Morality of Tragic Pleasure

Randall Horton

The Morality of Tragic Pleasure

Human enjoyment of intense emotional pain is a paradox that remains to be resolved or eliminated. Aristotle attempted to give an account that defended the morality of enjoying tragic pleasure. Later philosophers, such as Hume, have claimed that pleasure evoked by fiction is pleasure of the artistry and not pleasure in the negative emotions produced. Modern philosophers have attempted to eliminate the paradox by either claiming that there is no pleasure derived from tragedy or that painful emotions themselves are pleasurable. In order to explain the paradox or understand whether there is an actual paradox, it is necessary to compare painful emotions evoked by fiction, non-fiction, and actual experience. I will argue that both painful and pleasurable emotions have the same physiological characteristics and that the perception of pleasure or pain is a cognitive decision contingent on one’s moral framework.

Human life, perhaps all sentient life, is an extended process of loss, grief, pain, and sorrow. Suffering is so bountiful that Arthur Schopenhauer felt it must be the purpose of existence, saying, “If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering, then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world” (41). Many may reject this view as being overly pessimistic, but few live to old age without adopting it. Pain is, of course, necessary to survival. Those who do not feel pain are unable to develop appropriate behavioral responses to the world. An absence of physical pain makes it impossible to know, for example, when one has a broken arm. An absence of emotional pain leads to severe criminal pathology.

As a result, moral philosophies must provide an account for human suffering and its role in the development of human behavior and experience. Jeremy Bentham contends that, whether we admit it or not, we live our lives in avoidance of pain and in pursuit of pleasure; this being the way of the world, we should adopt reduction of pain and promotion of pleasure as our guiding moral principles. He said, “In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason” (507).

Using a slightly different approach in “There Is a Reason Why God Allows Evil,” John Hick argues that life would not be worth living without the appropriate amount of suffering. A world without suffering could have no pleasure, as we could not know what it is. Similarly, without the urge to reduce our suffering, we could not develop morally or spiritually, as we would have nothing to guide our actions. In short, a universe with no suffering would be a Godless universe. He notes, “Such a world, however well it might promote pleasure, would be very ill adapted for the development of the moral qualities of human personality. In relation to this purpose, it would be the worst of all possible worlds” (115).

Indeed, individuals who have experienced great suffering tend to view those who have led lives free from loss and pain to be less developed morally. While we claim to want to avoid suffering as much as possible, we also tend to think suffering improves us in many ways. Because we suffer, we become more compassionate, we appreciate life’s pleasures more, we love more deeply, and we gain a deeper and richer understanding of beauty.

It is no surprise, then, that our art and drama reflect the great depths of human suffering that we experience. But what do we hope to gain from the artistic depictions of human suffering and toil, and could we not gain the same benefits from actual suffering and toil? The great paradox, of course, is that art not only reflects suffering but creates it, and we seem to take pleasure in generating our own pain, quite contrary to Bentham’s claims. One assertion may be that we take pleasure in tragic events because it is good for us. Enjoyment of tragic events may be an element of human experience that has enabled our species to survive. Most philosophers have insisted that we are only able to enjoy the suffering provoked by art because we know we can escape the suffering; we know that it is not real. The claim is that real suffering creates no pleasure and that we desire to avoid as much actual suffering as possible, but it is at least conceivable that there is an element of pleasure in some actual suffering, but that we are loathe to acknowledge it, as that would indicate a callous disregard for the suffering of others. With artistic suffering, we are free to admit to our enjoyment, as no one is getting hurt.

