Half-Minute Wisdom: Moral Education

In fact pleasures and pains are the things with which moral virtue is concerned. For pleasure causes us to do base actions and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions. Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.

— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.iii, 9-13 (H. Rackham translation)

Let us analyze this brief passage, which compresses a few profoundly important ideas into a very terse account.

First of all, moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains. What can this mean? Well, for Aristotle, morality is not primarily about behavior (actions), but rather about motivations or intentions, which means that morality is about the states of soul that motivate our actions, whether good or bad. Pleasure, furthermore, derives, basically, from the satisfaction of a desire, and pain from the denial or contradiction of a desire. This implies, then, that moral virtue is related to which kinds of things the soul desires, or how those desires have developed. 

That is why he says that “pleasure causes us to do base actions, and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions.” He does not mean that all pleasure causes base actions, or that all pain causes us to avoid noble actions. He means that no one would do a base action unless he expected it to bring pleasure, since no one would choose pain for its own sake. And to choose something means to act out of a desire for it. This implies that the expectation of pleasure is part of what is entailed in desiring anything. 

Therefore, when a child is young, before his character has been formed and hardened into relative permanence, it is essential to guide him towards finding pleasure in things that are good for him, and pain in things that are bad for him, rather than the opposite. In other words, the purpose of moral education — the most important part of childhood education — is to help the child’s soul develop its desires in the proper way, so that the child will learn to find (and expect) pleasure in doing noble actions, and to feel (and expect) pain in doing base actions. 

We may remind ourselves of this passage and its implications, when we see parents using the magnetically distracting and thought-stunting flashing images of a smartphone as an artificial babysitter to keep their child occupied. They are teaching the child to find pleasure in mindless sensory stimulation and endless rapid change, and therefore to experience silent activity, patient investigation, and respectful self-restraint as painful. Or think of all the little girls one sees in shopping malls and department stores, being encouraged to mimic the sexy dancing, manner, and singing of pop divas and girl groups. They are having their souls molded by immodest sexual behavior before they are even old enough to understand what it means; and this means, by contrast, that they are not learning to take pleasure in subtler feelings, modest behavior, and innocent curiosity. 

Thus, as Aristotle (following Plato) tells us here, moral education just means learning to like and dislike the proper things — in other words, to take pleasure in things that will guide us toward good behavior and emotional maturity, and to find inappropriate and spiritually damaging things painful, especially in anticipation. Educating the pleasures and pains involves cultivating good habits of the soul. In Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, moral virtue means good character, and good character means proper habits of emotional response — liking and disliking the proper (kinds of) things. Liking noble things, disliking base things.

A lot of this, in the case of childhood learning, has to do with exposing children to images and examples that will make them admire and desire beautiful, rational, and noble objects, rather than ugly, irrational, and ignoble objects, as well as giving them opportunities and encouragement to behave virtuously, until through experience the preference for such action becomes a habit of the soul. Moral character in Aristotle means, essentially, good habits of desire. Wanting this rather than that, and therefore deriving pleasure from the pursuit of this rather than that, and, indirectly, from the avoidance of that rather than this.

In anticipation of today’s sophists who would seek to evade the implications of such clear reasoning by asking, pseudo-provocatively, “But who gets to decide which preferences of the soul ought to be associated with pleasure?” we may answer, simply and commonsensically, that in general a standard of preference which prioritizes womb-like comfort, material ease, immediate gratifications of the body, and hence the spiritual paralysis of perpetual immaturity, would be the sort of standard that Aristotle is referring to when he says “pleasure causes us to do base actions, and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions.” Hence, by contrast, a standard which prioritizes the struggle for self-reliance, a certain coldness to the attractions of material security or gain as such, the more difficult and hence rarer rewards of perseverence and forebearance, and hence the spiritual independence of mature self-possession and, if you will allow the Nietzscheanism, self-overcoming, would be the sort that he regards as the proper goal of moral education, since this latter standard is consistent with human nature in the Arisotelian sense, which is to say with the notion of the human as a being with a telos, and specifically the highest (and therefore most difficult and desirable) telos.

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