Aristotelian vs. Utilitarian Views

Kathryn Burgess- Period 2

                From the beginning of time, the goal for all human beings is to strive for their ultimate happiness. However, people throughout history have had somewhat different views on what that happiness is, and how one should go about trying to obtain it. This attainment of happiness can be demonstrated with two views from two very different writers, the Aristotelian view and the Utilitarian view. Aristotle’s view on happiness all points towards a person’s final end, while John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian view centers around the fact that happiness is attained by maximizing a person’s utility.
                Aristotle once said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.” More than anybody else, Aristotle treasures happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. He believes that happiness depends on the cultivation of virtue, and essentially, this virtue is achieved by maintaining the mean, which is the balance between two excesses. One of Aristotle’s most influential works is The Nichomachean Ethics, where he presents a theory of happiness that is still very present in today’s society. The key question Aristotle seeks to answer in this work is “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” Everywhere we turn we see people seeking pleasure, wealth, and a good reputation. People will go to extensive lengths to find the pleasure they think they deserve. People will try and acquire wealth wherever they go, because some people think that they are entitled to it. People will tarnish other people’s reputations just to build there’s up. But while each of these have some value, regardless of how they are obtained, none of them can occupy the place of the supreme good for which humanity should aim. According to Aristotle, for something to be an ultimate end, an act must be both self-sufficient and final, “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Book X-6). Aristotle would agree that happiness is the end which meets all these requirements. It is easy enough to see that we desire pleasure, wealth, and a good reputation only because we believe that these things will make us happy. It seems that all other goods are a means towards obtaining happiness, while happiness is always an end in itself.
                The main trouble is that happiness is often conceived of as a subjective state of mind; however, for Aristotle, happiness is a final end or goal that contains the entirety of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours; It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this very moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. A person cannot make any pronouncements about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over. As Aristotle concludes, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed or happy.” Only humans are capable of acting according to principles, and in doing so taking responsibility for their choices. The good for a human is different from the good for anything else on this earth because we have different capacities and potentials. Thus Aristotle gives us his definition of happiness: “…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
                In this quote, we can see another important feature of Aristotle’s theory: the link between the concepts of happiness and virtue. Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is to have a good moral character—what he calls “complete virtue.” But being virtuous is not a submissive state: one must act in accordance with virtue. Nor is it enough to have a few virtues; rather, one must strive to possess all of them. He writes, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a full lifetime, all the goods that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enhancement of human life.  This requires us to make choices—often the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while the greater good is painful and requires some sort of sacrifice.   
                Utilitarianism is mainly characterized by two elements: happiness and consequentialism. According to Mill, utilitarian happiness is the greatest happiness which every human seeks. In utilitarianism everything useful to happiness is good; therefore, the name of the doctrine is utilitarianism, based on the principle of utility. Utility is found in everything which contributes to the happiness of every human being. The criterion of good and evil is balanced between individual’s happiness and the happiness of the society. Consequentialism in utilitarianism is in the fact that an action must be judged for its consequences on the happiness of the largest number. That is: a person’s search for happiness stops when it decreases the happiness of another individual or the happiness of the largest number. An example related to this theory is: as personal freedom is considered, my personal freedom stops when it diminishes the freedom of another individual or the well-being of the entire society. John Stuart Mill succeeds in giving this Utilitarian doctrine of happiness a practical and balanced dimension which we can find in our modern society, in economics, in politics, and in ethics.
                The idea that the general happiness is the ultimate end of action Mill thinks is something that all rational and neutral people would agree to. All things of value are seen to be either as means to or as part of happiness; there cannot be any proof beyond this proof of the psychological composition of human nature. Thus virtue, which Mill sees as the chief good is valued as a means to the ultimate end but also, through relationships, comes to be desired for its own sake. In Mill’s Utilitarianism, he states that actions are right in proportion if they tend to promote happiness, wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness—pain. By happiness is comes pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the deprivation of pleasure. Mill argues that people desire happiness—the utilitarian end—and that the general happiness is “a good to the aggregate of all persons.”
                However, in The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that “we cannot deliberate about ends but only about the means by which ends can be attained.” Mill, with the Utilitarian view agrees with Aristotle, that happiness is the “highest good attainable by action.” Both Mill and Aristotle accept that life always includes pain. A person always needs to have a little bit of pain, in order to keep their head in a level place. Aristotle and Mill believe that goal of a human being’s life is to obtain happiness. Happiness, however, according to Aristotle, is living in accordance to reason, and Mill, with regard to the Utilitarian view, believes happiness is living life with the most pleasure and with the least pain. Mill and Aristotle both agree that human beings are unique beings, in that we have the ability to feel emotion—particularly to “feel” or “be” happy. Living in happiness is the greatest end for a human being; however, happiness cannot be measured until a person is no longer on the earth. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s