Aristotle vs. John Stuart Mill: An Individual’s Happiness

Katherine Cicardo


13 December 2012

Aristotle vs. Mill: An Individual’s Happiness

                John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics have very different views on what an individual’s happiness is. John Stuart Mill believes that pleasure and freedom from pain are what make up someone’s happiness.  Aristotle, on the other hand believes that happiness comes from virtue.  Happiness is a much discussed topic, and both John Stuart Mill and Aristotle have very different ideas of what happiness truly is.

Aristotle disputes that the practice of virtues leads to happiness. Aristotle says that “virtue [is]…a trained faculty or habit.” (Aristotle) This means that the habit of choosing the thing that makes a person good leads to happiness, in Aristotle’s opinion. Aristotle believes that equilibrium and moderation lead to happiness as well. Virtues lead use to this equilibrium and moderation. Aristotle thinks that contemplation is the highest action a human can perform and helps a person reach their full potential. Contemplation, to Aristotle, means refining and discovering virtues. Reaching this “full potential” helps humans attain happiness, according to Aristotle. In today’s world, many think that happiness is “something palpable and plain” like money, success, or fame. (Aristotle) Many people believe that these things are the roots of happiness, however I agree with Aristotle on his point about this topic. Aristotle believes it is what we do in our life, not we gain from life, like money or success, which gives us happiness. He says that “the good is the final end, and happiness is this.” (Aristotle) Aristotle argues that everything we do is “for the sake of the end.”  When he says this, Aristotle means that we do everything for our final end, which is the good, or our happiness. Aristotle also believes that happiness does not occur instantly. In our world today, we want to feel happiness instantly, so we do things, like petting a dog for example, to make us happy instantly. However, Aristotle does not believe in this idea. He thinks that happiness happens over time and is our end.  Aristotle thinks that the things that happen in fleeting moments do not truly make us happy, but that the things , or virtues, we do over time give us happiness in the end.  Achieving these virtues give us happiness, and to perform these virtues, we have to contemplate them (which was discussed earlier) according to Aristotle. Aristotle argues that discovering and refining virtues lead to achieving these certain virtues, which leads to our happiness in the long run, not in an instantaneous moment.

John Stuart Mill has very different ideas than Aristotle. They are pretty much on the complete opposite end of the spectrum compared to Aristotle’s beliefs. John Stuart Mill says that people are happiest when they do what they want, but this not necessarily good for everyone as a whole. Instead, John Stuart Mill believes that everyone can do what they want, as long as it has a positive outcome for everyone as a whole. John Stuart Mill says that “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” (Mill) This is just a reinforcement of what I said before, that John Stuart Mill believes that something is good if it causes happiness and that something is bad if it does not bring happiness to someone. When he says this, he is pretty much saying that a good action will give us more happiness, and that a bad action will not bring us happiness, which is what we try to acquire in our lives. John Stuart Mill also says that “these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded-namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all things desirable…are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” (Mill) This means that John Stuart Mill thinks that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things that will make us happy, and everything else is detrimental to us. This is essentially what utilitarianism is. The utilitarian view sounds good in theory, but would not work out in today’s society. For example, a utilitarian would run a stop light if no one was around and they knew that it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Even though this is wrong and against the law, it gives them pleasure and does not cause a negative outcome on the population as a whole. John Stuart Mill also says that “To suppose that life has… no higher end than pleasure- no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit- they designate as utterly mean and groveling.” (Mill) What John Stuart Mill is saying here is that pleasure is our highest goal, and that anything less than pleasurable is not good. According to John Stuart Mill, “utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention or mitigation of unhappiness.” (Mill) John Stuart Mill is saying that utilitarianism is not necessarily about achieving happiness, but it is also making sure that we are no unhappy. John Stuart Mill does, however, agree with Aristotle when he says “a state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days, and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent and steady flame.” (Mill) When John Stuart Mill says this, he is agreeing with what Aristotle stated and what I explained before, being that happiness should not be a brief, fleeting moment, but that it should last. What that happiness is and when it occurs is what John Stuart Mill and Aristotle disagree on.

In our society today, neither John Stuart Mill’s ideas nor Aristotle’s ideas on happiness would really work.  In Aristotle’s perfect world, everyone would be virtuous and happy. Unfortunately, that is not how our society works today. Aristotle’s ideas are flawed because many people gain happiness out of doing unvirtuous things. For example, Hitler gained some sort of happiness out of Holocaust and Kony is gaining happiness out of turning innocent African children in child soldiers.  John Stuart Mill’s idea of happiness sounds good in theory, however it would never work. John Stuart Mill believes that everyone can do what they want, as long as it has a positive outcome on everyone as a whole. If this idea were to be implemented into today’s society, it would be a disaster. For example, many people would want to speed. Although speeding is dangerous and against the law, in Mill’s world everyone would speed and it would be ok because everyone would be gaining pleasure out of it and it had a positive outcome on everyone. However, in today’s society, speeding would cause a negative effect on everyone as a whole because many people could get distracted while speeding and cause an accident. This would result in a lack of pleasure for everyone, meaning that it was not true happiness in John Stuart Mill’s opinion. Either way, both of these ideas would not work in today’s society. Although both John Stuart Mill and Aristotle have very different opinions on when and how to achieve happiness, they both believe that happiness is our end goal in life.



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