction and dissatisfaction as states of desire itself, but not as directly sensed conditions of our body as a whole or of its members. A satisfied desire is experienced as one which no longer impels us to action; a dissatisfied one remains a motivating force. If the student finds this account of the two meanings of “pleasure” satisfactory, we can now return to the problem of preference and see how this clarification helps us.

The student will certainly concede that the ambiguity of the word “pleasure” has been sufficiently demonstrated, and he will probably admit that the suggested distinctions in meaning are genuine. He may even agree that the facts of human preference cannot be accurately described unless sensual pleasure (or sensual pain), as one among many objects of desire, is distinguished from what makes us regard either sensual pleasure or sensual pain as more or less pleasurable than other objects, namely, the strength of diverse desires and the resultant degrees of satisfaction to be obtained. And here the student makes one last effort to hold the position he once took&endash;that pleasure, or quantity of pleasure, are the only explanations of preference. He tells us that he will use the word “pleasure” as equivalent to “satisfaction-of-desire,” and using it this way, he claims that the general rule of conduct we have already formulated remains unaltered. That rule was: “In any case in which a choice can be made, people should prefer the alternative which, in the long run, or viewing life as a whole, maximizes pleasure and minimizes displeasure.”

We must inform the student that it is not our intention to argue against the truth of this rule, but rather to criticize its insufficiency as a guide for human conduct. We must remind him that it was he who complained about the barrenness of moral knowledge if it went no further than this single universal rule. It was precisely in order to answer his complaint that we have been trying to show him that pleasure, taken in either of its senses, cannot account for preference. That being done, we may then be able to discover the real criteria which determine what a human being should prefer, and in terms of these criteria formulate more specific rules of conduct.

If the only rule of conduct were the one we have so far formulated, the student would be right, for the most part, in maintaining his moral relativism, and his skepticism about moral knowledge; different people might abide by this one rule and yet in every particular seek different things or make different choices. So far as this rule goes, it does not prevent us from supposing that one person could maximize pleasure by a set of actual choices quite different from those made by another person following the same rule; one person might always prefer wealth to sensual pleasure and honor, and another always prefer virtue to fame and fortune, and yet it would be conceivable that both could maximize pleasure in the sense of satisfying their differently oriented desires. When we say that pleasure is insufficient to explain preference, we mean, of course, not merely that it is insufficient to describe the fact of preference, but more fundamentally that, unless we go beyond pleasure, we can never say, of two objects different in kind, which should be preferred. Failing to do this, we fail to establish a practically significant body of moral rules, both universally valid and also violable.

If I understand you, says the student, you are at last agreeing with me. Pleasure being the only criterion, there is no moral knowledge worth bothering about, certainly no set of rules which would direct all people to follow the same general course of life. And I am now surer of this than I was before the discussion started. Distinguishing the two meanings of pleasure has helped to make it clear. For considering pleasure, in the first sense, as one object of desire, there appears to be no reason why people should concur in preferring it, or not preferring it, to other things. And considering pleasure, in the second sense, as equivalent to the satisfaction of every desire, all people do in fact concur in desiring as much satisfaction as they can get, but this fact does not obligate them to agree in preferring one sort of object to another. On the contrary, according as different people have different desires, it would seem as if they had to exercise quite different preferences in order to maximize pleasure in the sense of satisfaction.

Unless we can correct two errors which the student has made, we are barred from proceeding. The first may have been a slip of the tongue. The student spoke of “people’s desiring as much satisfaction as they can get.” This statement seems to regard satisfaction as an object of desire, which is strictly impossible. If satisfaction were an object of desire, then satisfaction would result from fulfilling such desire, but the resultant satisfaction could not be the same as the satisfaction which, being desired and then possessed, gave rise to it. And there would be nothing to prevent the second satisfaction from being in turn an object of desire, thus giving rise to a third satisfaction in the same way, and so on in an endless progression. To make satisfaction an object of desire is, paradoxically, to condemn desire to endless dissatisfaction. Satisfaction, then, can never be an object of desire; nor can it ever explain why we desire one object rather than another, since given the desire for either object, its possession produces satisfaction.