Aristotelian Tragedy and Moral Development

For Aristotle, it seems, only in art can tragedy promote morality. However, painful events may provide an opportunity for the moral man to demonstrate his achievement of goodness. Aristotle says, “If great events turn out ill they crush and maim happiness; for they both bring pain with them and hinder many activities. Yet even in these nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes” (Introduction 325). The tragic event does not promote morality but might provide an opportunity to demonstrate it. At the same time, tragic events will not destroy the happiness of an individual of moral worth. He says, “The happy man can never become miserable—though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam” (Introduction 326). Aristotle is clear on our relation to actual pain. He notes, “It is agreed that pain is bad and to be avoided; for some pain is without qualification bad, and other pain is bad because it is in some respect an impediment to us” (Introduction 467). Pain is only good when it helps to make us virtuous, for “pain is used as an instrument of punishment” (Introduction 335). But even if actual pain is not associated with pleasure and is only useful as a punishment, we take delight in seeing representations of images and events that would ordinarily cause us pain. He says, “We delight in looking at the most detailed images of things which in themselves we see with pain” (Poetics 4). He continues that we enjoy such representations because “learning is most pleasant, not only for philosophers but for others likewise (but they share in it to a small extent)” (Poetics 4). So, by watching representations of painful events, we can learn, which promotes happiness and pleasure, even though actual painful events do not have this advantage.

For Aristotle, tragedy can only provide the appropriate experience if it is plausible. It is plot, rather than character, that makes a tragedy plausible. Unlike the historian, the tragedian must “relate not things that have happened, but things that may happen” (Poetics 12). Still, the poet may refer to actual events because “things which have happened are obviously possible—they would not have happened if they were impossible” (Poetics 12). This allows room for plots to depict pain. Events that would produce pain if experienced can indirectly produce pleasure and education when properly represented through poetry.

It is important to note that for Aristotle, tragedy must not simply be a representation of terrible events that happen to passive characters. There is no education, certainly no moral lesson, to be gleaned from randomly occurring tragic events. As Cynthia Freeland notes in “Plot Imitates Action: Aesthetic Evaluation and Moral Realism in Aristotle’s Poetics,” “When he says in the Poetics that the change in fortune of a tragedy will occur owing to a frailty or mistake (hamartia) of the hero, he is emphasizing that tragic unhappiness requires the agent’s contribution” (119). It is essential for Aristotle that the agents cause, but do not deserve, the horrible events they endure. Only plots of this nature provide katharsis.

Katharsis is variously described as a purgation of negative emotion, a purification, or an education of the emotions. In his essay titled “Katharsis,” Jonathan Lear provides an intriguing argument that all these interpretations are incorrect. At the risk of oversimplifying his argument, he claims all formerly held interpretations of katharsis imply that tragedy should remedy some deficit in the audience. He sees these possibilities as unlikely, as Aristotle most likely considers the audiences of tragedies to be both educated and virtuous. Lear’s alternative account is that we all fear tragedy may befall us; even though it seems highly unlikely that we will kill one parent and marry the other without realizing it, extremely tragic events do happen to people who are quite virtuous. Further, tragedians seek to remind us that we are all subject to the possibility of tragedy. As the Chorus from King Oedipus tells us, “None can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace” (68). As I write, Elizabeth Smart has just been returned to her parents after being abducted by a man Elizabeth’s mother hired and brought to their home. The mother hired the man, who was homeless, as an act of compassion, but she paid dearly for her efforts. Her hamartia resulted in a nine-month ordeal for her daughter and family. The nation has watched with rapt attention, and we all wonder how we would handle such a situation. Lear suggests that a fictional tragedy gives us an opportunity to experience real tragedy without facing an actual loss, providing moral development that can promote happiness. Lear points out that Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, says that those who endure great calamities no longer feel fear. Viewing fictional tragedy, then, gives us the opportunity to imagine ourselves in a position of having nothing more to fear (335).

Why is it valuable to have this vicarious experience of tragedy? For Lear, fictional tragedy permits us to explore how to behave with dignity in the face of real trouble. It also teaches us that the world can remain rational and meaningful in spite of disastrous events. Being able to experience the feelings of pity and fear that lead to fearlessness without the event actually happening brings both relief and pleasure, i.e., katharsis. Of course, as Aristotle points out, we also derive pleasure from the fact that the poet is able to evoke such powerful emotions of pity and fear while presenting a rational and morally worthy plot.

The story of Elizabeth Smart will likely be badly rendered in a rush-to-completion movie for television in the near future. The simple fact that the story is true (or at least based on truth) will not be enough to permit audiences to derive pleasure from it. A fictionalized account produced by great writers and directors would likely have much greater force and provide more pleasure. In such a case, the pleasure would be derived from the artistic bravura of the artists involved in the production.

