Where to Steer your Career: From John Stuart Mill’s and Aristotle’s View

Nilla Paine. Period 2.
As a senior at Ursuline Academy, stress often clouds my judgment when making important day-to-day decisions. As the first semester approaches its end, we seniors have the stress of college applications, final projects, sports, family, grades, and on top of that- the infamous senior Snowball. However, it is important- especially now- to take a step back in order to carefully make the daunting decisions we will have to make in the next few months such as where we will go to college, and what we will study. Dealing with these monumental decisions is often perplexing. How, exactly, should we think through this choice? What questions should we ask? What factors should we consider? The way to approach these questions can be answered by examining the beliefs of two different philosophical approaches, Utilitarianism and Aristotelian. But the ultimate question is which one is better?

In John Stuart Mill’s essay, Utilitarianism, he advocates the “Greatest Happiness Principle”. The principle that states, “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; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Utilitarianism). Mill is saying that actions and choices are good when they lead to an increase in happiness. That being said, when connecting Mill’s belief to choosing a major or making any important decision, he would generally advise a person to select a career that will maximize a person’s pleasures in life, not one that will reverse that pleasure. On the other hand, when examining both Mill and Aristotle, the later philosopher advises humans to maximize our human potential, not just our pleasures. Fulfilling our human nature, in turn, will benefit the whole of society because everyone shares human nature and morals. Mill states that the good of the individual and the good of the society go together; however, this can be problematic. Mr. Aparicio brought up the example of the novel Brave New World. In the book, the residents of their Utopian society use a mind-numbing drug, known as soma, in order to increase their happiness and pleasure. To Mill, this society is a great example of a utilitarian society because each individual in society is happy. Utilitarianism, unfortunately, fails to make the distinction that it is moral for people to pursue what makes them personally happy. Rather, morality is controlled by the greatest happiness principle; moral action is something that augments the sum amount of utility in the world. Pursuing one’s own happiness at the expense of social happiness wouldn’t be moral under this context. But, Aristotle’s views make us realize that the only reason they are happy is because they aren’t human and therefore have no morals. This drug is not increasing their pleasure, but rather, it is dehumanizing them. Aristotle advocates being as human as possible because he believed in the fulfillment of human potential over Mill’s views fulfilling pleasure. Aristotle, on the other hand, says, “The good cannot be pleasure, nor honour, nor virtue.” According to Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle believes that the “masses who are the least refined” suppose pleasure as their good or happiness which is why they aim at nothing higher than the life of enjoyment. By examining his views, it becomes evident that Aristotle does not believe that choosing a career based on ‘pleasure’ would be the path that leads to the final end which he considers happiness. He believes that happiness is something final and self sufficing, and it is the end of all that man does: “for we choose it for itself and never for the sake of something else; while honour and pleasure and reason, and all virtue or excellence, we choose partly indeed for themselves… but partly also for the sake of happiness, supposing that they will make us happy. But no one chooses happiness for the sake of these things, or as a means to anything else at all” (Nicomachean Ethics). Take the moneymaking life for example: according to Aristotle, those who constantly work for a bag of crisp green dollar bills will never find happiness; although, there are many ends and money might seem like the end, it is plain that not all ends are final. Money is merely pursued as means to something else. However, Mill would state: if cash or a paycheck brings please and the freedom from pain, then that is the desirable end.

John Stuart Mill wrote the essay Utilitarianism with the argument that to have the most happiness, the more people have to be happy. In his essay, it is stated that, “The utilitarianism morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good for others… a sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others” (Utilitarianism). Mill is basically saying that actions taken with a mindset to benefit others will increase a person’s happiness. This is an interesting point, especially when applying this to choosing a major. By stating human beings should sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others, Mill is saying it is better to make a decision for the greater good of others, as opposed to one that might bring more pleasure. For example, a person who is a very passionate and talented singer yet enjoys and does very well in science courses could go two separate ways. She could take the singing direction and create a career to make her famous and benefit her or she could take the Utilitarianism path of choosing to go into science, to either become a doctor or find a cure for cancer. According to Mill, a choice of major more likely to benefit others would be the better choice. Although, on the surface doing something in the interest of every individual- with the interest of the whole, honors one of the Utilitarian views, it does not satisfy the interest of the individual. Aristotle, however, is aware that there is a distinct difference between the individual and society as a whole. In Nicomachein Ethics he explains that each and every person has their own pleasures and their own means to achieve happiness. He knows that the pleasure an individual may feel isn’t necessarily good for society. Aristotle focuses on maximizing our potential as human beings. Doing so, produces something good for everyone because human nature is something everyone shares.

John Stuart Mill, also, emphasizes the discussion of higher and lower pleasures and human beings’ faculties. He says, “A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type” (Utilitarianism). In this, Mill is essentially articulating between two types of men: one who enjoys higher faculties but is less content, or one who is ignorant yet happy. When referring to the higher faculties in our lives, he is saying that if you have experienced and appreciated higher faculties and you are able to enjoy this higher quality of pleasure then look for a career that provides that. However, if you are not the person searching for the higher quality of pleasure, Mill recommends applying for a job in something you enjoy. Aristotle says that the “masses who are the least refined” suppose pleasure as their good or happiness which is why they aim at nothing higher than the life of enjoyment. They neither engage in higher nor lower faculties.

When it comes down to making that final decision-choosing a major that could change a persons life- one has to make another personal decision; either choose the path that brings the most pleasure or the path that brings the most happiness. After comparing Aristotle and Mill’s writings, and speaking to my influential and knowledgeable teacher-who once had to make this decision- I personally find Aristotle’s approach more beneficial in the search for happiness. I would rather pursue a major  “for the sake of the end” being happiness.



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