Individual Happiness: Aristotelian vs Utilitarian views

Katherine Payne P-3 Image

Throughout all of time, the idea of a perfect and just society has been debated continuously, and it is still going on today. In reality, there will never be a completely perfect and just society because there is always the presence of human error. The central obstacle in this debate is what the individual needs to strive to do in order to create a good society; how can everyone work together in order to maximize our own, and others, happiness? According to Aristotle and Mill, humans need the state in order to reach their final end. To attain happiness, one must exercise all of the qualities of being a human that separates us from a “beast”. What makes us different, and what can we do to fulfill our function to meet our final end? Throughout this comparison, Mill and Aristotle’s philosophies about individual happiness will be explained, and differentiated in order to find out what two of the most well known philosophers think will lead man to the state of happiness.

Aristotle has answered many questions that have long been asked and considered by individuals in society, the first and foremost being, what is the human good? Aristotle came to the conclusion that the human good is obtaining happiness as a final end. “Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else”(Nicomachean Ethics). Once this question is answered, man wonders how he can obtain happiness and reach his “final end”? While the definition of happiness can vary, Aristotle’s definition of happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Virtue is the habit of choosing the mean or intermediate state. For example, bravery is a virtue, but too little bravery would be considered cowardice and too much bravery would be considered rashness. Bravery is essentially the happy middle of these two extremes; therefore, bravery is a virtue man should perform throughout his life. In order to reach happiness as a final end, man must include virtue in his lifestyle, and in the way he interacts with other human beings.

After discovering the good of the individual, the next question is how does one human’s good relate to the social good, or the good of a society as a whole? All of Aristotle’s writings show that he believes the state is important, and even necessary, to the function of man. “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). Aristotle is basically saying that man has function as a hammer has a function. Man needs a state or “polis” to perform his proper function. Aristotle reasons that the state is a natural occurrence; happiness is out of the question if man does not live up to his full human potential in a community with other men trying to find happiness too.

He describes man as a “political animal”. He determines that man, being a political animal, is the type of animal that cannot reach his final end without the state. “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 concludes that man can only live a truly human life in a state as a citizen because he needs neighbors who want to achieve the same end as he does.

Even if man does need a state to reach his final end, what is the good of a political system? What is the purpose of laws in his opinion? Aristotle believes that the law should serve as a teacher of virtue to all of its followers. If man abides by law, and his law teaches virtue, he will perform his proper function. That will in turn take him to meet his final end: happiness. Without a political society there would be no room for contemplation, and that would reject a part of human nature. Aristotle believes contemplation is the most divine activity one can partake in on this earth.

In contrast to Aristotle’s belief of the human good, Mill believes the human good is pleasure and the absence of pain. He says, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain” (Utilitarianism).  So basically he believes that pleasure equals happiness. Mill believes that only things that induce pleasure, and the absence of pain are desirable as the ultimate or final end. Mill states “that 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). 

This may seem degrading to human beings because it is putting us at the level of animals; “a doctrine worthy only of swine” (Utilitarianism) as Mill would say.  Mill then argues, “human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification” (Utilitarianism). Mills believes that there are different types of pleasure, and that the higher quality pleasures, such as emotion, are something that only humans can engage in. Animals thrive on simply sensational pleasures, and that’s what separates man from beast. “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures” (Utilitarianism). In order to live a fully human life, men must exercise high quality pleasure in which only humans can engage in.

The fact that humans can feel emotions, and not just physical pleasure or pain, proves that humans are in a much higher intellectual state than animals are. Animals only care about survival, while humans care about how they can improve their world, not just merely survive in it. Animals have much shorter life spans, but even if they did not have shorter lifespans, chances are they would continue living their lives the same way they had 10 years before. The capacity human beings have for improvement is far beyond what animals have, just look at how technology has developed and improved. If Aristotle and Mill could see our world today they would be truly surprised at the advances we have made, and are still making.

Aristotle believes that pleasure is a good thing, but not the ultimate human good as Mill believes to be true. Mill finds pleasure to be simultaneous with happiness, while Aristotle finds that living in accordance with reason and virtue in a community leads to happiness. The main difference being that Aristotle is forming a lifestyle through virtue, not just an action that results in pleasure. Aristotle states that he considers engaging in contemplation, as the gods do, to be the most divine activity, and he needs others like him in order to contemplate. This is where a similarity is seen between Aristotle and Mill. They both believe that all men share the need to meet their final goal of happiness, therefore man needs others to meet his final end being happiness. Mill states that since man is a social being, “that there should be harmony between his feelings and aims and those of his fellow creatures” (Utilitarianism). Therefore, both Mill and Aristotle share the idea that in order for a man to achieve happiness, he needs others who share the same want, and that is the importance of a state. 

“Ethical Theories Compared.” Ethical Theories Compared. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

“Virtue Ethics.” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <;.


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