Happiness in Society: An Aristotelian vs. Utilitarian Viewpoint

Stephanie V.

Aristotle depicted in Raphael's famous painting, "School of Athens"

For centuries, deciding what the good of society is has been a topic debated by philosophers over and over again.  What makes up a so-called good and just society, and what this means for the people living in it, may not ever have an answer that another philosopher down the road will not rebuke.   Two of the most famous men with their own well-known, but different views and opinions, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, have come up with two renowned theories on what is the good of a society.  Although these men come from different time periods and different points in history, their theories can be applied to any situation in any point in time.  The Aristotelian and Utilitarian views are two different concepts, yet the influences of these two viewpoints are apparent in events of the past, present, and future.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores the correlation between man and society, and the foundation of a political community.  To understand his view on society, first he dissects and explores humans: what they seek, what causes true happiness, and what is the function or nature of man in general.   For Aristotle, the final end of man is the good.  In other words, what every man seeks in his life is the good.  What is the good, then?  To find that answer, Aristotle asks the critical question: What is the function of man?  He answers this decisive question when he says, “What is the function of man?  For as the goodness and the excellence of a piper or a sculptor, or the practiser of any art, and generally of those who have any function or business to do, lies in that function, so man’s good would seem to lie in his function” (Nicomachean Ethics).   The good that man seeks for then lies in his function.   Aristotle argues “the function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason and on the other side with reason” (Nicomachean Ethics).  If Aristotle believes that the function of man is to live life in accordance to reason, the question becomes how does Aristotle believe society to contribute to man’s function?

In The Politics, Aristotle defines man as a “political animal,” depicting the most important difference between human beings and beasts.  He concludes that man is the type of animal that cannot reach final end without the state, or “polis.”  Without this political community, man cannot contemplate—therefore, he cannot fulfill his human nature.  He argues that humans need other humans to engage in contemplation, except gods, when he says, “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god” (The Politics).  As a “political animal,” humans strive to live well by living in accordance with reason and fulfilling the function of man.  Therefore, to Aristotle, the purpose of the state is to help its citizens live life well, or live in virtue with reason, fulfilling each human’s function.  Aristotle argues that the state is a natural occurrence.  Without the state, humans would never be able to fulfill their human nature.  To Aristotle, human happiness can only be attained by living life using human potential of reason and virtue in a community of others.  Therefore, one can only be happy if he or she lives in the “polis.”

Aristotle’s writings reveal his belief in the importance of the state in relation to the nature and function of man.   Because the state is so important in the Aristotelian viewpoint, the citizen must be defined as well: “He who has the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration of any state is said by us to be a citizen of that state; and, speaking generally, a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life” (The Politics).  For Aristotle, the state is a crucial part of human life.  The Aristotelian viewpoint in reference to the state can best be summed up by these words:  “A state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only: if life only were the subject, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice” (The Politics).  Aristotle once again refers to the happiness of man, and makes the distinction once again between humans and animals.  Humans are “political animals” because they have differentiating qualities from brute animals, and they have the opportunity to live the good life, fulfilling their final end by living life in accordance with reason in a community of other people.

Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill describes another concept or viewpoint of society and the relationship between humanity and society.  The central idea of Utilitarianism is the “foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, [which] holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Utilitarianism).  The dichotomy of pleasure versus pain is the driving force behind Utilitarianism.

Like Aristotle, Mill also has a opinion on the final end, “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things…are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Utilitarianism).  At first, this theory might seem a little rudimentary and crass, but Mill differentiates between different levels of pleasure when he says, “to assign to the pleasure of the intellect; of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasure than to those of mere sensation.”  Pleasure that uses the human intellect, emotion, etc., is recognized by Mill to have much more value than just sensational pleasure.  The definitions of happiness might be one of the biggest differences between Aristotle and Mill.  For Aristotle, happiness is defined as living life in accordance with reason in a community of other people.  On the other hand, Mill believes happiness is directly correlated with pleasure—something that Aristotle does not believe can be the sole determinant of true happiness.  While both might believe in happiness as a final end, their definitions differ.

For example, the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final stages of World War II are prime examples of Utilitarianism in action.  For President Truman, the imminent death toll of not just Americans, but Allied and Japanese troops as well, invading Japan would be much greater than the death toll from the atomic bomb.  Like Mill, President Truman believed that the atomic bomb would prevent the greatest amount of pain.  Even though thousands of people died, including innocent civilians, President Truman believed even more would have died if they decided to invade Japan.  His actions were very utilitarian.

However, Mill believes that all humans share the need for a final end of happiness, and utilitarianism therefore is in the nature of human beings.  In this way, Aristotle and Mill agree.  They both believe that the final end for man is happiness—and the best way to achieve this happiness is to acquire the help of fellow human beings with the same aim and final end.  Mill therefore also agrees that man is a “social being,” much like Aristotle’s title of man as a “political animal.”  Mill says, as a “social being, [man] tends to make him feel it one of his natural wants that there should be harmony between his feelings and aims and those of his fellow creatures…he still needs to be conscious that his real aim and theirs do not conflict” (Utilitarianism).  Mill, then, also expresses his opinion in the importance of the state.  He points out that all men are aiming for the same thing—happiness—and a society of people all striving for the same thing is the best means for achieving it.

Although Mill and Aristotle have differing views on the definition of happiness and how man should be able to get to the final end, they both understand the importance of the state.  They recognize that in order for man to truly achieve happiness, they must have the company of other human beings in a community to achieve this goal.

 Works Cited

Raphael. School of Athens. N.d. Photograph. Fotopedia. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-



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