Nonetheless, the experience of Elizabeth’s family taught us all that it is possible to face such tragedy with great courage and dignity (some may disagree, but I think most felt the Smarts behaved admirably in the aftermath of the tragedy). The Smarts knew they would be blamed for Elizabeth’s abduction. They invited strangers to the house and left the house unsecured. We admire them for admitting their mistakes and asking for compassion. We do not require that they do anything so drastic as gouge out their eyes. They deserve reprieve. As we watch, we learn that the world continues to operate in a rational and moral manner in spite of great tragedy. We learn that it is possible to behave nobly in the face of tragedy. The factual event provides all the advantages of a fictional one except for the appreciation of the artistic rendering. For the Aristotelian, the experience of tragedy can reinforce a rational view of the world.

This account works to a point, but Lear and Aristotle both leave us with an incomplete view of the distinction between fictional tragedy, reported tragedy, and our own tragedy. I’m sure the Smarts would scoff at anyone who claimed to have benefited from the Smart’s experience of tragedy. To claim that we no longer fear the abduction of our own children because we’ve vicariously lived through it with the Smarts would seem callous and naïve. We also have no admiration for the person who says, “I’ve never experienced a great tragedy such as yours, but I did watch a movie about it.” Whatever benefit fictional tragedy provides for our view of the world as rational and moral, the benefits are greatly multiplied by the experience of actual tragic events. While fictional tragedy may enable us to imagine ourselves facing tragedy with dignity, only actual tragic events test our muster. It is a folk cliché to say, “You never know how you will act until you are in the situation,” but it is folk wisdom that is often corroborated by experience. This is not to completely negate Lear’s point, however. Seeing that tragedy can be endured with dignity can bring pleasure and reassurance, but it cannot relieve us of our fear nor provide the moral education of actual tragedy. Fiction can supplement life experience, but it is no substitute for it.

To clarify the important distinctions between fiction, non-fiction, and actual experience, it may help to explore whether non-fiction accounts of tragic events could be tragic in the Aristotelian sense. In considering whether non-fiction tragedies can meet Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, Stacie Friend claims in “The Pleasure of Documentary Tragedy” that non-fiction tragedies can provide what Aristotle would deem a proper pleasure from tragedy. She avoids the problem of determining what Aristotle meant by proper pleasure, or katharsis, by focusing instead on what features Aristotle said a tragic plot should have. Aristotle said that the unified plot necessary to tragic pleasure is not found in real life, but Friend claims that any account, fiction or non-fiction, that fits Aristotle’s definition of a proper tragedy would by default have to provide the pleasures appropriate to tragedy.

Technology such as the video camera has made it possible to create non-fiction tragedies. She says, “What is important for my purposes is the fact that documentary footage of this kind can be edited—this opens up the possibility of imposing, on real events, just the sort of narrative structure Aristotle counts as necessary to producing tragic pleasure” (2). Without being able to describe such proper pleasures, we can still deduce that particular tragedies must provide them. Her example of a non-fiction tragedy is the documentary, Startup.com, which is probably not the best example for her purposes. Startup.com, the 2001 documentary directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, covers the rise and fall of two young entrepreneurs who start an Internet company. Friend notes that the documentary is edited to create a plot structure that fulfills Aristotle’s requirements for a tragedy, but she overlooks some of the other requirements. It is true that Aristotle says tragedies must be plot driven, with characters being only supplementary, but he also insists that the protagonist be morally equal or superior to the audience. On this count, Startup.com is more of a morality play than a tragedy. Internet startups of the 1990s were characterized by overconfidence and greed, and this company was no exception. Other than those participating in the high-tech craze of the 1990s, people were happy to see these young and brash business people get what they deserved. While many may feel envious of the business acumen of the characters, few would feel morally inferior. Friend notes that the producers of the documentary hoped the business and the friendship of the two partners would fail. It is hard to believe the documentary was not intended to appeal to the indignation and even schadenfreude of those of us who missed out on the heavy profit-taking of that period.

