Aristotelian Ethics vs. Utilitarianism

aristotleChrissy M.- P.3

Since humans came into existence, the goal that each person strives for is happiness. Beginning with Adam and Eve, we have discovered that Eve’s happiness lied in the attainment of the fruit of the forbidden tree. Although Eve knew she must not eat from the tree, she still did in hopes that she would achieve happiness in the end. The attainment of happiness can be demonstrated with two views from two different writers: the Aristotelian view and the Utilitarian view by John Stewart Mill. Aristotle taught many people about his view of the attainment of happiness which is centered on the fact that happiness is determined by the final end. The utilitarian view of happiness written by Mill is different from the view of Aristotle, because Mill’s view centers on the fact that happiness is attained by maximizing a person’s utility. Some people agree that the Aristotelian point of view is more logical, while others prefer to believe that the utilitarian point of view is more logical, and still others agree that both views have equally valid and logical beliefs.

One of Aristotle’s main teachings stated that virtue is the habit of choosing the mean. In Aristotle’s opinion, happiness is determined by the final end of an action. For example, if a man has worked his entire life in a job that he loves, but he is unhappy with the amount of money that he has made then it results in less happiness than if he would have worked at a job where he was miserable but received a greater amount of money. This example supports Aristotle’s beliefs about happiness, because the man’s final end resulted in a greater amount of money. Even though his whole life was spent miserably working at a terrible job, the man became happier after his retirement because he had more money. Aristotle also taught in Aristotle Nichomachan ethics that happiness was attained through living “in accordance with virtue”. Therefore, Aristotle believed that humans should not focus so much on economic issues in society. Instead people should focus on acting virtuously towards their peers in their day to day lives. The people who give their extra money to a person who is living on the streets will receive more happiness than if they would have gone into a store and bought something that would have only been enjoyed temporarily. The final end truly determines the happiness that is attained by a person in Aristotle’s opinion.

Utilitarianism beliefs have a very different opinion on the achievement of happiness than the beliefs of Aristotelians. Utilitarian views focus primarily on maximizing utility. This includes maximizing happiness and reducing suffering in order to improve your quality of life. Although Aristotle focused on actions that made an individual happier, the people who believe in the utilitarian point of view would prefer to get the greatest amount of happiness for a greater number of people. If a serial killer was going to kill many people, a person who had utilitarianism beliefs would prefer to have the serial killer be put to death than to lose the lives of many innocent people. This is true, because killing the serial killer would reduce the amount of suffering and maximize happiness for a greater number of people. Another key belief of utilitarianism is that the moral worth of any action can only be determined by the outcome. An example of this belief is if someone donates money to a church basket and the basket is stolen then the action does not affect the outcome and therefore has no value.

Aristotelian points of view and utilitarianism points of view are nearly opposite, because Aristotle focuses more on the happiness of the individual person, and utilitarianism focuses more on the happiness of the community as a whole. The common ambition of each person, whether they agree with Aristotle or the utilitarian point of view, is striving for happiness through the actions performed in their daily lives. In the passage by Aristotle called Nichomachan Ethics states that, “[T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.” This quote is supported by the argument that was made by Aristotle that said that contemplation is the most important and effective form of virtue. This is believed to be true by Aristotle, because any living being is capable of contemplating virtue at any time. The reason that acting virtuously is not higher than contemplation in Aristotle’s opinion is because practical activity is more difficultly performed than continuous contemplation. In today’s society the opposite is usually believed to be true. Today in society virtue is measured by the virtuous acts that a person performs, because simply contemplating will not have any effect on other people. Aristotle focused in on many things that he believed would most effectively lead humans to the “good life”.

The main supporter of the views of utilitarianism was a man named John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill wrote a book called Utilitarianism, which explained his opinions on how and why he believed that people should live by the beliefs of utilitarianism. One of the most important statements that Mill stated was that, “Life has a certain flavor for those who have fought and risked all that the sheltered and protected can never experience”. Mill said this because he was trying to make a point that people cannot achieve happiness by sitting back and hoping that everything will just work itself out. John Stuart Mill encouraged people to act virtuously in order to make more of an impact on society. This is opposite of what Aristotle believes, because Aristotle declared that contemplation has more importance than virtuous actions do. Although Aristotle’s opinion was more spiritually virtuous, Mill did not agree that contemplation had more importance than virtuous actions.

Today in our culture, Aristotle’s ethics and Mill’s utilitarianism are used by many people around the world. Although people may not realize it, the teachings of John Stuart Mill and Aristotle are continuously practiced by everyone. When a high school student goes to do volunteer work at a local homeless shelter they are practicing Aristotle’s ethics because the final end of their work results in helping end hunger among the homeless people. Mill’s teachings are also used today in our society. Mill’s teachings are used in our government during elections, for example. This is similar to Mill’s ideas in his writing, because when citizens vote for the president the more votes that a person gets the more of a chance they have to be the president. Therefore, the president will end up being the person that will bring happiness to the greater number of people who voted. Although both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill did not have the same teachings, their teachings can come together as one to teach people about how to live happier lives. An example of the teachings of Mill and Aristotle coming together can be demonstrated by going to Mass. The reason that going to Mass can fulfill both philosophers’ teachings is because the greater amount of people attend mass to make them feel happy and peaceful, and also because many people spend their time at mass in contemplation. Mill and Aristotle together have formed society into what it is today, and without either one of them things would be very different than the way they are.

People in today’s society will either agree with Aristotle’s ethics, agree with Mill’s utilitarianism point of view, or they understand and agree with parts of both opinions. These two points of view, although they are opposites of each other, both aim at striving for happiness in life. Aristotle focused more on achieving happiness which was determined by the final end. The utilitarian point of view was a little different, because it centered more on working towards maximizing utility. The purpose of life for humans has always centered on the attainment of happiness beginning with Adam and Eve. Working hard and trying to attain happiness at the end of life is one main goal that almost all humans work towards. The attainment of happiness is essential to achieve the ideal life that Aristotle referred to as the “good life”. Whether you agree with Mill or with Aristotle the most important aspect of human existence is the attainment of happiness.


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