Aristotelian vs. Utilitarianism: Views on Happiness

Katerina Goldstein – 1 

What exactly is happiness? Happiness is a subject which has been frequently debated by many philosophers over the centuries. According to dictionary.com, happiness is the quality or state of being happy; but according to philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Aristotle, an individual’s happiness is much more complex. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes happiness as living in accordance to reason. By exploring the correlations between man and society, he states that every man aims for the greater good and strives to reach happiness as a final end. Whereas Mill explains the utilitarian view on happiness which contradicts Aristotle’s beliefs by stating that happiness is pleasure with absence of pain, assuming pleasure is at its greatest quantity and quality. Mill explains that happiness is not only feeling but also action. Doing a virtuous act, living to our full human potential, and experiencing a life of contemplation eventually leads us to happiness. Even though these two philosophers are from different points in history and the Utilitarian and Aristotelian views are both very different, their theories of happiness can be applied to any aspect of life.   

 

Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill discusses happiness in society through the comparison between humanity and society. Mill argument on utilitarianism is that, “utility is pleasure itself and the absence of pain”.  According to Mill the central idea of Utilitarianism is the “foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, which holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, and therefore wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Utilitarianism). Mill states 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” (Mill). This standard of pleasure verse pain is a direct correlation to his judgment between right and wrong.

 

As stated before, Mill believes pleasure can be achieved through quality and quantity, which suggests that the purpose of life may be to live in happiness by avoiding any amount of pain. For example, if an individual was asked to select one pleasure over another, the quality of the preferred pleasure would be considered a greater or more desirable pleasure. This example demonstrates that the individual chooses his or her greater pleasure in agreement with higher wants and needs. He states, “no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs” meaning the amount of pleasure one receives is determined by the positive or negative experience. Even though, Mill explains that the individual has full power to judge the quality and quantity of his or her pleasure, he also argues that the qualities of pleasure can not only be defined by one standard but that different pleasures represent different levels of importance depending on the individual’s view on the experiences.

 

Happiness, according to Mill, is possible for everyone to attain if their educational background improved. Mill states that lack of “mental cultivation is the source of unhappiness” (Mill). The greatest pleasure is the mental pleasure because of its “greater permanency, safety, and uncostliness” compared to that of bodily pleasures. The quantity and quality of a particular pleasure is determined by the amount of people that experience it or prefer it to another pleasure. His statements and beliefs do not lead to a direct path for pleasure, but more of an idea to reaching the goal, the attaining of pleasure, in the final end.

 

In addition, Mill believes the final end consists of, “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” (Utilitarianism). Pleasure that derives from human intellect defines what is right; which eventually leads to pleasure, and therefore happiness. Because utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of whether an action promotes the “Greatest Happiness Principle”, happiness therefore depends on the moral of the action or the goodness of the action. Mill believes happiness is directly correlated with pleasure.  In contrast to Mill’s perspective, Aristotle believes happiness is defined as living life in accordance with reason in a community of other people.

 

Aristotle’s view on happiness begins with “the good” or “the end”. Happiness is the most desirable goal in the world. In The Politics, Aristotle describes man as a political animal, therefore explaining that man is the type of animal that is unable to reach the final end without the state. Aristotle does not depict pleasure to be bad but rather does not believe it to be the final end; believing instead that happiness is the final end. Aristotle explored the cause of true happiness, finding that every individual seeks the good, the final end. Aristotle came to this conclusion by asking: “What is the function of man?” For example, Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, explains that “The pleasant life… is more desirable with wisdom than without: but if the combination of the two be better, pleasure itself cannot be the good; for an addition can make the good more desirable” meaning that pleasure cannot be the final end, because “it is capable of addition” (Aristotle). As a “political animal,” humans strive to live well by living in accordance to reason.  

 

In Aristotle’s argument, there are many different kinds of ends; ends which are not final meaning happiness is the only sufficient end. For example, the end to cooking results in eating, but eating then ends in nourishing the body and so on, which shows that “the end of all ends will, in the end, only lead to the one final end: happiness.” In other words, happiness itself has no other end. Aristotle questions this: “Happiness is the end of all that man does” but what is the role or function of the man exactly? He concludes that the function of man is to “exercise his vital faculties one side in obedience to reason and on the other with reason”. Any individual who does so is considered a good man. Aristotle uses the example of an Olympian, “at the Olympic Games it is not the fairest and strongest who receive the crown, but those who contend… so in life, too the winners are those who not only have all the excellences but manifest there in deed” (Aristotle). Therefore, Aristotle believes, in order to live in happiness, man must use his or her human potential and experience a life of contemplation. He explains the importance in distinguishing what is “best and right” which therefore leads to living virtuously. Being virtuous allows us to live up to our human potential. Aristotle stresses contemplation because he believes it defines us as unique.

 

In conclusion, Even though Mill and Aristotle have differing ideas defining happiness, they both believe that the final end for man is happiness. They believe that the best way to achieve this happiness is through the help of others who share in the same aim and final end. Mill and Aristotle both aim at the important questions: “How should we live?” and “What is the function of man?” Happiness, however, has different meanings for both Mill and Aristotle. Mill believes happiness is living life to achieve the highest pleasure and the least pain; whereas Aristotle believes that happiness is living life in accordance to reason. Although Mill describes pleasure to be good, Aristotle’s belief, that it cannot be the final end, is more understandable. Finally, Aristotle and Mill, both recognize that in order for an individual to achieve true happiness, he or she needs a community of people to help in achieving this ultimate goal. 

 

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Works Cited

 

“Happiness.” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/happiness&gt;.

 

Raphael. School of Athens. N.d. Photograph. Fotopedia. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-.

 

“Pursuit Of Happiness.” Squidoo. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2013. <http://www.squidoo.com/motivationalinspirations.

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