Aristotle’s View of Happiness vs. Mill’s View of Happiness

Caroline Cochran


April 2, 2013

Aristotle and John Stewart Mill both describe happiness in their writings. Aristotle describes happiness as the thing for the sake of which humans do anything. However, Mill describes happiness as experiencing pleasure with the absence of pain. While Aristotle and John Stewart Mill both focus on how to promote happiness in the lives of human beings, their prescribed steps on the journey to happiness differ and the final destination of this journey differs as well do to their different understandings of happiness. Aristotle focuses on promoting happiness for an individual, while Mill focuses on making the people in a society happy.

Aristotle and Mill have conflicting viewpoints on what exactly the state of happiness entails. Aristotle believes that happiness occurs while a person exercises his or her reasoning with the highest ability. Aristotle states, “The manifestations of excellence will be pleasant in themselves”. However, the highest ability of reasoning differs for each person. For example, “The carpenter and the geometer both look for the right angle, but in different ways.” In this situation, the carpenter uses more accuracy than the geometer due to the exactness required in his profession. In life, humans are all different, as no two humans are the same, but no matter what, humans share the same final end but may take different journeys to reach their own ending point. Also, Aristotle believes that happiness, “Is thought to be self-sufficing” because when humans are happy they do not need anything else in their life to experience fulfillment. This is true because when a person is truly happy they do not see any wrong in the world, so nothing would have to be changed or added to their life to make life better for them. Contrary to being happy is being depressed, and they want something to change their life to make them happy. However, Mill rather believes that happiness can physically be felt by a person rather than happiness coming from a person’s ability to live in accordance with reason. Mill states that, “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain”. Mill believes in the Greatest Happiness Principle where, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Therefore, if an action that a person completes fails to inflict pain on a person, then that action is considered to be an action that promotes happiness in a person’s life. In other words, actions are good or bad depending on if the greatest number of people experience pleasure with the least amount of pain endured. However, Mill’s belief is not true in all circumstances. For example, if a person wins the lottery so starts jumping in jubilation but stubs their toe while celebrating, the pain of their stubbed toe is not going to take away from their happiness of winning the lottery. Therefore, in some situations, pain lacks the ability to take away happiness. Aristotle focuses on the ability of the mind to create happiness in people’s lives, yet Mill describes physical and mental engagements that a person can engage in to generate happiness for themselves.

Mill and Aristotle hold different views regarding how an individual is supposed to experience happy in life. Aristotle believes that a person is capable of being happy if they are “Living well and doing well.” Mill believes that everyone will be “Bound to promote the general happiness.” Therefore, in Aristotle’s eyes, as long as a person has their basic necessities met in order to live comfortably, then the amount of happiness that they experience in their life is in their own hands to obtain. Aristotle’s beliefs prove to be very true, especially in this modern world where people are bombarded with advertisements convincing them that buying this product will improve their life. However, these advertisements prove to be false, when there are multiple cases where people with all the money they could ever need are depressed or commit suicide because they are unhappy. Therefore, money does not buy happiness, so as long as a person’s basic needs are met in order to be able to live comfortably, the more money are person has fails to guarantee them more happiness, rather their ability to reason can promote more happiness in their life. Mill believes that the society as a whole promotes a person’s amount of happiness because God wants all humans to experience happiness in their lives. Therefore, if a person is to complete God’s will, then he or she must engage in actions to increase the amount of happiness in others. Mill does admit though that humans do “Desire and commend all conduct in others towards themselves.” This suggests that Mill understands that in this not so perfect world that humans live in, not all happiness that humans engage in will be focused on others first but rather on each individual first; therefore, Mill considers morality as the general happiness for society, rather than each person’s own happiness.

The mechanisms for how happiness should be created in the lives of humans are different for both Aristotle and Mill. Aristotle believes that happiness should not be achieved by a human being just by chance, but rather a person should achieve their own happiness through interacting with a unit of close friends. This is a very realistic way that humans can create happiness for themselves because the people a person spends their time with hold the ability to have a large impact on each other, so if a person has a tight unit of friends that promote happiness to one another, they increase their potential to be happy. Oprah Winfrey reinforces Aristotle’s idea when she states to, “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” On the other hand, Mill believes that happiness should be created by actions that are done by others with intentions to make other people happy. Mill uses the Greatest Happiness Principle to display this belief as he states that, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.” In promoting happiness, Mill believes that happiness should be upheld throughout society by the actions of the people living in society. One person should give off happiness on the other people he or she comes in contact with. This is a completely different belief than Aristotle’s who only focuses on an individual being happy, yet this belief can be very beneficial in society. Because people have the ability to build each other up by one person making one person happy, and then that happy person will make another person happy, and so on, society has the ability to greatly contribute to the happiness of others. While Aristotle and Mill’s ideas differ, they each hold the potential to easily be completed by humans.

Both Aristotle and Mill discuss this “good” in life, yet the “good” each of them describes is very different. Aristotle describes the “good” in life as the sake for the reason humans do anything. For example, victory is the good for war because war is completed in order to achieve the “good” of victory. The reason why humans engage in any action is to achieve the end of a situation that a human desires. This “good” gives people the motivation to complete any action in life; therefore, without this good, humans could have the potential to lack motivation because they would not see the benefit for an action that they could complete in life. Mill describes this “good” as creating the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Therefore, utilitarianism describes this “good” as the pleasure a person can contribute to society rather than the motive for which other actions are completed.

In addition, Aristotle and Mill both conclude that animals are incapable of being happy. Aristotle believes that in order for a living species to be happy they must be virtuous and have experience using that virtue. Animals lack the ability to be virtuous, so are unable to use virtues. Therefore, never in a situation do animals know what the noble way is to act. This belief held by Aristotle is very true because animals only focus on surviving and reproducing, they lack the luxuries that humans have to have leisure time to be able to contemplate because they constantly have to think about when their next meal where come from. Mill believes that animals live lives that are only to gain pleasure out of the few actions that they are capable of, yet humans have the ability to gain pleasure for many more actions compared to the number of actions that animals are capable of completing. Because of this, animals never have the full potential to be as happy as humans have the potential to be. The few pleasures that animals are capable of engaging in are far less than humans so will never add up to the great, potential amount of human happiness.

Despite the conflicting viewpoints, both Aristotle and Mill are promoting ideas that they believe will be better for society and the individuals that make up society. Each man holds specific viewpoints in their argument that could be merged together in society to improve the lives of the citizens and the society as a whole. Happiness can dramatically affect the lives of individuals, so should not be taken lightly; therefore, studying the viewpoints of these individuals and promoting their best ideas in society can impact the society and society’s individuals.



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