Sunshine, Kittens, and… Aristotle?

Maddy L//Summer School: Morning

Happiness. The first things that come to mind when I hear this word are laughter, sunshine, and kittens. But when you hear the word “happiness”, you may think of something completely different. You may not associate kittens and sunshine with happiness and that is perfectly acceptable. Individual happiness has no singular definition; it means different things to different people based on their moral code, self-esteem, and motivation to achieve it. Philosophers throughout the ages agree that each and every person craves happiness, and that humans can only achieve this state through instinctively human behaviors and activities.

Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, states that happiness is the primary motivation behind every action and every choice that human beings make in their daily lives. He believes that all humans accept happiness as a final end. “That which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” and as all actions are a means to the possession of happiness, happiness will always be an end in itself (Nicomachean Ethics). Every choice that is made is done because that person believes that it will bring them that much closer to this final end, no matter how basic the action may seem.

John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and economist from the 17th century, chooses a different approach when defining happiness. Mill focuses more on the distinction between happiness and pleasure, as opposed to the generalization that Aristotle’s teachings supports. He agrees that happiness can be considered as the ultimate and final end that all humans seek to achieve; however, he makes his point that there are differences in the quality and in the quantity of happiness to which a person can obtain. With his definition of happiness as pleasure with the absence of pain, “men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable: and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental” (Utilitarianism).

The subtle differences between the two philosophies can be perceived in many different ways because ultimately individual happiness can be based upon one’s perception of others. While they agree on happiness as the ultimate goal, they differ on defining happiness/pleasure and how to obtain these states.

Aristotle vehemently argues that happiness is not meant to be merely a fleeting and temporary emotion of feeling simple pleasure. He does not believe that happiness is an ephemeral state of mind that can only be possessed for a short amount of time. According to Aristotle and his teachings, happiness is the quality of the entirety of one’s life. Happiness depends upon the amount of time that has been invested into fulfilling one’s potential as a person. However, it is difficult to judge one’s happiness during their lifetime. It is impossible to assign a uniform value to something as unique as a human life, as every person has a unique meaning for happiness. Happiness also cannot be judged before that life is over, as a proper judgment requires an examination of the entire life. Furthermore, the sole determinants of happiness are not the possession of external goods such as health or food but it is throughout a lifetime’s worth of speculation and contemplation. “Happiness, then, extends just so far as contemplation, and the more contemplation the more happiness is there in a life,—not accidentally, but as a necessary accompaniment of the contemplation; for contemplation is precious in itself (Nicomachean Ethics).

This observation upon the contemplative life ultimately being the “good and happy life” is the definitive contradiction towards Mill’s view on the correlation between pleasure and happiness. Aristotle argues that there is considerably more to living a happy and full life than simply living without pain. He further states that the road to happiness lies in wisdom and the exercise of that wisdom through virtuous practices – “for every being that is best and pleasantest which is naturally proper to it. Since, then, it is the reason that in the truest sense is the man, the life that consists in the exercise of reason is the best and pleasantest for man – and therefore the happiest” (Nicomachean Ethics).

Furthermore, looking into Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, he seems to take no regard of individual rights as he judges all to the same standard. He fails to recognize that human beings are capable of sacrificing for the greater good of others and refuses to admit that a sacrifice can be good in and of itself. “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Utilitarianism). While he argues that his theory comes naturally and is only logical to the social nature of humans, he decides that happiness is based on utility. The morality of people is always based upon the somewhat attainable happiness he has been arguing. He recognizes that objectors “say that happiness, in any form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is unattainable” (Utilitarianism).

It would be tremendously inaccurate to claim that people all over the world are not seeking out pleasure, wealth, and impressive social statuses. But perhaps this quest that is so ingrained in each member of society provides just enough motivation for people to achieve individual happiness while simultaneously providing for the good of their society and the world as a whole. Mill touches on the role of government and the way society ought to be formed as his essay “Utilitarianism” is based upon the theory that it is necessary to reduce suffering and increase pleasure in order to maximize utility. And surprisingly, Aristotle touches on this aspect as well. He discusses the point of a city and the very definition of a citizen in his essay, “The Politics”. Aristotle defines a constitution as a government, yet it appears that he does not take into consideration humanity’s natural tendency for government, which often comes before the constitution itself. He then goes on to name the six different types of constitution; yet he takes his stance from Nicomachean Ethics and further develops it in The Politics by stating that man is a “political animal”. A good life is achieved by partaking in the state as a citizen that has gained the wisdom, contemplation, and motivation for understanding how to achieve their own personal happiness. As stated earlier, the quest for said happiness that is naturally invested in every single human provides for the good of society and the world as a whole.

Overall a general consensus can be formed from both arguments as both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill encourage happiness to be obtained in life, yet they differ on the ways to obtain such. From the perspective of utilitarianism, one would say that in order to be happy, all forms of pain must be abolished. Where there is a lack of pain, pleasure can be felt; pleasure is the ultimate form of happiness. The disagreement forms when Aristotle claims that pleasure itself is not necessarily the good or the end to which is to be desired and ultimately achieved. As stated throughout, Aristotle’s main point is that life must be lived in accordance to reason and happiness is attainable through contemplation.

Overall, it is essential to understand that there is no singular definition given to happiness or pleasure. There is also no one correct way to live one’s life. There is no certain reasoning, agreed upon by all, that is the sole way that decisions should be made through government, or lack thereof. Focusing in on this conclusion from the perspective of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, it is apparent that happiness is the ultimate goal. It is something that is intended to be experienced by all individuals. While principally the same, both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill state their subtly different views on how to obtain such.


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