Pleasure: Desirable, positive
feeling or feelings, related to various kinds of experiences and states
of the body or the mind.
pain, is hard to define
adequately, and a fundamental quality of human experience.
In some sense, the concept of pleasure is fundamental for, or at least a
fundamental factor in, ethical and moral considerations; in what makes
life worthwile; and in what happiness
would be, though in either of these cases more seems involved than
The problem is that 'pleasure' is a very general and vague term, that
covers various kinds of feelings and
states of mind or body, and that comes, for various reasons, with
Even so, and regardless of the kinds of pleasure and the various
problems related to it, the one thing that everybody seems to agree on
is that ceteris paribus human beings are attracted by what pleases and
try to avoid what pains them: If it were not for the consequences or for
the moral or ethical values one holds, human beings would try to do and
get what gives pleasure, and try to undo and avoid what gives pain.
1. Kinds of pleasure
It would seem that there are various kinds of pleasure, and
that some of these, and indeed both bodily and mental pleasures - viz. the pleasures of food and sex,
and the pleasures of friendship and love - are known to and sometimes
experienced by all (adult) human beings.
Other pleasures - music, mathematics, chess, the taste of fried
insects, the viewing of horror films - may be less widely shared, or may
be incomprehensible to some.
Thus, rather like the eye can see any kind of - two-dimensional -
shape, regardless from what has it, the mind and the body can feel
pleased or displeased by any kind of - perceived or imagined - cause, and may do so
for many kinds of reasons and prior conditioning, learning or needs.
2. Problems of pleasure
There are also various more or less paradoxical or problematical facts
related to pleasures of some kinds at least. Here is a rapid summary of
some of these problems.
First, there is the fact that some intense pleasures - such as
connected with sex or drink or drugs - may be deemed ethically highly
reprehensible, even in the mind of the person desiring the pleasure
while condemning it morally. In brief general terms, not everything
that pleases is good, and not everything that is good is pleasant.
This makes it difficult to use the unqualified term 'pleasure' in
Second, what pleases and the extent to which it pleases varies a lot
with persons and personal circumstances, and
has often no clear or obvious relation to what motivates. Also, what
pleases is much dependent on one's personal circumstances: A meal for a
starving person has completely different felt qualities and pleasures
than the very same meal would have for the same person when properly fed.
This extends the previous point, with similar consequences, and a
similar point: There are many kinds and causes of what is said to
Third, while intense pleasures tend to be strongly appealing (even if
ethically disapproved) less intense possibly more subtle or variegated
pleasures, like those involved in friendship or even socializing with
people, may also be strong motivators.
Thus, there is no simple or single rule that relates the intensity or
duration of pleasant experiences to what one should or should not do.
Fourth, some pleasures, such as those produced by addictive drugs, or
those generated by a membership in a political party or religious group,
may well be dangerous to oneself or others (and so the cues the body
gives about its needs and states may not at all be in its own interest).
This extends previous points: That something pleases is in itself
often no good clue to anything else, and both bodily and mental
pleasures may be quite deceptive about what is good for oneself or
Fifth, some really or apparently unpleasant experiences - watching
horror-films; the cathartic experiences produced by staged tragedies or
books; the sights or sounds judged 'sublime'; the activities of teasing
and tickling; acts involved in sado-masochism - are nevertheless by some
This too extends previous points, and adds an additional
complication: Everybody seems to derive some kinds of pleasure from
experiences which in itself are not pleasurable. One good example, that
seems to hold for everyone and that puzzled Aristotle already, is the
pleasure people derive from staged tragedies.
Sixth, while many pleasures are undoubtedly related to states or
experiences of the body, others are presumably mostly or only due to
states of mind (love, self-respect, jokes, wit) - though it is a
bit difficult to see how one could feel a mental pleasure if one has no
body, or if one's body is completelely anesthesized.
This again is an example of the many kinds and causes of what is said
to please. Incidentally - and also somewhat puzzling - it still seems to
be the case that any pleasure is a bodily state. What makes a
pleasure mental (a joke, say) rather than physical (a taste in the
mouth, for example) is its starting point; what makes a pleasure felt is
some bodily state of a living creature.
Seventh, it is an interesting fact about pleasure and all other
feelings that they are subjective and
personal; that they cannot be shared except
imaginatively; and that
often they must be inferred from bodily acts and words (both of which
may deceive, intentionally or not).
This is another interesting aspect, especially in an
feelings are of fundamental human importance, their status
as merely subjective facts related to the mental and bodily states of a
person, that are basically private to himself, and can be merely
inferred by others on the basis of analogies and behavior, differs a lot
from intersubjectively given things.
Eighth, it would seem that pleasure is what makes life seem worthwile
to many, while it seems that the capacity for pleasure and pain, and
feelings in general, seems to be one basic distinction between computers
and machines on the one hand, and living and human beings on the other
hand: All animals, at least, except perhaps very simple ones, seem to
feel and to have states of pleasure and pain, related to the
satisfaction or dissatisfaction of their bodily needs.
Thus, it seems that it are feelings of various kinds that make living
things different from machines: Machines and men and animals can calculate and
reason (at least to the extent that reasoning can be seen or explained as a kind of
calculating), but only men and animals and not machines can feel.