The student’s second error was his failure to note that our discussion has expanded to take in two new factors, namely, objects of desire other than sensual pleasure and pain, and a variety of desires of different strength. Pleasure is no longer the only criterion of preference; in fact, as object, it is only one among many things to be chosen; and as satisfaction, it is entirely insufficient as a criterion, since what will satisfy us depends upon our desires.

To make this clear, let us now introduce the word “good” to name any object of desire. The relation between good and pleasure is at once clear: sensual pleasure is a good, but not the only one; and every good is a source of pleasure in the sense of satisfying a desire when possessed. Hence, the earlier formula, that A is preferable to B whenever A is more pleasurable than B, must now be restated as follows: treating A and B as goods, both of which are desired, A is the greater good, and hence preferred, whenever the desire for A is greater than the desire for B. In short, the good is the desirable, and the better of two goods is the more desirable.

No, says the student, your last way of putting the matter is misleading. You have made it sound as if one object were in fact better than another, and your desire was determined accordingly; whereas so far as you have been able to show, one object is better than another only in so far as it is the object of a stronger desire. Thus you have not escaped the criterion of pleasure, since the preferred object, as the object of the stronger desire, is always the more pleasurable. Unless you can explain why all people should desire one object more strongly than another, you cannot avoid subjectivity and relativism. And how will you be able to show what people should desire and what they should prefer, unless you can show that the objects themselves are intrinsically good and bad, better and worse?

The student’s challenge is fair. We have succeeded in showing him that pleasure will not explain either what people do prefer or what they should prefer, but we have not yet succeeded in establishing other criteria which are both adequate and objective. Some progress has been made, however, in so far as the student will now admit that there are a variety of goods, different in kind, where before he insisted that there was only one good, pleasure.

What do you mean by a variety of goods? the student interrupts, and whence comes this variety?

To answer these questions, let us examine the facts of life. For the moment we shall be content to enumerate the different sorts of objects which people do in fact desire. They desire food and drink, clothing and shelter. Each of these is a kind of good, just as sensual pleasure is a kind of good. We are here enumerating different sorts of objects which people in fact desire, and of each sort there are, of course, particular instances. Thus, “food” names a class of objects, including not only many subordinate varieties, but ultimately this or that particular item of food — this slice of bread, that slab of butter.

But, the student interrupts again, how do you know whether a particular object belongs to one class or another? One person may desire this thing as food, and another desire it as sensual pleasure.

No, that is not so. Remember that sensual pleasure is a certain type of bodily condition. It is not the same, for instance, as another type of bodily condition which we call health. Now, food is neither sensual pleasure, nor is it health, but it may in fact be the cause of either, and hence, it may be desired as a means to the one or to the other. The student is quite right in anticipating the point that food (and, perhaps, also drink, clothing, shelter and all similar objects) are seldom desired for their own sake, but rather as means for obtaining other goods, other objects of desire, such as sensual pleasure and health. The fact that one kind of good is usually desired as a means for obtaining another kind of good does not obliterate the distinction between the two kinds; for if it did, we could never distinguish between objects desired as means and objects desired as ends.

Let us proceed with the enumeration, and make it briefer by naming more general classes of objects. The student has helped us to achieve this generality, for he has enabled us to see that all bodily goods (including strength and rest, as well as health and sensual pleasure) are of one large sort, just as food, drink, clothing, shelter and all similar things are of one large sort which we can call wealth. Wealth, it would appear, consists of all the physical things which human beings can use for the sake of their bodily well-being&endash;for their health, sensual pleasure, etc. It includes everything the economist calls consumable goods and the instruments productive of them, and it includes money as an economic instrument involved in both the production and distribution of consumable goods. Now, in addition to such large classes of goods as wealth and bodily well-being, there are such things as friendship, social peace and security, public honor, political status, and perhaps also fame and power. In fact people do desire such things. Let us group them all together under the head of social goods.

Furthermore, some people, at least, seem to desire knowledge of various kinds and different sorts of skill. This group of goods resembles the bodily goods in one important respect: when a person possesses them he or she possesses them as an altered condition of his or her own nature, whereas the goods of wealth, in contrast, are all external goods, existing actually apart from human nature. But knowledge and skill do not exist actually apart from the human beings who possess them, and even if they may be said to exist potentially, prior to actual possession, they exist potentially in human beings who have the capacity for developing them.

It is difficult to find a name for this new class of goods. Despite their resemblance to bodily goods, they must be distinguished therefrom. The student would probably object to their traditional name&endash;goods of the soul. Let us, therefore, call them habits, for the student will agree that skill in doing any sort of operation is an acquired habit. If the skill were native rather than acquired, it could not be an object of desire. Knowledge, like skill, is something we acquire, something we possess as a result of our own activity. Hence, for the time being, let us regard knowledge as a habit also. Certainly the student will admit that most people desire to be educated, and education is the process whereby people are helped to form habits of various sorts. The common desire for education can, therefore, be interpreted as the desire for a class of goods we have now grouped together as habits. If we ask why people want habits, such as knowledge and skill, the obvious answer is that they can act more efficiently as a result of possessing them. Hence, efficient activity must be still another kind of good, since whenever one kind of good is desired for the sake of another, the latter must also be regarded as a kind of good.

Without claiming that this enumeration is either precise or exhaustive, we can now ask the student whether he will accept the five types of goods we have named (viz., wealth, bodily goods, social goods, habits, activity) as a rough indication of the variety of goods which people do in fact desire.

Yes, says the student, people do in fact seem to desire all these objects, and I will admit that it is possible to divide them into the groups you have named. But I am not sure I understand why there is this variety of goods; or to put my question another way, is there any reason why this variety is the same for all people? Unless it is, you are not going to be able to show that all people should exercise the same preferences in choosing among goods of these various sorts. And even if it is, an objective ordering of these goods still remains to be shown, for people do in fact seem to make quite different choices&endash;some people desire health and knowledge for the sake of wealth and power; others desire wealth for the sake of sensual pleasure and fame; and there may even be some who desire wealth and the social goods for the sake of habits and efficient activity.

One thing at a time. Let us first explain to the student why some such variety of goods is the same for all people. The first part of the answer should be obvious at once. As human beings, having human nature, all people are the same, even though they differ in many subordinate ways as individuals. The deeper question, however, is why there is a variety of goods, not why it is the same for all people. If the good is simply any object — whether an external thing or an aspect of human nature itself — which a person desires, then the plurality of diverse objects, which we have classified as a variety of goods, must be due to a plurality of diverse desires. What the student really wants to know is why all people should have the same set of desires. We cannot rely upon the fact that all people do have the same plurality of desires, for the fact may be questionable, and even if it is not, the student is justified in asking why he, for one, should not make an exception of himself and limit his desires to fewer objects. If there is no reason why he should not do this, then regardless of the facts about what most people desire, the variety of goods is a subjective, not an objective, enumeration.

There is a further crucial consequence: the objects we have called goods are good only because they are desired. Hence there is always a relativity of the good to actual desire, and we shall never be able to say what people should desire, which is central to moral knowledge as normative or prescriptive. In order to get beyond a mere description of what human beings do desire, we must somehow show the student that the objects human beings desire, they desire because they judge them to be good. Paradoxical though it seem, we must begin to do this by getting the student to admit one fact: all human beings desire to live.

Yes, says the student, I’ll admit that fact. Even if there were exceptions, it would certainly be true that a person who does not desire to live desires nothing else, and for him or her there is no further problem.

Will you admit one further thing? we must ask. Will you admit that all people desire to live well, or as well as possible?

Yes again, says the student, although I am not sure I know what is meant by “living well” nor do I think that all people would agree about what living well consisted in. I’ll say Yes, therefore, if all you mean is that every person wants as much satisfaction as he or she can get. To say this is to say no more than what we have already agreed upon — that every person wishes to maximize pleasure, or, in our new terms, every person seeks the utmost satisfaction of which he or she is capable.

In saying this, the student has helped us to our conclusion. Though perhaps inadvertently, he has introduced an indispensable notion, that of human capacity. If living well consists in fulfilling a person’s capacities, (and in so far as these capacities are the same for all people because they are rooted in a common human nature), then it follows that whatever objects are necessary to accomplish such fulfillment must be desired by any human being who desires to live well. And such objects are no longer to be called good simply because they are in fact desired; we can now see that they are good because it is necessary to desire them if one desires to live well.