Nonetheless, Friend’s general point that real life tragedies can be created by video editing may have some value. Reporting of the Ellizabeth Smart abduction has already reflected many elements of tragedy, and the family has received hundreds of offers to retell their story through various means. The cases of Elizabeth Smart, Andrea Yates (who drowned her children), Clara Harris (who killed her husband) and others have demonstrated that modern news reporting, especially so-called television news magazines, edit news stories to have a plot structure similar to tragedy’s, and audiences obviously find pleasure in them. Stories that provoke pity and fear are especially popular. News reports edit the stories to present universals, rather than particulars. The audience is expected to identify with the protagonist and realize that the events could happen to anyone. The reports of child abductions in general, and of Elizabeth Smart in particular, have been quite successful at arousing pity and fear. On this account they may produce what Aristotle considered proper pleasure, but if Lear is correct, these news reports are severely lacking. The reports do not help us to imagine ourselves without fear. On the contrary, parents around the country nearly reached a state of mass hysteria in the summer of 2002 in response to a bombardment of news reports on child abductions. It is interesting to note that parents were reacting to reporting of abductions, as the number of actual abductions was consistent with previous years. Witnessing a non-fiction account of the undeserved loss of a child’s life does not immediately reduce fear; however, retrospective reports may help an audience experience the kind of relief that Lear describes, if the outcome is perceived to be rational and those affected are seen to be virtuous. The Smart case fulfills this purpose, but other circumstances could change that. In some cases, it may be that the public blames the abduction on the parent’s immoral behavior or even on the child. Parents and children who are perceived to be sexually active or active drug users gain little sympathy from a judgmental public. The value of such moral judgment for the public is that it enables us to feel protected from such bad events, believing such horrors only happen to bad people. This is consistent with Aristotle’s moral view of tragedy.

Aristotle insists that virtue is the result of practice. He says, “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” (331). If this is the case, then viewing fictional tragic events permits us to practice virtue without experiencing actual suffering, which leads us to virtue only by showing us what to avoid. Lear also sees this advantage to tragic fiction. Actually experiencing tragic events would provide better practice, to be sure, but fictional accounts may help us strengthen our virtuous response prior to the experience of an actual tragedy. Knowing that we are virtuous and respond appropriately to tragedy will give us a sense of well-being. Facing our fear of the greatest loss imaginable, even the fear that we may cause the death of our loved ones, can help us to become fearless. Non-fiction accounts of tragedy might provide the same opportunity, but this would be using pain to promote good, which would seem contrary to Aristotle. Similarly, experiencing actual tragic events would provide the opportunity to practice virtue, but at the cost of experiencing great pain, which is to be avoided. Even if experiencing painful events can help develop a virtuous response, it is unlikely that Aristotle would consider any pleasure derived from them to be a proper pleasure. Friend emphasizes that Aristotle’s insistence that tragedy must be fiction is “not based on moral qualms about the enjoyment of actual suffering” (2). But the purpose of pain, according to Aristotle, is to guide us to a virtuous life by showing us what to avoid. For Aristotle, we take pleasure in the morally appropriate response to painful events. To derive pleasure directly from actual pain would be wholly immoral. Some people do, in fact, take pleasure from pain, either their own pain or the pain of others, but this is obviously outside the Aristotelian moral framework. It may be that audiences take pleasure, or admit to it, only from fictional tragedies because it is morally permissible to do so. After viewing a production of King Oedipus, one might proudly declare, “I thoroughly enjoyed that performance.” After viewing a documentary of the same events, any moral person would be extremely reluctant to admit to taking great enjoyment from the experience, though one might express an appropriate moral response. Still, it would seem in bad taste at best to express pleasure at having the opportunity to flex one’s moral muscle. Expressing delight in experiencing the pain provoked by an actual experience of a tragic event would be even more shocking. Aristotle and Lear give insight into how it can be moral to take pleasure from a representation of a tragic event, but the complex relationship between fiction and reality needs further exploration. Hume, in his essay “On Tragedy,” explores the paradox further and considers the effects of actual tragic events on individuals.

Hume and the Pleasure of Tragedy

Hume’s exploration of the pleasure of tragedy ostensibly ignores the moral significance of the paradox of tragedy. He asks simply how it is that audiences can take such great satisfaction from such painful experiences as those produced by the best tragedies. One possibility, he notes, is that we simply enjoy being moved to a highly excited state, whether we are experiencing pain, joy, or sadness. All these emotions are preferable to languor. He quotes Jean-Baptiste Dubos as saying, “Let it be disagreeable, afflicting, melancholy, disordered; it is still better than that insipid languor, which arises from perfect tranquility and repose” (699). Hume rejects this explanation, though, as he says actual suffering is much more efficient at producing extreme emotions, but most people avoid seeing or experiencing actual suffering.

