What is Happiness? Aristotelian vs Utilitarian Views

Bailey Aguilar

3rd period



The concept of happiness has sparked the intrigue of many profound philosophers, leaving man with a variety of answers on what is the true definition of happiness. What really is true happiness? How can the individual man obtain happiness? How can society as a whole work together to capitalize on our potential to achieve happiness? Do all creatures have the same capacity for happiness? The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, holds the belief that happiness means living a good life according to reason and virtue in community with others. British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, has a more Utilitarian view on the meaning of happiness. He defines happiness as “pleasure itself, together with the exemption from pain.”  While Aristotle’s views are such that the path to obtaining happiness is a lifestyle, the Utilitarian belief of Mill is that actions create pleasure which is synonymous to happiness. The two great thinkers disagree on some points about the actual meaning of happiness, but both believe the special abilities that mankind has to use reasoning and logic, allowing humans to have a higher quality of happiness than any “beast.”

A main principle of Aristotle’s teaching was that every activity is aimed at achieving one’s final end, or ultimate goal in life.  Aristotle states that “we always choose [happiness] because of [happiness] itself, never because of something else.”Happiness is not a means to achieve any goal in life except for the obtainment of happiness itself. Aristotle claims that happiness is the “final good” which “is the end of all that man does.”  He expresses in Nicomachean Ethics that if there is only one final end, it is happiness that is sought after, and even if it is not the only end, it is the “most final.”While we may choose to experience pleasure and honor among all other virtues, we chose only “partly for themselves.” These choices are also partly made for the sake of reaching the final end of happiness, as we assume the pleasure and honor will make us happy. Happiness is never chosen, as the many virtues are, partly for the sake of anything except for the obtainment of happiness itself.  It is not one good thing among other things that bring joy, but is the “final good” itself. The other goods in life however, other than the final good of happiness, are still necessary goods in the quest to reach the final end. They must be present as “necessary conditions” while other goods are used as “instruments of happiness”. It is still difficult to discern what truly should be considered a “good.” Aristotle draws attention to the potential harm of goods by describing how a man could be “ruined by wealth.” He goes on to explain that since “all knowledge and all purpose aims at some good” it is evident that these goods still equate to happiness.

Unlike his Utilitarian counterpart, Aristotle defines happiness as a final end. He expresses that happiness is not purely a feeling or an emotion, but a way of life. Happiness for mankind is living a good life in accordance with reason and with virtue.  Virtue is the habit of choosing the mean. Aristotle explains this by examining the virtue of bravery. If man demonstrates a lack of bravery they are exhibiting signs of cowardice. On the other hand, excessive exhibitions of bravery may be perceived as rashness.  Between the two extremes lies the virtue of bravery. According to Aristotle’s beliefs, these virtues must be incorporated into the lives of man in order to reach the final end.


As important as it is to recognize the importance of the happiness of the individual, society as a whole is necessary for man to reach his final end. Aristotle states that “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”. Humans have a function and the state is necessary for humans to have the capability to complete their functions. Aristotle defines man as being a political animal, meaning that man can only live a good life by living in a state or polis.  Aristotle claims that without the natural occurrence of the state, humans would not be able to reach their final end and perform their function since they would lack community with others. Man requires the state to provide us with the tools to realize our capability to reason and function which sets us apart from the animals.

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill has a different definition of happiness. Mill states that “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 desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” Instead of Aristotle’s belief of happiness as the final end, Mill believes pleasure and the absence of pain are happiness’ equivalent.  By the absence of pain however, Mill does not mean however to forgo goods that have the potential for pain. For example, relationships have the possibility to end in devastating heartbreak, but also have potential to bring extreme happiness to the couple.  In support of his utilitarian beliefs, Mill makes it clear that Utilitarian’s believe that “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.” The human capability to think and reason sets the human race apart from the animals. The use of reasoning is necessary in order for a human to live a good life to Utilitarian standards.  The greater one’s capability to reason and think, the more conscious they will be of their “elevated” appetite and find they require more than other’s to fulfill their happiness.  At first his may seem like a disadvantage for the superior being. Why would you want to require a luxury home to make you happy while a pig only needs a puddle of mud to be fully satisfied? Mill states that “It is better to be a human satisfied than a pig dissatisfied.” He examines the difference between true happiness and contentment. The animals have lower and thus easier to meet “capacities of enjoyment” and their lack of ability to reason makes them blind to imperfections in their lives. This unconsciousness to the potential of enjoyment that is experienced by superior beings causes the animals to be unable to reap the benefits of pleasure or happiness of a higher quality. Knowing this, Mill exclaims that man “can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.”

While there is still debate over which philosopher understood the true meaning of happiness, the famous thinkers did seem to agree on a few major points. For example, they both believed that humans used “elevated faculties” or the ability in order to reason to draw the distinction between the happiness of man and animal.  In addition the necessity of the state in order to obtain happiness was supported by both Aristotle and Mill. The main differences lie in their definitions of happiness. The Utilitarian belief states that pleasure is the ultimate good and is equivalent to happiness. The Aristotelian belief however is that the ultimate good is reaching the final end of happiness which can be achieved by living  a life according to reason and with virtue in community with others.  Both men made excellent points that set the stage for other great thinkers and even students to join in on the debate on the true definition of happiness.  




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s