Kinds of Pleasures

Thomas Hurka is one of my favorite moral philosophers.  His essay on Nietzsche found in the compilation Nietzsche and Morality is meaty and challenging both as a stark reading of Nietzsche and as a strong perfectionist view of ethics, developed on Nietzsche’s behalf.  I’ve also read most of his first book, Perfectionism, which was excellent.  Below are my notes I took on an interview he gave to Philosophy Bites during my first week at Camels With Hammers in June of 2009. Digging through my unpublished drafts for blog posts, I found them and realized I never got around to writing my own post out of them and think they’re helpful enough simply in their present form as notes. Again, what follows below are notes, not attempts to write in my own words and so nothing below should be attributed to me as there may be some extremely close paraphrases that might otherwise count as plagiarism were these not just my notesHurka went on to write up the ideas below as part of his very good and accessible book The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters (Philosophy in Action) which he released (and I read) a year later.

Hurka begins by distinguishing that pleasure is a good thing but not necessarily the only good thing.  Achievement, knowledge, being morally good, etc. are other examples of human values.  While there are these other values in addition to pleasure, we can’t imagine a good life without pleasure.  It is an essential element of a good life.

Then he distinguishes two kinds of pleasures

(1) pleasures which are simple feelings (simple pleasure)

(2) pleasures about something being the case (pleasures that)

Hurka: Each pleasure we actually experience will be a complex sensation combining the dimension of pleasantness and the particularities of the pleasant thing–the rich swirl of chocolate or the feel of sun on the skin.  You can never feel pleasantness on its own but it always has to be with something else.

–When we have a “pleasure that” something is the case then our pleasure is aimed at something in the world.  This kind of pleasure requires a conscious thought.   Animals can have simple physical pleasures but can’t have the pleasure that the Mets scored because they can’t have the thought that the Mets scored.

–A simple pleasure is often localized in a specific part of the body.  Taste is only in the mouth for example.  Simple pains are localized as well–pain in thigh, soreness in throat, etc.  And we can have combinations of all these different localized pleasures and pains simultaneous with each other with each being a discrete element in consciousness.

–To simple pleasures we can contrast general pleasures such as “being in a good mood.”  It’s not physically localized (not in a good mood in your right thigh).  General pleasures also permeate all of consciousness.  They provide both background and coloring to them.

So far our examples of general pleasure of a good mood is still on the simple pleasantness side but it’s a pleasantness felt in connection to a wider range of things in my life.

Can take the general in looking at my life as a whole and have a “pleasure that” which extends well beyond my pleasure that the Mets scored.

Ordering this, Hurka distinguishes 4 types of pleasure:

(1) Pleasures which are Simple and Localized, e.g., physical pleasures

(2) Pleasures which are Simple and Extended, e.g. an overall good mood

(3) Pleasures That, which are Localized, e.g. pleasure that the Mets just scored

(4) Pleasures That, which are Extended, e.g. pleasure that my life has gone as it has.

How do we compare these different pleasures?

They all involve good feeling, which can be more or less intense.  Hurka’s view is that all that matters is how intense the buzz is (a la Bentham).

People have often used the word happiness for the more extended kinds of happiness, when he’s overall feeling good about his life as a whole, to try to get us to think of those as better.  But Hurka thinks any good feeling is good.

This is not to say that pleasure is the only good.  You could have an sensualist, a Don Giovanni who enjoys erotic adventures but second guesses his life as a whole.  So he has both intense experiences but not an overall extended good mood.  On the other hand, an ascetic with few intense pleasures but an overall extended good mood and life satisfaction.  It is possible both of them have led equally but differently pleasurable lives.  Hard to say which is more pleasurable life.

Hurka: there are other goods in life.  So while poetry and playing a simple game may be equally pleasurable the poetry involves an extra good, like achievement or aesthetic enjoyment.

–Torturing animals is good insofar as it is pleasant but it is bad insofar as it is vicious, which subtracts from its overall goodness, and also makes it worse than comparable pleasures which don’t have an evil object.  And since the object of such malice has a balance of pain, overall it’s a bad thing.

Hurka rejects hedonism.  2 Main objections to hedonism: mindless pleasures and morally vicious ones.  A life with higher goods involving skill, talent, challenge, and lack of delusion, is better than a life with more base pleasures than it.  Also a good life involves certain pains.  The hedonist would recommend against ever feeling pain, even when grieving over lost loved ones but that sounds wrong to Hurka.

For more, read Hurka’s book The Best Things in Life

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Metrodorus

    Thanks for mentioning this! I really loved his Philosophy Bites interview and enjoy his taxonomy.

    I’m a hedonist, so I’ll write my general counter-arguments to his position (for the fun of it of course!)

    ” A life with higher goods involving skill, talent, challenge, and lack of delusion, is better than a life with more base pleasures than it.”

    I disagree. It’s usually true that talent, skill, challenge, lack of delusion and so on are things that make life happier. (Going further – so are things like physical beauty and health – though he may or may not call those sorts of perfections “higher goods”). But the reason these are known to be good is pleasure (both of the simple and reflective types).

    A hypothetical to that line of argument:
    Say someone is extremely skilled at Call of Duty. They are the best in the world. They have developed their inborn talents to the point that they could be considered a virtuoso. But their continued overplaying of the game is causing an increase in pain in their life (joint issues in their hands, head aches, etc) and a general bad mood from stress. Say they also don’t get much “pleasure that” from it… They play for the money and because they recognize the truth of a gamer-based version of perfectionism. Being good at Call of Duty is literally a duty for them.

    Is the higher good of skill, talent, challenge, etc from mastering the video game worth the pain? Or is that a higher good at all? And if we compared BG TM with an average gamer who really enjoys it, would we say one or the other is better?

    (Could swap this hypothetical for the Best Zapotec Potterymaker or some other virtuoso/starving-artist.)

    “Also a good life involves certain pains. The hedonist would recommend against ever feeling pain, even when grieving over lost loved ones but that sounds wrong to Hurka.”

    We should minimize pains if possible – sure. And some pains may come from goods that are worth it – if we must feel the pain of grieving to truly develop a loving attachment to someone, it’s well worth it. But would Hurka tell someone who doesn’t grieve – say because a loved one is in a better place, or not suffering anymore, etc – that they aren’t doing love right? If someone can truly love someone and not suffer from their death, why would they?


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