He suggests, then, that fictional tragedy provides not only an excitement of the emotions but also an appreciation for the talent of the author or players. He says,

This extraordinary effect proceeds from that very eloquence, with which the melancholy scene is represented. The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgment displayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together with the force of expression, and beauty of oratorical numbers, diffuse the highest satisfaction on the audience, and excite the most delightful movements. By this means, the uneasiness of the melancholy passions is not only overpowered and effaced by something stronger of an opposite kind; but the whole impulse of those passions is converted into pleasure, and swells the delight which the eloquence raises in us. (701)

Here Hume echoes the Aristotelian view that we take delight in representation. When we watch a well-written and acted tragedy, our emotions are moved with great force. As we are aware that the tragedy is a fiction, we admire the talents of the author and player, and therefore we are able to transfer our excitement from suffering to pleasure. The more forcefully our emotions have been moved, the greater our pleasure will be. This would not be possible in a non-fiction account of tragedy. We appreciate the art, then, and not the negative emotions. This account seems incomplete at best, for the quality of the artistic expression is judged by its ability to produce a profound effect on the emotions. Without producing negative emotions, no tragedy would be judged to be well-written. It is the powerful emotion audiences seek, and such power requires artistic quality. A disappointed member of an audience of a tragedy will often say, “I felt nothing for the characters,” demonstrating that a powerful emotion was sought.

Hume argues to the contrary. He says, “However we may be hurried away by the spectacle, whatever dominion the senses and imagination may usurp over the reason, there still lurks at the bottom a certain idea of falsehood in the whole of what we see” (700). Knowledge that the representation isn’t true is enough to permit the audience to convert pain into pleasure. Most viewers of powerful tragedies will say they were so moved they forgot it was only a play or movie. The ability to actually feel the powerful emotion without being aware that it is fiction is what delights us most. When the emotions are too intense, some will actually repeat to themselves, “It is only a movie.” If the representation were of an actual tragedy, Hume claims, we would not be able to convert the pain into pleasure. To illustrate this point, he says we would not use our artistic skills to comfort the parents of a dead child:

Who could ever think of it as a good expedient for comforting an afflicted parent, to exaggerate, with all the force of elocution, the irreparable loss which he has met with by the death of a favorite child? The more power of imagination and expression you here employ, the more you increase his despair and affliction. (704)

Though we may not always use great artistic expression to bring pleasure to the parents of a deceased child, we certainly do express their loss in the strongest terms possible. This is the purpose of eulogy—to use all the “force of elocution” to state the great loss that has been suffered. While none would call it pleasure, afflicted parents feel entitled to feel the full force of their grief. Suffering an “irreparable loss” is far different from experiencing grief for a fictional character or even an unknown, but real, person such as Elizabeth Smart.

Hume further muddies his claim with a criticism of what he considered to be shocking British theatre of his time. He mentions the shocking image of an old man crashing into a pillar and smearing it with brains and gore. Such an image, he says, cannot convert to pleasure. In reality, though, he seems to be claiming that it should not convert into pleasure. He says:

The mere suffering of plaintive virtue, under the triumphant tyranny of vice, forms a disagreeable spectacle, and is carefully avoided by all the masters of the drama. In order to dismiss the audience with entire satisfaction and contentment, the virtue must either convert itself into a noble and courageous despair, or the vice receive its proper punishment (704).

There seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that audiences can be quite moved by spectacle such as that described above. Further, audiences might enjoy such arousal immensely. Hume finds such pleasure unsavory and, indeed, immoral. Here, Hume is in agreement with Aristotle. In order to be morally appropriate, the virtuous must endure a “noble and courageous despair.” Hume ignores the fact that some audiences thrill to the excitement of spectacle that is completely contrary to the moral framework he describes. One can only imagine how he would react to the popularity of the video series, Faces of Death, and web sites devoted to video footage of carnage and gore. It is certain that audiences take pleasure from witnessing such horrible images, and such pleasure could never be considered moral within an Aristotelian framework. Hume’s disgust with such spectacle indicates his agreement with Aristotle, but it leaves unanswered the paradox of how audiences can enjoy horrible events. In “Real Horror,” Robert Solomon claims there is no paradox—audiences do not enjoy painful emotions.

