Philosophy Behind Economics; Finding Individual Happiness

Allie R. Per – 5

Individual happiness has no singular definition; it means different things to different people based on their moral code, self-esteem, and motivation to achieve it. Philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle, both agree on the point that happiness is craved by all humans and can only be achieved through instinctively human behaviors and activities. For Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, and John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political economist from the 17th century, there are many surprising similarities, yet also subtle differences, between their views of individual happiness and how it can be attained. Criticisms can surely be made on account of both philosophers and perhaps another view on individual happiness and the purpose of life can be found to serve as the ultimate link and compromise between the two.

Aristotle holds an agreeable perspective on happiness; it is the final end that to which all human actions and motives are based upon. He boldly makes the generalization that it is only logical to agree that all humans accept happiness as a final end. “That which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” and as all actions are a means to the possession of happiness, happiness will always be an end in itself (Nicomachean Ethics). Given that whatever means are chosen, that which to be attained, the end, is happiness. It is the sole reasoning and motivation behind any and every basic human action.

On the other hand, more so than Aristotle, John Stuart Mill focuses in on the distinction between happiness and pleasure. He agrees that happiness can be considered as the ultimate and final end that which all humans seek to achieve; yet, he makes his point that there are differences in the quality and quantity of happiness to which a person can obtain. With his definition of happiness as pleasure with the absence of pain, “men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable: and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental” (Utilitarianism).

The subtle differences between the two philosophies can be perceived in many different ways because ultimately individual happiness can be based upon one’s perception of others. While they agree on happiness as the ultimate goal, they differ on defining happiness/pleasure and how to obtain such:
The type of happiness that Aristotle argues, through and through, is not meant to be the temporary emotion of feeling pleasure. He means not for it to be something that can be possessed for one hour and then gone the next. It is the quality of the entirety of a life. It is the time that has been invested into reaching one’s full human potential. Judging one’s happiness throughout their life is tricky, not only because it is impossible to assign a value to; but also, that it cannot be judged before life is over. Furthermore, the sole determinants of happiness are not the possession of external goods such as health or food but it is throughout a lifetime’s worth of speculation and contemplation. “Happiness, then, extends just so far as contemplation, and the more contemplation the more happiness is there in a life,—not accidentally, but as a necessary accompaniment of the contemplation; for contemplation is precious in itself (Nicomachean Ethics).

Aristotle’s observation on the contemplative life being the good and happy life is an interesting stance and the ultimate contradiction towards Mill’s view on pleasure as happiness. While pleasure is admirable to Aristotle, there is much more to life than so. Wisdom and the exercise of that wisdom through virtuous practices—“for every being that is best and pleasantest which is naturally proper to it. Since, then, it is the reason that in the truest sense is the man, the life that consists in the exercise of reason is the best and pleasantest for man—and therefore the happiest” (Nicomachean Ethics).

Furthermore, looking into Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, he seems to take no regard of individual rights as he judges all to the same standard. He fails to recognize that human beings are capable of sacrificing for the greater good of others and refuses to admit that a sacrifice can be good in and of itself. “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the some total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Utilitarianism). While he argues that his theory comes naturally and is only logical to the social nature of humans, he decides that happiness is based on utility. The morality of people, in his eyes, is always based upon the somewhat attainable happiness he has been arguing. He recognizes that objectors “say that happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable” (Utilitarianism).

All throughout the world, it would be impossible to claim that people are not seeking out pleasure, wealth, and an impressive social status. Perhaps this quest that is naturally invested in all members of the human race provides the adequate amount of motivation for people to achieve individual happiness while simultaneously providing to the good of their society and the world as a whole. John Stuart Mill undoubtedly touches on the role of government and the way society ought to be formed as his essay Utilitarianism is based on the theory that it is necessary to reduce suffering and increase pleasure in order to maximize utility. Interestingly enough, Aristotle also touches on this aspect. He curiously divulges into the point of a city and what a citizen is defined as in The Politics. He defines a constitution as a government, yet it appears he does not take into consideration human’s naturally tendency for government, which often comes before the constitution itself. He then goes on to name the six different types of constitution (three just, three unjust); yet he impressively takes his stance from Nicomachean Ethics and further develops it in The Politics by stating that man is a “political animal.” A good life is achieved by partaking in the state as a citizen that has gained the wisdom, contemplation, and motivation for understanding how to achieve their own personal happiness. As stated earlier, the quest for said happiness that is naturally invested in every single human provides for the good of society and the world as a whole.

Overall a general consensus can be formed from both arguments as both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill encourage happiness to be obtained in life, yet they differ on the ways to obtain such. From the perspective of utilitarianism, one would say that in order to be happy, all forms of pain must be abolished. Where there is a lack of pain, pleasure can be felt; pleasure is the ultimate form of happiness. The disagreement forms when Aristotle claims that pleasure itself is not necessarily the good or the end to which is to be desired and ultimately achieved. As stated throughout, Aristotle’s main point is that life must be lived in accordance to reason and happiness is attainable through contemplation.

Overall, it is essential to understand that there is no singular definition given to happiness or pleasure. There is also no one correct way to live one’s life. There is no certain reasoning, agreed upon by all, that is the sole way that decisions should be made through government, or lack thereof. Focusing in on this conclusion from the perspective of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, it is apparent that happiness is the ultimate goal. It is something that is intended to be experienced by all individuals. While principally the same, both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill state their subtly different views on how to obtain such.

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