In experiencing a pleasure (or pain, but let's start with the nice side), one is aware. But what is one aware of in the pleasure? We could say that one is aware of the pleasure. However, that seems mistaken. For there is indeed such a thing as being aware of a pleasure--a second order perception--and that second order awareness need not be pleasant at all. One might with horror realize that one is taking pleasure in the sufferings of another, for instance. So an awareness of a pleasure need not be pleasant. But a pleasure is, of course, always pleasant. This suggests that a pleasure is more than the awareness of a pleasure. Now maybe it is a certain kind of such awareness, say a particularly vivid one. But I don't think this is going to work.
Let's try a different tack. Pleasure isn't some kind of unitary mental ingredient. Rather, there are different kinds of pleasure, and there is no single common feel between them. There is the pleasure of solving a difficult mathematical problem and the pleasure of eating a chocolate cake. It would be really odd if one had these two feelings reversed! Moreover, one takes pleasure in something, such as an activity.[note 1] It is quite possible to take pleasure in something unreal, for instance being glad that someone has done one a good turn, when in fact the person has sneakily betrayed one.
So in pleasure we are taking pleasure in something distinct from the pleasure itself, and pleasure comes in different kinds corresponding to the kinds of things we take pleasure in. What, then, are we aware of in having a pleasure? It is the thing we take pleasure in. But to be aware of something is to be aware of it as a something. So in having a pleasure, we are aware of some x as an F. Often, x is an activity. But what is F? If we say "something pleasant", we have gone in a circle in trying to understand pleasure. Rather, I suggest, we are aware of an x as a particular kind of good. When we take pleasure in camping we are aware of the camping as a particular kind of good. Is this the whole story? Maybe not--maybe we need to say something about the sort of awareness this is, the kind of awareness that is involved in perception rather than in figuring out that something has some property. But we've got, I think, at least a part of a story.
Nor is this story very new. It is not very far from Aristotle's account of pleasure as completing a good in the Nicomachean Ethics, and is the view of pleasure that we get by analogy to Socrates' account of fear in the Protagoras.
This story has several merits:
- The account is uniform between spiritual or psychological pleasures and physical pleasures. It is clear that spiritual or psychological pleasures are the taking of pleasure in something--that they have intentionality. This is less clear for physical pleasures. But it seems implausible that some pleasures would be intentional mental states and some would be non-intentional mental states.
- The account neatly explains what an "empty pleasure" is. An empty pleasure is one divorced from the good being taken pleasure in. I could inject myself with chemicals, perhaps, that will make me feel the satisfaction of having done a job well, but if I do so when I've botched the job, my pleasure will be empty.
- The account explains why it is that taking pleasure in bad things (e.g., bad things happening to others) is particularly bad. It is particularly bad because it is self-deceptive: one is having oneself perceive something bad as good. And this kind of deception makes one deficient at love, since love requires getting right what is good and what is bad for others.
- The account explains why it is that many instances of pleasure are good. They are good because they are veridical perceptual states.
There is an analogous story about pains: pains are perceptions of something as bad in a particular way. However, some of the advantages of the account of pleasure are harder to see in the case of pain. One consequence of this account of pain is, after all, that veridical pain--i.e., pain in which we see something as bad in a particular way which is indeed bad in that particular way and where we are rightly connected to that bad state of affairs--is intrinsically good. And it might strike us as odd to suppose that some pains are intrinsically good. But observe that this is the right thing to say about many spiritual pains. As Johannes de Silentio says in the Sickness unto Death, the worse sickness is not to have that sickness. Many spiritual pains are such that it would be a defect not to have them. To fail to feel guilt for a bad action and to fail to grieve for a friend's suffering is bad: conversely, to feel guilt when one has done ill and to grieve rightly are intrinsically good. The uniformity between spiritual and physical pains seems a theoretical merit. And for a theist the fact that the question why God allows there to be pain is not intrinsically a problem--that it is good that God allows there to be pain--is definitely an advantage of the account.
But we still need to explain why it seems to be a good thing to relieve even veridical physical pains (pains that correctly represent an injury as bad), even though these pains according to the theory are intrinsically good. At least things can be said on this point. First, even if something is intrinsically good, it can be instrumentally bad. Pains often distract us, drawing our attention to facts that we do not need our attention drawn to. If we have a gaping wound, and have seen a doctor, we don't need further reminder of the wound, though the reminder is veridical. Second, I wonder whether our physical pains are often veridical even in cases where a genuine injury is causing the pain. They might be excessive, disproportionate vis-a-vis the injury, especially in light of our eternal destiny. I suspect that we tend to underappreciate moral bads and overappreciate physical bads, so we tend not to suffer enough spiritually and to suffer too much physically (on the other hand, Christ on the Cross had both a full appreciation of moral bads, and our excessive, fallen pain perceptions, so he suffered doubly). This seems to be a part of the Fall.
I also suspect we tend not to take enough pleasure in things; if we saw God manifested in everything around us, every pleasure would be heightened. But while excess renders a pain non-veridical, shortfall does not automatically render a pleasure non-veridical. This disanalogy is due to the fact that even if we do not see all the good in a state of affairs, the good that we see in it is there, and as far as the pleasure goes, it is veridical--though more pleasure would also be veridical.