The Effects of Real Horror

Robert Solomon draws a distinction between the negative emotions produced by art and the negative emotions produced by actual events. To illustrate his point, he describes the feelings most Americans felt while watching images of the World Trade Center attacks. We felt fear, shock, grief, and probably some inexpressible emotions, but no one would describe the feeling as pleasure. It would be impossible, Solomon claims, to feel pleasure at such a spectacle. He does note that we wanted to see the images again and again, but the simple act of choosing to view something does not prove that one takes pleasure in the viewing. He says we would prefer that horrible events not occur, but if one has occurred, “we would rather see than not see” it (3). It is a way, he says, of managing grief and overcoming trauma.

However, if art-horror is pleasurable, it is “precisely because it is not horror” (3) In fact, Solomon notes (as have others before him) that when real horrors loom (during war or disaster), art-horror becomes more popular. Art-horror appears to be a way of escaping from real horror. Watching monsters on the screen seems pleasurable when trying to face actual monsters of nuclear war or terrorism. An Aristotelian, such as Lear, would probably be able to accept this view as well. Neither Aristotle nor Lear claimed that the negative emotions produced by fiction were equivalent to those of actual experience; they merely claimed that those emotions produced by fiction can aid the development of individuals in coping with actual events. Solomon rejects this notion, however, stating, “It is not the case that watching a movie about airline crashes, no matter how fictionalized, immunizes a nervous flyer before his or her upcoming trip” (14). Nor would a movie about child abductions protect us from fearing for our children. In the same vein, news coverage of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction did not lessen the fear of parents following the story.

If constant news coverage of tragic or horrible events does not prepare us for future events, why are we compelled to view repeated representations of such events? Solomon says, simply, “Trauma demands repetition” (15). He notes that the “decrease in pain and trauma should not be confused with pleasure” (15). News coverage of the WTC attacks and Elizabeth Smart’s abduction can help reduce the feelings of trauma, but provide neither pleasure nor preparation for personal tragedy or horror. As to desensitizing one to the pain for horrible events, Solomon claims, “Two instances of real horror may have such an effect on one another, but there is not much evidence that art-horror has much of an effect on the horror of real horror” (13). Since Solomon wrote his essay, actual events have supported his claim. In 1986, Americans were horrified as they watched the space shuttle Challenger exploded on lift-off. The emotions we felt would surely count as horror by Solomon’s account. In 2003, we watched again as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated. While most Americans responded to the Columbia accident with the appropriate levels of grief and concern, the trauma was not nearly so great. We can only guess that the next successful terrorist attack on American soil will produce a weaker response.

Solomon argues convincingly that the feelings we have when confronted with actual horrible events are not the same as those produced by fiction, but he dismisses too readily the appeal of the negative emotions produced by art. The giddy excitement one feels when watching a horror movie may not compare to the feelings of watching the WTC attacks, but the intense sadness one feels while watching a play such as Margaret Edson’s Wit is at least similar to the pain one feels while dealing with disease and death. The play features the final months in the life of a cancer patient, a retired professor of English. The main character, Vivian Bearing, faces dehumanization at the hands of selfish doctors while reflecting on her dehumanization of her own students. She not only faces the loss of life but a negative evaluation of the life she has lived. Although Edson’s writing is superb, such talent is probably not necessary in provoking negative emotions regarding cancer. Cancer deaths are so common that few adults have not either faced a diagnosis of cancer or lost a loved one to the disease. Even for one who is not cancer phobic, the self-evaluation at the end of life is a universal phenomenon for humans. We all go through constant reflection on life and, too often, we find our own lives lacking in some way. As we watch Vivian Bearing grapple with her past, we are reminded of the importance of our own decisions. It is extremely painful to view a quality production of Wit.

