What is Happiness Exactly?

tumblr_mezuwcLVha1qaptujo1_500Megan Miller, 5 – What is happiness exactly? How can it be attained? Who can attain it? Those seem to be the questions everyone asks. Almost everyone searches for the way they can reach true and complete happiness. To many, it seems impossible and inaccessible. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill took on the task of exploring happiness, and they have come up with their own views on the matter. Both men are esteemed philosophers who spent their lives learning and studying about happiness. Aristotle believes that happiness is determined by the final end of man; this is known as the Aristotelian view. Mill’s theory, Utilitarianism, states that man’s only purpose is to evade pain and attain pleasure.

Aristotle believes happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. In Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states “The good is the final end, and happiness is this.”  Every man has his function which he must complete to lead a good life. The function of a man, in Aristotle’s opinion, deems most important when leading a good life. A functional man is the happiest form of man. But what does it mean to complete ones function?  “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.” From this quote the reader is to assume that man achieves true happiness by acting out a virtuous. As we discussed in class, man’s function is similar to that of a clock. Man has his specific function, and so does a clock. A clock helps us tell time; that is its function. A clock cannot be used as a plate or a Frisbee because that would not be it completing its function, and that would be useless. Same goes for humans, we can only live a fully, happy, human life if we complete our function.

In order to help his readers fully understand what happiness is, Aristotle draws attention to nature. He talks about minerals and vegetation a little bit, but mainly focuses on animals and humans. Animals seek out pleasure and reproduction, and we can talk about a sad or happy dog; to the extent that they are healthy and have had a pleasant life thus far. What is it that makes human race different from the rest of the animal kingdom you may ask? Aristotle’s answer is reason. Only humans are capable of acting according to principles, and in doing so, they take responsibility for their decisions. For example, we can blame Joe for killing someone because he knows it is wrong, but we wouldn’t blame an animal since it doesn’t know any better. We then realize that, as humans, our unique function is reason. By having reason, we can solve our own problems and make our own decisions, which is different from how animals live their lives. The human good is different from that of animals because we differ in potentials and responsibilities. For example, animals solely seek pleasure to be happy while humans must seek more than just pleasure because our final end is different from each other. “The function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

With the end of the last paragraph, it is evident that Aristotle also focuses some importance on virtue. Aristotle calls moral character “complete virtue.” Virtues are not a trained faculty or a habit. Virtues meant the act of achieving balance and moderation in one’s life. He spoke about achieving happiness which is not an emotional state; it is more about being all that you can which fulfilling ones function. The idea behind this theory is to push people to be the best person they can possibly be. “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”

It is not enough to only have a few virtues in your lifetime; one must strive to posses all virtues.  According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving health, wealth, knowledge, family, friends, etc., that lead to the perfect human nature. Many times, the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting to do, while the greater good requires some sort of sacrifice. An example of this could be that it may seem better and more fun to go out with friends on a weeknight when you know you have two huge tests the next day. Going out with friends may give you immediate pleasure and happiness, but if you stay home and study for you tests, you will get a good grade which will then bring you happiness in the end. Because humans have reason, we are able to choose the right choice which will lead us to happiness. We must steer clear of instant gratification and look into our future; do what will, in the long run bring you ultimate happiness in the end. Remember, it is not enough to think about doing the right thing, or even intend to do the right thing; we have to actually do it.

Essentially, Aristotle argues that virtue is achieved by maintaining the mean, which is the balance between two excesses. For Aristotle, living in balance and moderation brings the highest pleasure and happiness. Not in the action itself, but in the way of life which one lives. It is this way of life that would lead to the greatest long-term value of happiness rather than just momentary happiness. Aristotle thought contemplation was the highest action man could do. Contemplation is the activity that discovers the virtues a man needs. If these virtues are acted out, then one can have their final end a happy one.

John Stuart Mill and his Utilitarianism beliefs surround themselves around pleasure. He stated, “Happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.” First off, what exactly is Utilitarianism? Well, it is a theory in ethics which states that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing one’s happiness and reducing one’s suffering. Also, the greatest good is when the greatest amount of people in a state has happiness. If an action of one person brings them pleasure, but  it then a large amount of people to experience pain, then one must reevaluate their actions because that would not be the final good. Therefore, Mill’s theory of happiness in Utilitarianism is that the purpose of all people is to go after what makes them happy without causing any pain to themselves or others. Mill believes that happiness is the feeling of pleasure and unhappiness is a feeling of pain; this is different from Aristotle’s view. Another example of this would be if a lie brings about pleasure then it should be excused.  In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he says that, “identifying the good with pleasure is to prefer a life suitable for beasts.” Mill argues that the pleasures of the mind are essentially superior to physical pleasures.

Mill believes that human life is more valuable than animals. Mill states, “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.” Only humans can have these higher faculties. He believes the high pleasures sometimes have the higher amount of pain leading up to them. He says that that for those who have the awareness and understanding of both kinds of pleasures, picking the higher faculty is easiest, but it also causes the most amount of pain; which Mill is against.  He also believes that it is important for people to be happy through pleasures. A human leads a good life if it is full of happiness, achievements, and a surplus of personal relationships. Many of these aspects of a happy life sometimes include pain in order to then accomplish pleasure. The main focus is in this phrase, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  Thus the people best qualified to judge a pleasure’s quality are people who have experienced both the higher and the lower of it.

Both Aristotle and Mill strongly believe that man’s ultimate purpose is to achieve happiness. They would also agree that every action is aimed towards the ultimate good of a human being. Both Aristotle and Mill explain that it is important for us as humans to interact with one another and experience life to achieve true happiness. Like Mill, Aristotle, believed that the good life for a human being involved doing purely humans things, and they must also engage in certain activities. Aristotle also thought that every activity done by a human being was aimed at the ultimate good, which then aimed at the ultimate end which is wanted from everyone because it brings happiness.  People must also exercise their uniqueness so they can be happy. Both men also agree on the fact that there is a difference between humans and animals when it comes to happiness. Animals do not exercise talents to attain happiness. Mill wrote, “A beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s concept of happiness.”


Works Cited

Ackrill, J., Aristotle the Philosopher, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. A comprehensive

introduction to Aristotle.

Hughes, Gerald J. (2001). Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics. London: Routledge.

“John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism Analytical Essay by Top Papers.” AcaDemon. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

“Utilitarianism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


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