Philosophy 155 - 8.4.2 Qualitative Distinctions in Pleasure

Pleasure can be a slippery term. It is experiential, but it can be experienced in many different ways. For this reason, philosophers often create distinctions to explain different types of pleasure. Pleasure can be sensory or bodily, affective or emotional, and mental or emotional. You can describe the pleasure of biting into a juicy apple, watching light reflect on water, and feeling soft textures. You can describe the elation of achieving a goal, the joy of receiving good news, and the comfort of spending time with a close friend. You can also describe the gratification of learning something new, the satisfaction of sharing ideas with others, and the euphoria of immersing one’s focus entirely in an activity.

Pleasure as a State of Mind

Pleasure seems to be a feeling or sensation, but also much more. For example, savoring an apple means taking pleasure in its taste. Here the pleasure depends on the taste being good, but the pleasure we take in tasting it is not the same as simply tasting it. For this reason, some philosophers have argued that pleasure is not simply sensation but instead involves a notion of good. That is, pleasure satisfies a desire for what is good, which involves a state of mind, not just a sensation—and so involves reasoning, beliefs, or the satisfaction of a desire.


The chapter on normative moral theory explores utilitarianism in greater depth.

As a result, critics of hedonistic philosophies complain that pleasure is too varied, indeterminate, subjective, and conditional to be a solid basis for ethics, well-being, or any philosophical theory, and that well-being consists of more than pleasure. The experience machine illustrates this issue.

The Experience Machine (a Thought Experiment)

The experience machine is a critique of hedonism and pleasure-based concepts of well-being. In this thought experiment created by American thinker Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002) in 1974, a person can be plugged into an “experience machine” that gives them every experience they value and enjoy. Moreover, they would be completely unaware of the machine, which means they would experience everything as real even though it would all be an illusion. The thought experiment prompts one to think about what makes life good. Is well-being simply a state of mind that a machine could replicate, or is there more to it? For Nozick, it is not a good life because it is not real. People want what is real, and they want to really do things. Pleasure alone does not satisfy that need and desire.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax