Happiness- Aristotelian vs. Utilitarian

Olivia S- Ursuline Senior

Most people want to obtain full happiness, but it is not so simple to define what pure happiness is. There are many different opinions on what happiness can be, and how it can be achieved. Philosophers have debated on what true happiness is for centuries. John Stuart Mill and Aristotle are both very famous well known philosophers, and have devoted a large portion of their studies to find the true meaning of happiness. Although they are from completely different time periods and locations, Mill and Aristotle both share the idea that a good life for a person is spent engaging in activities that are human.  They differ in that both have diverse opinions on what these activities are. These two philosophers have their own unique theories on what happiness is in a society, and how it can be reached. Their views are very different, and their theories can be applied to many aspects and situations of any time period.

John Stewart Mill has a very bold and direct opinion about how to achieve happiness. In Mill’s Utilitarianism, he defines happiness as pleasure.  He states that “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.” Happiness is pleasure, and so any form of pain to an individual is not happiness. This leads to his philosophy of life–that the only things that are desirable are pleasure and freedom from pain. This is the basis of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism dictates that each person’s happiness counts as much as anyone else’s. Utilitarianism does not require any one person to pursue their own happiness. In Utilitarianism, man can only be happy if the community is happy. An action should only be done if it affects the community positively. A person should respect the happiness of others, and only take action if the consequences of their acts will produce happiness, and not cause misfortune to the majority of others. Basically, man can do anything he wants if it makes the largest number of individuals in the community happy.

Aristotle, like Mill, believes that every action that humans take aims at some ultimate good, and that this good leads to the ultimate end. Unlike Mill, happiness to Aristotle is more than just a feeling. Aristotle also believes happiness is more about focusing on the individual self rather than the entire community as a whole.  Aristotle believes happiness is a certain virtuous lifestyle. He states that pleasure is not a good in itself, and is incomplete by nature. This differs from the Utilitarianism belief that that pleasure is a form of happiness.  Aristotle sees pleasure as just a result from activity. He doesn’t see it as good or bad, and thinks that it should not be sought out just for its own sake.

Today there are many people looking for pleasure in material things such as wealth, and other things like a good reputation. In a Utilitarianism view these could make someone happy; however in the eyes of Aristotle this is wrong– these things do have some value, but none of them leads to the good of where humanity should aim for. People want things like money, to be respected, and pleasure only because they think it will make them happy. The ancient Greeks had a very different perspective on happiness. Aristotle speaks of happiness as being all that you can, and living in a virtuous way that reaches your fullest potential. It is very bad to know the most virtuous way of something, and failing to do it. Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, believes knowledge is discovered in virtue, while ignorance is vice.   Aristotle does not think this way; he sees happiness as an end in itself.

When searching for his true meaning and belief of happiness, Aristotle studied nature. He saw that plants seek to grow, and that they are satisfied when their growth is obtained. He then studied animals and noticed that they seek pleasure and reproduction, and this makes them happy. He noted that plants and animals did not know any more than this, and were not capable of anything else. He then pointed out that humans differentiate from the animal kingdom because humans understand principles. Humans also have the capability to take responsibility for their choices. He concluded that happiness must be more than pleasure, because we are superior to animals. Pleasure is what animals seek, and humans have higher capabilities than animals. Humans should focus on turning their urges to good virtue.

Aristotle believes that happiness is a choice. “Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.” Even though happiness is something a person can choose, he believes that no human being is born virtuous, so virtue can only come through long training that leads into virtuous acts. He also strongly believes that good acts are the center of happiness. They lead into one another, and reveal the personality and character of a truly happy person. Living in moderation and balance brings the most long term happiness. Happy human beings turn their acts into habits. This means the only way for someone to be truly happy is to learn through acting virtuously, and to experience the virtues “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.” Human beings are happiest when guided by reason, so perfect happiness is achieved philosophic wisdom.

Many people today see happiness as a state of mind, like having fun. Aristotle sees it as a final end or goal that makes one’s life purposeful and meaningful. It does not come and go like pleasure, it is the total value of one’s life. A short lasting or long period of excitement is not happiness according to Aristotle.  His conclusion is that genuine happiness is in the action that leads to virtue. He believes this because this happiness is worth something, and not just for amusement.

The Utilitarian theory does not place importance on virtue like Aristotle does. In a Utilitarian community, since a main belief is to do what will make the community happy, the most virtuous act is not always chosen. If it would greatly benefit a community to kill a person, then the Utilitarian choice and decision would be to kill him. If it would benefit a community to burn down a person’s home, they would burn it down as long as most people were in favor. In an Aristotelian set of mind this is not virtuous. Practicing self-control is more important in Aristotle’s eyes than in Mill’s. In Utilitarianism, it is considered fine to do anything if it benefits the community. This goes against Aristotle because Aristotle believes that you cannot just depend on pleasure to determine what is right and what is wrong.

John Mill and Aristotle both have the same conclusion that reasoning is important when achieving happiness. They both believe that reasoning can make a good life for a person; however, they both gave opinions about specific aspects of life that must be involved in the decision as well. What they are reasoning about is how they differ. Both men know that happiness is an ultimate goal for a person, but they differ in how to achieve it.  Mill reasons on what action will benefit a community, while Aristotle reasons about what action is the most virtuous. Is the answer to happiness living a life filled with pleasure and the least amount of pain? Or is the answer to live virtuously and with reason. Both views are very interesting, but I think they are unrealistic and would not work if they were to be put to use in today’s society.




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