Pleasure, Beauty and the Good


If the good is the highest human value, then pleasure related to the good - ie, being good, helping others be good, even creating good things - could be ranked near the highest of human pleasures. Is it possible to say that “good” pleasure is preferable to base pleasure, for example, in nonnutritious sweet foods or in harming others unnecessarily? It might be said that the base pleasures mentioned above are not preferred for good ends in at least two senses. In one sense, the aim of the behavior is wrong or base. In a second sense, the consequences of the behavior are wrong. It is likely that these base behaviors might begin to lose their appeal after the proper reflection has taken place on the purported pleasure they are supposed to bring.

What sort of pleasure is beauty? Is it good pleasure? Beauty might be thought of as a state of excellence that appeals to us. This excellence can inspire us to be better than we are owing to the fact that we wish to embody it or another sense of excellence. Like pleasure, beauty can be of more mundane, baser aspects, like physical form, or it may be considered to be an attribute of ideas, like the good. The beauty of one being, like the good of one being, pales in comparison with the beauty of all beings and the good of all beings. When this is taken into account, things that are not related to the total good seem to lose their attractiveness compared to the things that bring about or are related to the total good.

Does the experience of pleasure in beauty enhance our ability to be good? I must answer "not always" to this question. I do want to focus though on one aspect of beauty that seems to evoke a favorable experience. Through a lack of the dissonance caused by ugliness, the experience of beauty can put us in a favorable state in our reaction to beauty. There is a problem here, however. Not everyone seems to respond in the same way to different beautiful sights, sounds, or ideas. And further, beauty does not always lead us to bring about or think about the good. On the contrary, a person already thinking about good (and important) things might be distracted by physically "beautiful" things around him or her to an extent whereby the productive contemplation of the good, along with good action, is diminished by the experience of beauty.

There is a type of person who can experience the beautiful and at the same time act in good ways or reflect on the nature of the good in productive ways. For this person, a finely crafted and proportioned statue could bring about reflection on the finely crafted and proportioned nature of society itself and its highest value, the good. This could lead to a life that strives to attain the good and takes pleasure in its lofty goal. People can be inspired to be good in how they act and think. This seems to be where goodness and pleasure can coincide. The question remains whether experiencing art objects is the best conduit to a good life. The pleasure of beautiful art often involves the gratification of the senses and the happiness of feeling. This may be a distraction from the rational "pleasure" that the mind experiences when it thinks well or of the good.

revision 04-10-17