Aristotle vs. Mill: Can one have a rainbow without rain?


Ximena Lastra

Economics – 2

December 13 2012

Since the beginning of time, people have yearned for true happiness. Even today, humans work and do all in their power in order reach this ideal of ‘happiness’. But what really is happiness?  If one was to ask 500 people, he or she would get 500 distinct answers. Each person can give a unique definition of what happiness means to him or her but how can one best define happiness as a whole to the human race? Aristotle shares with his readers in Nicomachean Ethics his beliefs on the meaning of happiness claiming it as the final good of human life. Meanwhile, John Stuart Mills presents the idea that happiness is measured by the amount of pleasure and absence of pain. So what really is happiness and how can we attain it?

Like Aristotle states, “Men agree that the good is happiness, but differ as to what this is”. Aristotle argues that past attempts at defining happiness have failed.  He defines happiness as the final end to human life. However, happiness “requires external goods”, these ‘external goods’ are simply the means by which we eventually reach our final good; wisdom, honor, wealth, and pleasure. Aristotle claims that too often, people confuse these means as the final end when in reality; they are nothing more than ‘external goods’ which we need n order to reach our final good.

Aristotle then goes on to clarify that happiness is the “exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with excellence of virtue”. In order for one to be happy, one must be capable of performing his or her ‘function’. These faculties, or talents, are also known as the functions of humans. Aristotle believes the function of the human being is to live with reason; also, he reveals that the excellence of virtue is considered to be a virtue which entitles moderation in life. Therefore, Aristotle explains that for humans, happiness may only be reached through living in accordance with reason and moderation. He claims moderation is crucial in happiness because “excellence is destroyed by excess or deficiency”; in order for a man to live with reason, he must live with moderation. In living with moderation, one can, in turn, maximize the human function known as reason and therefore maximize his or her happiness.

“Happiness lacks nothing; it is sufficient in itself”. In order for man to be happy, he must be capable of being self sufficient and in order to be self sufficient, he must be willing to contemplate. A life of contemplation is a life on the path of happiness says Aristotle. In the same way, a man with reason is able to contemplate on his own without the opinions of others influencing him in order to reach a verdict. This is why a man with reason is “more self sufficient than anybody else”.  He does not need others in order to estimate his moderation; he is wise enough to figure it out on his own and is therefore, self sufficient. For a man to be considered as self sufficient, he must be capable of making “the best of his circumstances” says Aristotle. Being capable of living and surviving contently with what he already has; not wanting more or less. In this sense, people are encouraged to live off of solely what they need in order to live and nothing more. This life lesson on happiness is evident in real life today for all humans; too much of any one thing is never good and will never lead to happiness. Like in economics, the law of decreasing marginal utility, the more you have of a good, the less valuable it will be.

The law of decreasing marginal utility claims that as a person increases consumption of a good, the utility of that good decreases. By consuming an extra amount of a certain good, the good becomes less valuable and less satisfactory. Take ice cream for instance; say you’re really craving ice cream one day so you decide to serve yourself four scoops of chocolate ice cream. After eating the first scoop, the ice cream has a satisfaction value of ten points (ten being the highest), but you decide you still want another scoop.  After eating two scoops, you find you are satisfied and the ice cream has reached a value of 5 points. This is the moderate, or ‘mean’, amount: it is enough to satisfy your craving. However, you decide to keep eating because you have already served yourself the three extra scoops. The more you continue to eat the ice cream, the less enjoyable it is and by the third scoop it reaches a value of zero points. Eventually, you’re down the last scoop and you continue to eat until there is nothing left. By the time you have finished eating all four scoops, you feel sick and so the ice cream has proved to be dis-satisfactory reaching an all time low level of negative five satisfaction points. A person who lives with reason and moderation would have been capable of knowing their limit when eating the ice cream and would have found satisfaction and utility and ultimately happiness in eating their ice cream. They would have been capable of using reason to know how much ice cream they need to satisfy their urge and would have had the moderation to not eat more than necessary. This is only one simple way in which reason and moderation can prove to make us more self sufficient and therefore ‘functional’ as humans leading us directly to happiness. Aristotle views happiness as a lifestyle, not a state of being, in which the human being uses reason to live in accordance with the excellence of virtue, also known as moderation, in order to reach full potential and thrive as human beings.

John Stuart Mill explains happiness as a state of being according to the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’ in his writing of Utilitarianism. This principle that Mill presents tells us that the “ultimate end,… is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments” (Utilitarianism). This meaning that happiness can be measured simply by the amount of pleasure it produces and the amount of pain is lacks. The more pleasure and the less pain one receives, the happier they are. Actions are therefore measured as “right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. As so, people have frequently argued that his ‘principle’ is false simply because it identifies the human function as simply seeking pleasure. It makes it seem as though the only function of human beings it to receive pleasure placing them in the same category as animals who act solely based on needs of hunger, thirst, and pleasure. However he argues that as humans we have the function of “gratification” which is what generates our pleasure and for this reason, we are placed higher than animals, which do not have this function. Mill claims that as humans we have higher functions and therefore should have higher qualities of pleasure which are beyond the pleasure of hunger, thirst, and sexuality like animals. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites which once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification”. According to Mill’s theory in the Greatest Happiness Principle, Pleasure is the ultimate pathway to happiness and without pleasure, there is no happiness; but the quality of pleasure is more important than the quantity of pleasure. Mill states that the human end is therefore pleasure, and pleasure if therefore happiness; “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things… are desirable either for their pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” However, Mill agrees with Aristotle that for a human to live a ‘good’ life he or she must complete and succeed in their functions as humans. The difference however is that Mill’s idea of the human function revolves around pleasure and qualities of pleasures whereas Aristotle’s idea of happiness relates to the human functions of reason, logic, and moderation which allow humans to live in a lifestyle of happiness. Aristotle claims happiness as a lifestyle whereas Mill portrays happiness to be the addition of experiences and memories which lack pain and are abundant in pleasure; clarifying that the quality of pleasure depends on the function of the object or person.

So the question remains, what is happiness? Is it the presence of pleasure and absence of pain as Mill says? Or, is it the completion of the human function of logic, reason, and moderation that brings about a life of happiness? Or, could it be, maybe, that it is a mixture of both of these philosophies? I suppose this is a question each person asks themselves frequently; and also a question each individual answers distinctly. In my opinion, pleasure plays a role in happiness, but merely as a mean to reach the ends of happiness just as moderation and reason. However, pain also plays an important part in happiness. How can we understand and value pleasure and satisfaction without first experiencing the dissatisfaction of pain? In other words, how can we have a rainbow without rain? Happiness, to me, is simply the satisfaction of living contently with what you already have; not searching for more as we so often do.Happiness is enjoying life, even it’s flaws, and doing the best you can to make it the best it can be.


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