I saw the play in the company of a retired professor of classical languages who was so distressed that he could not discuss it afterwards and declined to join the group for coffee. His pain was not make-believe pain, and he was not more interested in the quality of writing than he was in his pain. Emotional pain is the central characteristic of watching a play such as Wit. Quality writing, acting, and production abound in other forms of entertainment. Comedies, documentaries, and essays all afford wonderful opportunities for artistic expression. Also, we can pretend to be in pain by taking an acting class, attending a role-playing seminar, or other activities. It is the fact that the play provokes pain that makes it appealing.

It is not only drama that produces such profound emotions. We may feel intense sadness at looking at a painting or listening to music. We may appreciate the artistic accomplishment of a work that moves us to tears, but it is actually being moved to tears that attracts us. We don’t read tragedies because they are well written and happen to move us to tears. We read tragedies because they move us to tears by virtue of the fact that they are well written.

Cognitive, Emotional, and Moral Interaction

If it is the painful emotions we seek, though, why do we not take pleasure from actual horrible events? We can only take pleasure from emotions arising in the appropriate moral context. Indeed, there are people who take pleasure from negative events such as car crashes, homicides, or even natural disasters. We will say of such people, however, that they lack moral development. Our emotions are not value neutral; emotion is only determined by a complex interplay of physiology and cognition. In his 1975 book, Mind and Emotion, George Mandler describes the interplay:

Emotional experience occurs by definition in consciousness. Both the perception of arousal and the results of cognitive interpretive activities are registered and integrated prior to or in consciousness. Output from consciousness is frequently coded by our language systems into socially sanctioned and culturally determined categories. (67)

Emotion is determined first by an autonomic (pre-cognitive) response to stimuli and then by a conscious interpretation of the physiological arousal. Whether a particular arousal is perceived as pain or pleasure is determined largely by one’s moral convictions. Art-induced emotions give one the freedom to experience negative emotions in an appropriate moral framework.

Occasionally, we may be surprised by what we find pleasurable, and giving an account of it can be a challenge. Cynthia Freeland confronts this challenge in her essay, Realist Horror:

My own strategy of reading this genre [realist horror] involves me, admittedly, in a sort of tension: ideological critique focuses on problematic ways in which realist horror films create discourses of knowledge and power, serving conservative and patriarchal interests, and it is likely to produce a critical view of realist horror. But I have also tried to foreground the horror and mass media audience’s ability to produce subversive interpretations, acknowledging that viewers do indeed have a significant power and interpretive role in reading, and resisting, realist horror. (15-16)

It is possible, at least, to enjoy realist horror, she claims, from an appropriate moral standpoint. For those who are unable to find an appropriate moral grounding, such pleasure is impossible. Some will never be able to enjoy video recordings of actual human death and suffering, as their moral grounding prevents it.

In a related issue, some philosophers have followed Hume in suggesting that pain induced by art can be converted into pleasure. Modern psychology has given at least some support for this theory in the form of excitation transfer. According to this theory, excitation produced by one stimulus can later be attributed to another stimulus; thus one arousal can be interpreted as two distinct emotions. Psychologist Mary Beth Oliver discusses excitation transfer from sexual arousal to horror in her 1994 paper titled “Contributions of Sexual Portrayals to Viewers’ Responses to Graphic Horror.” She hypothesizes that “sexual scenes in horror films should increase arousal among viewers, and this arousal should serve to enhance fear in response to suspenseful or violent portrayals that follow” (3). Her research supported this hypothesis somewhat, but only for males and to a lesser degree than expected. Nonetheless, excitation transfer theory can give an account of how art-induced pain can “convert” to pleasure. In this view, one can experience intense pain while viewing or reading a particular work, and reinterpret this arousal as pleasure subsequently.

