Aristotle vs. Mill on Happiness

Anne Marie Priddy 


In the world we live in today, there is one question that continues to resurface, what is happiness? We look for the answer through the explanations of two brilliant men. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill both view happiness differently and express them through the Aristotelian and Utilitarian’s eyes.  There are many differences between these views and both provide a concrete description and meaning of happiness. After researching and reading The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that happiness is achieved by exercising one’s reason and full potential. John Stuart Mill explains that Utilitarianism holds the views that happiness is based on the maximum amount of pleasure with the smallest amount of pain. They have conflicting views as to what happiness is and what it entails.

Aristotle defines happiness as “a certain kind of exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with excellence or virtue”. Happiness is not a habit or trained faculty. He describes happiness as something that happens when humans are exercising their full ability. This view of happiness is all focused on the good. He says that the good is the final end, and happiness is this, meaning that when we reach our final end, we will have been seeking happiness and that is what we will reach. When we look for the end, we are then able to call a man happy, “not because he now is, but because he once was happy”. The Aristotelian view of happiness holds the position that happiness is not fully reached until our final end. It is a fragile concept, for happiness is always chosen for itself and never “for the sake of something else”. Happiness is a means to everything else and lacks nothing. This view states that “happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and is the end of all that man does… is the best thing in the world”.

The Aristotelian view of happiness explains how a child is not happy. This is said to be true because happiness requires “a full term of years for its exercise”. We can hope that the child will grow up to be happy, but according to the Aristotelian view, the child has not and does not experience true happiness. Aristotle defines a happy man as one who “preserves his character throughout life, continually occupied in excellent deeds and excellent speculations, and takes his fortune in the noblest fashion, bearing himself in all things suitably”. This man is truly good. Aristotle says that “Happiness is the end of all that a man does”, but what does this mean? What does a man do? He says that anyone who acts with excellence and reason is a good man. Those who fulfill their function are considered to be good people. He says that the man who uses his abilities throughout life is the one that will have the most pleasure in the end. He backs up this argument by saying that “Happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and is the end of all that man does”. Aristotle compares man to plants, both man and plants have sense but plants do not have reason. He uses this comparison to point out that a man who uses his talents with reason is a good man.

In contemporary issues, this ideology of happiness is also present. For example, I enjoy playing the piano, although I may not be the best at it, I still find pleasure in doing this. I can spend a lot of time practicing and trying to develop my skills and still not be the best at it. Because I enjoy playing the piano and it gives me happiness, I am using my reason for the sake of happiness. I am happy while playing the piano and I am exercising my abilities to play the piano.  

Happiness is the most desired thing, “for we always chose it for itself and never for the sake of something else”. We chose many things in our lives truly for the sake of happiness. Aristotle explains this by telling the reader that many people chose virtues and honor partially for themselves, but we also chose them for the sake of happiness. We never chose happiness solely for these things, or for anything else at all. Happiness is always the final destination. If this is true, “Can no man be happy during life?” Aristotle tells us that the happy man will go through life preserving his character and taking part in excellent deeds. We look for the end to call a man happy because at that point we can now look back on his life and proceed to be able to consider him happy. Aristotle does not mean that at the point of death, a man can be considered truly happy, likewise he uses this as a point as to which an observer can look back on the life of that man and conclude to judge him happy or not.

John Stuart Mill had a different view on what happiness is than Aristotle did. In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill explains that Utility is the “Greatest Happiness Principle”. This principle states that happiness is “intended pleasure with the absence of pain.” Mill tells us that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only desirable things in the end and therefore, is the purpose of life. He defines pleasure by being the greatest when the highest numbers of people are experiencing it and preferring it to another pleasure. Mill stated that pleasure is the highest good and ultimately it becomes the final end. A life with maximum amount of pleasure and minimum amount of pain can be seen as a happy one, based on Mill’s description of happiness. He also believes that the amount of pleasure one experiences is more important than the quality of that pleasure.

This idea of pleasure and happiness was looked down on by the epicureans because it was seen to degrade human nature. They held that this theory of happiness made humans equivalent to swine because the only pleasure we, as humans, posses is the same pleasure they are able to posses.  If this was true, the rule of life would be the same for humans and swine. This argument is faulty because we, as humans, do not experience the same pleasure that swine do and the pleasure of swine does not equal the happiness of humans. Swine aren’t able to experience the same emotions we, as humans, are able to.

John Stuart Mill continues his idea of the Greatest Happiness Principle by explaining that the ultimate end is one as far as possible from pain and as close as possible in enjoyments. “The end of human action is also the standard of human morality.” He continues to say that humans will often chose the lower pleasure because it is a quicker pleasure. In contemporary ideas, a man  might go to McDonalds and order a Cheeseburger instead of staying home and making himself a healthy salad. This cheeseburger will give him immediate pleasure but the pleasure will only be temporary. If the man continues to make this choice of the cheeseburger over the salad, it will cause him consequences and might cause him to get sick.

      In conclusion, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill have very different answers to the question, What is Happiness? Aristotle believes that happiness is achieved when one exercises he or she’s full potential and reason. He says that happiness is the good which is the final end and that no one can fully achieve happiness until the end. John Stuart Mill teaches that happiness is present when one is experiencing the greatest amount of pleasure with the most minimal amount of pain. Although I personally hold these two definitions of happiness to be true, these two men leave it to the reader to ultimately determine what he or she believes to be true about happiness. I believe that Aristotle’s definition is more relevant in today’s society. Both authors provide an adequate definition of happiness but I think that Aristotle’s is better in the world we live in today.




One thought on “Aristotle vs. Mill on Happiness

  1. Can both views really be true at the same time? For example, should I live a life pursuing pleasure (even if by that we mean a “higher” pleasure)? Or should I live a life of trying to exercise reason and virtue? Would those to view not lead in different directions in many cases?

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