The Two Views on Human Happiness: Aristotle vs. Mill


Jenna Hoffend- Period 1. What is happiness and how can one achieve it? Although this question looks quite simple to answer, it actually has been one that has had the power to fuel an ongoing and complex argument. For centuries now, people have tirelessly tried to answer this one question that seems to be so easy. Everyone throughout the world understands the concept of happiness; whether it be from tangible objects or simple pleasures, people can explain the satisfaction from this simple word, yet no one is taught exactly how to feel happiness, or quite frankly, be happy. While this answer may seem to be impossible to find, two philosophers, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, have both had the chance to study and describe what happiness is and how one may attain it. Aristotle believed that happiness was the ultimate end in a person’s life and could be reached by living one’s life according to reason. Mill on the other hand believed that the greatest happiness consisted of the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain. Because of these two great men, society is now equipped with a better understanding of this blissful word, yet how did these two philosophers come to their conclusions? Let’s explore this idea and discover how these two men created two very different denotations for one very similar concept.

Aristotle is a world renowned Greek philosopher whose ideas have spread across the entire world. Aristotle was able to begin his philosophical thought process with one simple statement: “the best of all things must, we conceive, be something final.” Aristotle believes the purpose of one’s life is to reach the final end. This final end, through his perception, has something to do with the good; therefore, the purpose of one’s life is to reach the good of the final end, yet what exactly is the “good” in one’s life? Aristotle judges that the goodness of a man lies in his function. He believes the purpose of a human being lies with using reason in accordance with virtue; our capacity for reason as human beings is what differentiates us from other beings. For example, the ability to reason is what distinguishes the difference between a dog and his master. Because Aristotle determines the final end to be a life in accordance with reason, this final end must also mean a person’s happiness. He explains happiness as living in accordance to reason with virtue; to fulfill this function is ultimately happiness. The type of life that accomplishes the function, and therefore the happiness of the man is a life full of virtue. Aristotle’s meaning of virtue is whatever allows you to live in accordance with reason, thus making it clear that his idea of a fulfilling life is living a life of reason, thus leading one to the final end of happiness. Aristotle answers the question of what happiness truly is by explaining that people can acquire happiness by learning and attentiveness because happiness “was defined as a certain kind of exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with excellence or virtue.” With that being said, the Aristotelian view of happiness is one that all people can achieve, yet it can only be acquired by living a life of explanation and motivation.

Unlike Aristotle’s view point on happiness, British philosopher John Stuart Mill had a very different approach on what happiness truly was and how one could achieve it. According to Mill, any action that is “good” promotes happiness, while any action deemed “bad” is the reverse. This concept is known as utilitarianism: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill’s philosophical ideas were to promote pleasure over pain; therefore, happiness was known to be anything that gave a person pleasure. He also believed that “if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided pleasure, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.” Although Mill promotes the happiness of the individual, his utilitarian standard also consists of the happiness of the greater good on a larger spectrum. He believes utilitarianism requires both the quality and quantity of happiness. The good that promotes happiness for the larger amount of people also serves as the more desirable pleasure. As well as focusing on the happiness of others, Mill also argues that people’s achievement for virtuous living should be counted as part of their happiness. He believes in happiness as the sole basis of morality; therefore, people truly desire happiness throughout their entire lifetime. His view is further explained through the fact that “in human beings the power to sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others… [and] a sacrifice which does not increase…the sum of total happiness, [is] considered wasted.” With that being said, the utilitarian view of happiness is one that consists of experiencing pleasure with the absence of pain while affecting the greatest number of people and states happiness as the basis of morality.

The Aristotelian and Utilitarian opinions on happiness share many of the same qualities, while containing several differences. Both Aristotle and Mill refer to happiness as being some final end for the individual; Aristotle believes the final end in one’s life is the ultimate happiness, while Mill states that happiness is the only desirable end. Both describe happiness as the final end that society seeks for throughout their entire life. Although both associate the final end with happiness, each philosopher has a different perspective on the true definition of happiness. Aristotle proclaims happiness to lie using reason in accordance with virtue; the type of life that accomplishes the function (and happiness) of the man is a life full of virtue. Reason is what differentiates a dog with his master; therefore, reason is what brings man to his final end of happiness. Mill describes happiness through his idea that happiness is to be the promotion of pleasure without pain and for the greatest good; therefore, the most fulfilling final end would be described as the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

As well as believing in happiness as the final end, both men include definitions of what is “good” and “bad” in life. Both of these concepts are illustrated as the events that may lead a person toward or away from his or her final end of happiness. Aristotle describes the “good” in life as anything that allows man to practice a life of virtue, while the “bad” is what leads one away from living a life of virtue in accordance with reason. Mill on the other hand explains the “good” in life as the pleasure that one may experience with the lack of pain and the “bad” is the pain itself. Aristotle believes that one may experience happiness through his own will of studying and practicing a good life, while Mill believes that what we call “happiness” is nothing other than pleasure. The Aristotelian viewpoint on happiness involves a final end full of virtue in accordance with reason, while the utilitarian viewpoint on happiness involves pleasure for the greatest number of people.

With all of this being said, it is clear to say that these two philosophers, with both time and dedication, have provided humanity with different answers to that one simple question: what is happiness and how can we achieve it? Today there is still no clear definition as to what happiness truly is; however with Aristotle and John Stuart Mill’s ideas, we as a society can gain a closer understanding as to what we as individuals think happiness to be. Whether it is a final ending of reason or pleasure, these two men have given the world greater knowledge on a subject that simply makes everyone happy. So with this final ending you must answer your own final question: what is happiness to you and how will you achieve it? The answer lies within your own heart, and quite obviously your smile.


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