Aristotle vs. Mill on Happiness

Melanie Wright P. 3Image

What is the true definition of happiness? Every person, both young and old, spends their life contemplating whether or not they are happy. In modern day society, you often hear the word depressed more than the word happy. So which philosopher’s theory matches modern day, Aristotle or John Stuart Mill? Although each of their definitions of what true happiness is and what it means to be happy are completely different, their concept behind their definition is fairly similar.

In Aristotle work, entitled The Nicomachean Ethics , he seeks to answer the question, what is the ultimate purpose of human existence? In this work, he introduces a theory of happiness that is still relevant today. Aristotle also asks the question, what our purpose in life? He believes that our purpose in life is to be self-sufficient and final, be “desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Aristotle), and be attainable by man. This is what he calls the ultimate end. Society today would say that driving an Italian sports car or getting a diamond ring is how to obtain happiness; however, Aristotle argues that happiness is the end in which meets all of the arguments mentioned above. He believes that all other goods are a means towards gaining happiness, while happiness is always an end in itself.  

                Happiness should be the final end or goal that incorporates the journey of one’s life. It cannot be something that is gained or lost within a short amount of time. It is more like the value of your life as lived up to this moment. It is a measurement of how well you have lived up to your potential of being human. Aristotle states that it is merely impossible to determine whether one has lived a happy life. The answer is only attainable once it is over; just as we could not say that a football game was a “great game” during halftime. That answer can only be determined once time runs out.

                Another theory Aristotle gives about happiness is its link to virtue. In order to achieve happiness in the end, we have to have a good moral character or “complete virtue” (Aristotle). “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” (Aristotle). Happiness does not mean buying 6 pairs of shoes one weekend. It is working hard to be able to afford the shoes over your lifetime. Being virtuous is not receiving an action and expecting an action in return: one must act in accordance with it. Happiness requires achieving health, wealth, knowledge, and friendship. This helps us to become a perfect human being. Along the way, however, we are required to make choices. Often times the lesser choice gives us immediate pleasure and the greater choice is more painful and requires sacrifice. In order to achieve a strong effort to do the right thing, it requires virtue in difficult situations. 

                John Stuart Mill differs from Aristotle by arguing that rather than obtaining happiness by living in accordance with reason, it can be physically felt. His belief follows the Utilitarian concept. He states that “happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain” (Mill), which is also known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. Mill believes that if a completed action fails to inflict pain on a person, then it is considered to be an action that promotes happiness. Mills is ultimately stating that happiness is determined by whether or not a person receives pleasure with the least amount of pain, in other words taking the easy way out of life. This supports his idea that in order to achieve happiness one must live a full life not only with materialistic items, but also with items that give “feelings and imagination, and of moral sentiments” (Mill).

                Mill believes that everyone is “bound to promote the general happiness” (Mill). He also believes that society promotes a person’s amount of happiness because God wants all humans to experience happiness in their lives. He believes that in order for a person to complete God’s will, he or she must increase the amount of happiness in others. Happiness should be obtained by the actions of people living in society rather than the individual.  Happiness should be radiating off of individuals so they can help others find happiness as well. Mills believes that morality is the basis of the general happiness for society, and that it is more important for society than the individual. This is where Mill’s belief follows the Utilitarianism concept. It follows the belief that in order for an individual to be fully happy, the society must be fully satisfied as well. 

                One of Mill’s most important beliefs is that the quality of pleasure helps determine a person’s happiness. He explains his idea of quality of pleasure over quantity of pleasure by stating “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they know only their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides” (Mill). He believes that people should determine their decisions based on what will bring them the most pleasure rather than deciding with side is more moral. This belief is what creates greedy human beings. He believes there are two types of pleasures: high and low. The high pleasures represent the mind and the low pleasures represent the body. People of the higher abilities are often less content in life because they have a deeper sense of limitations of the world. However, their pleasure will always be greater than that of an animal.

                Although the differences between the philosopher’s ideas out-weigh their similarities, the two still have a mutual point. Both believe the idea that animals are incapable of being happy. Aristotle believes that in order for a species to live in accordance with reason, they must be virtuous. However, animals lack that ability, so they are unable to live in accordance with reason. Mills belief states that animals are only able to complete a small amount of actions, and because they are limited, they can never live to the full potential happiness as humans. The potential that animals have is far less than those of a human which means they can never know what it is to act noble.

So, does modern day society agree with Aristotle or Mill’s view? In my opinion, the answer is simple. Society agrees with Mill’s view by trying to avoid the road not taken. We base our decisions on the consequences rather than what we can gain from the experience. The easier the task, the more likely we are to do it. We live in a materialistic world filled with greedy human beings who rely on being given money rather than working hard for it. We live in a world with more followers than leaders. Luckily, we have a few human beings in this world that do not have this mindset. The few people who in fact put others before themselves follow Mill’s idea on promoting general happiness. Those who devote their lives to helping others, whether doctor or a missionary, help the society as a whole find happiness before finding it themselves. So, should we continue to follow Mill’s theory on happiness or should we switch over to Aristotle’s? 


Works Cited:

Aristotle, and Martin Ostwald. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis [Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962. Print.

Mill, John Stuart, and Oskar Piest. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.


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