We can say people should desire whatever is necessary for achieving what they do in fact desire — namely, a good life. And the objects they should desire, as means to the end they do desire, are good, not because they do desire them, but because they are means to the desired end. If the end is living well, we can say that the five kinds of good we have named are all objectively good because they are indispensable means. People should desire them if they seek to live well; if in fact they do not, they are clearly in error. That people can make such errors, for one cause or another, indicates the violability of this prescription and verifies its character as a moral rule, a rule as universal as the commonness of the desire for a good life, and the commonness of human nature as the root of certain capacities to be fulfilled.

We need not pause here to show in detail how the variety of goods enumerated corresponds to the diversity of capacities to be realized. In general, it should be clear that living consists in activity, that the capacity for activity is more fully realized according as we are able to act more efficiently, that habits are the immediate conditions of such efficiency, that bodily and social goods are its remote conditions, and that wealth is indispensable to the maintenance of bodily well-being. Or, to put it another way, we have capacities for health and sensual pleasure, for social and intellectual activity, for work and play — and the variety of objects enumerated corresponds to these capacities. They are good for this reason, and we should desire them accordingly. In short, the student now has the answer to the question, whence comes the variety of goods? It comes from the variety of capacities which human beings can fulfill, and which they should fulfill in order to live well.

I may have helped you make all these points by mentioning capacity, the student says, but you have gone much further than I can follow. I am not quarreling with your point of view that, in general, human capacities are the same — so far as they are rooted in a human nature which is the same. But, remember, I did not agree that all people meant the same thing by such words as “living well.” Even if the variety of goods is the same for all people in some sense, the fact remains that different people place different values on the various goods; and although you may have shown that all people should desire them, you have not shown that all people should concur in desiring them in the same way — with the same emphasis, to the same extent, in the same order. And you must show this, since you have to admit the contrary fact — namely that people do in fact differ in the way they exercise desire with respect to the same variety of goods. My guess is that they differ because they mean quite different things when they all admit they want to live well. Furthermore, if the various goods we have been talking about are objects we should desire because they are indispensable means to the end we do desire, they why should we desire the end itself? If you tell me that there is no point to this question, and we can rest in the fact that we do desire something as an end, then I say, in terms of all your reasoning so far, that the end is not desired because it is good, but rather good only because it is desired. Unless you can show it is good apart from being actually desired, you cannot show that people should desire it.

The student has accurately indicated what remains to be seen. Though there is some ground yet to be covered, we have come a long way from the initial suppositions of our discussion. Let us summarize the advances we have made: (1) we agree that pleasure does not, in either of its two senses, explain the fact or justify the exercise of preference; (2) we agree that an object is good when it is desirable, not simply when it is actually desired, and that it is desirable as somehow related to the fulfillment of human capacities; (3) we agree that there is a variety of such desirables, i.e., goods which should be desired by all people, because they are indispensable as means to an end all people do in fact desire, namely, to live well; (4) we agree that this variety somehow corresponds to the variety of capacities common to human nature, and that the diversity among our desires is determined by the diversity of desirables, or goods. In terms of all this, we have been able to formulate a universal (and quite violable) moral rule: all people should desire every sort of good which is an indispensable means to a desired end.

But, as the student rightly points out, three questions remain. (1) Why should any end be desired, simply as an end and not as a means? (2) Why should all people desire the same end, not only verbally named in the same way, by such a phrase as “living well,” but really understood in the same way. (3) Why should all people desire the means (consisting of whatever kinds of goods should be desired for the sake of the end) in the same way — i.e., in the same order, with the same emphasis upon each kind, etc.?

Since anything which is desired must be desired either as a means or as an end or as both, our analysis of goods or desirables will be complete — if only in a general way — when we succeed in answering these three questions, for then we will know why anything at all should be desired, either in itself or in relation to something else. And since the problem of preference is concerned with the reasons for choosing between one sort of good and another, as alternative means to some end, the problem will be completely solved when we know the order of all the goods which are means to an end which should be the end all human beings seek.

The first question to answer is the one about the end. Beginning with the fact of preference, our discussion began with a consideration of means — alternative goods between which choice must be exercised. But now we see that we cannot solve the problem of any preference unless we first solve the problem of the ultimate criterion of all preferences, namely, the end, which is itself never preferred, because it is not a good, opposed by alternative goods, but the good, having no alternatives. It is necessary, therefore, to make another fresh start.

The Dialectic of Morals – Part 4

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