This is not necessary, however to account for our appreciation of negative aesthetics. Pain is an essential feature of the human experience. In order to understand our lives and world, we will seek pain, and, though it may seem a paradox, we are able to enjoy great emotional intensity. Whether this intensity can be perceived as pleasure depends on our morality. While we may sometimes be seeking a moral story, as in the case with tragedy, we sometimes seek a simple emotional experience. Some forms of music and painting provide such an experience. We don’t feel sadness because it is morally appropriate, but because it is morally permissible. We seek the painful experience and permit ourselves the indulgence so long as no one is actually getting hurt. Non-fiction accounts of tragic events may create negative emotions, but we would not describe the experience as pleasure; it would seem quite unsavory to say we “enjoyed” the actual suffering of an innocent human being. We might, however, have an appreciation for our understanding and reaction to a non-fiction story. We might be glad that we experienced it, and we might feel that we benefited from it. As Lear would point out, we might take solace in realizing that we can handle tragedy if called upon to do so. To really learn life’s lessons, however, we must experience actual painful events. We will not describe the feelings we have upon losing a loved one as pleasure under any circumstance. We may feel the experience has aided our moral development, but it is impossible, as Solomon would insist, to view such events as pleasure.

In all cases, though, our experience of pain is identical in physiology. The three cases differ only as a result of a cognitive interpretation. We feel an autonomic response and make a conscious decision to identify it as either pleasure or pain. In some cases, the pain is the same as pleasure, at least to the extent that we have chosen to feel the pain, and art gives us permission to do so. It is morality that guides our response to extreme events, and we would do well to follow Aristotle’s advice to train the emotions appropriately, so that we might live in a more compassionate world.


Works Cited

Aristotle. Introduction to Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random, 1947.

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Richard Janko. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Bentham, Jeremy. Qtd. in Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 7th ed. Ed. Manuel

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About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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3 Responses to Morality of Tragic Pleasure

  1. olivia says:

    I do love a tragic hero and a dastardly villain. Pain, pleasure…exquisite pain and horrific pleasure, Mmmm, phrases that peak curiosity and tickle the sadist in us all. You clearly take pleasure in the arduous task of writing about the sweaty masses and our delightfully dualistic, discordant dogma and doctrines

  2. Drubicle says:

    haha kudos to olivia’s alliteration.I enjoyed reading this paper. I don’t really have anything to say about it specifically because every question I had while reading was eventually answered. Both intense pleasure and pain invoke a heightened euphoric response and I think both are linked to survival. In one instance,those who push their pain thresholds are doing harm to themselves. Conversely, they also could be experimenting with what they are capable of tolerating. In other words, they are testing and familiarizing themselves with one of their most important survival mechanisms-pain. Maybe “emotional sadists” (as well as sexual sadists) have an increased understanding and awareness of their pain instinct, and are quicker to adapt survival-wise.

  3. bicabel says:

    And I felt touched by this issue directly due to my own experience in life. I’m convinced that people who I have suffered a lot, are able to learn from it, and they turn into better human beings. That is because you’re able to understand others suffering. On the other hand, you became stronger to fight future similar situations, so previous suffering turns your personality into a useful weapon or shield. When you’re are suffering, if you try hard to survive from it, you reflect about the better way/s to do it, this makes you grow up and skilful to face difficulties in life. I wouldn’t dare to say that calamites make us better as people, but, at least, stronger – that does not mean “tougher”. On the contrary, I am more and more sensitive, to the extent that can burst into tears with the most silly things you can imagine – and this did not happen to me five years ago, for instance- but I am also a better prepared fighter…Does this make sense?I cannot watch the violent scenes in films nor in the news, neither watch films about “living humans after death”, so I try to avoid them, but, surprisingly, I am ready to help you or to save your life in case of a risky situation, or be able to ask the doctors not to make suffer any more and disconnect your life from a machine, or to shroud you with the most delicate caring, or to spend a whole night in front of a death body or in a cemetery –if it were necessary- without being afraid… -just to mention some things that most people wouldn’t dare to- or to fight to make you justice over the years… or to educate, bring up and support a family with two teenagers alone…. I can also understand about the fragility of our lives as human beings and how little we reflect on that.. If we thought twice about it, I am sure we will no fight so much for our materialistic things…and we would enjoy the simple things we have, for instance: to be able to see the light, to use our hands to hold things, to use both legs to move around without being helped, to hear properly, to eat by yourself, to smell the fresh air in the morning, to feel the sun light or the touching of the person you love, or to look into his/her eyes… because some others cannot.I believe that suffering is a lesson for us to be able to appreciate the best things of life, thus the more you have suffered the more you can enjoy the short moments of happiness.

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