Marielle Johnson

What do people think of when they hear the word America? Probably something like “wealth, money, greed, materialism, pleasure, and more pleasure.” Take the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, where Jordan Belfort, the main character, earns his money through cheating and stealing. His only goal is to accumulate an immense amount of material goods, money, and live for pleasure. He is able to achieve this pleasure through the use of his money, multiple illegal drugs, and sex with multiple women. Jordan Belfort perpetuates the typical stereotype of America where everyone works only to seek pleasure and goods which is not entirely all bad. From the outside looking in, many people may assume this is typical life of an everyday American, which for a small percentage of Americans it is. But is Jordan Belfort really happy? Well that would depend on what philosophy is being used to “measure” his happiness.

In the eyes of Aristotle, America and Jordan Belfort are miserably failing his teachings. Aristotle would say, “The function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason.” In other words, Aristotle thinks the ultimate happiness is using reasoning and acting on it. By snorting cocaine all day and committing federal crimes, I do not believe Aristotle would agree that he is using his reasoning and acting on it. Contrary to the beliefs of Jordan Belfort, Aristotle does not believe happiness is a feeling but rather an action that is done. Aristotle continues saying that the ultimate happiness is, “Man’s function—that is to say, exercise of his faculties and action of various kinds with reason—the good man’s function is to do this well and beautifully [or nobly]. But the function of anything is done well when it is done in accordance with the proper excellence of that thing.”

In my opinion, America is in no way using his or her “faculties on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason.” But rather America’s idea of happiness is through the eyes of John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill promotes a philosophy of utilitarianism, the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill says, “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; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” He continues on saying, “leisure and the absence of pain are, by this account, the only things desirable as ends in themselves, the only things inherently good.”

Since America is very much a consumer society, advertisements are perfect examples of perpetuating Mill’s idea of utilitarianism. Take, for example, the beer, Coors light. In one particular advertisement for Coors light, many people are on a subway and it is extremely hot, but then a man places a Coors light bottle cap on the train. Instantly, the subway transforms into a train filled with Coors light and the hot weather is suddenly gone because everyone has their beer which is supposedly “as cold as the Rockies.” By placing the bottle cap on the subway and turning it into a Coors Light train filled with beer, happiness was achieved for the greatest number of people. Although this happiness is more of a shallow happiness, utilitarianism is still promoted through this advertisement. There are hundreds of thousands of advertisements that promote this same philosophy. I believe that advertisements have and continue to influence America as a country which is one reason why America is a country based on the ideas of utilitarianism. Hundreds of these same types of advertisements are constantly viewed by society even if we do not realize it. This idea of utilitarianism becomes ingrained in society’s head that it becomes our nature to buy into a culture of utilitarianism.

While some people may say Americans or just people in general live for pleasure, the philosophy of utilitarianism does not agree with a hedonistic way of life. Hedonism is the belief that pleasure or happiness is the highest good of all life.[1] Mill argues that there is more to life than just physical pleasure. There are pleasures of higher faculties. Mill states, “a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type, but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.”  Humans have higher pleasures such as intellectual pleasures which animals do not possess. Mill continues to say, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Once again, Mill is arguing that utilitarianism is not hedonism. Since, humans have higher pleasures and not merely physical pleasures it would be better to be an extremely dissatisfied individual than to be a pig with only physical pleasures and nothing else. Physical pleasures are not at all comparable to the higher pleasures that Mill describes in his book.

Because humans have these higher pleasures namely the intellectual pleasures Americans often work very hard and use the intellectual pleasures given to us to achieve the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, utilitarianism. For example, there are many charities in the United States that contribute to the greater good and happiness for society. Out of all the countries in the world, America holds the 6th spot for most charitable nation.[2] In addition, America is home to the best medical and health care. By doctors and nurses using their higher faculties, they are able to provide the best possible care to better the whole of society. Doctors and nurses along with many other medical and non-medical professions are continually trying to eradicate pain and produce happiness which is the central philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

After all, America is home to the infamous “American dream,” meaning anyone can come to America, work hard and most importantly become successful and happy. We are always striving to achieve the happiness for the greatest number of people. America also has the idea that happiness is a feeling and not an action like Aristotle claims. Mill also promotes the idea that happiness is a feeling along with America. Referring back to the idea of advertisements, almost all ads sell their product using the platform of happiness. For example, “buy this makeup product and you will be happier,” “eat this food and you will be happy,” “buy these clothes and you will be happy,” “go on this vacation and you will be happy.” The list goes on and on. From a physiological point of view, I believe many people enjoy being told that they will be able to “feel” happy. The idea of “feeling” happy is almost like a security blanket for some people. Because of this warm fuzzy feeling of happiness, I believe America is continually pursing a lifestyle that promotes utilitarianism. America would rather “feel” happy instead of thinking of happiness as an action which as I already stated is heavily promoted by our entire society through the use of advertisements and the media. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the “feeling” of happiness.

In conclusion, America promotes an idea of utilitarianism using Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle mainly through the use of advertisements and the media. America is a country that constantly strives to achieve happiness for all. Although physical pleasures are important, they are not the most important pleasures humans possess because if physical pleasures were to be the only traits we possessed we would be that of a pig. Higher pleasures like intellectual pleasures are of a higher quality thus humans possess these pleasures. In America, most people use these intellectual pleasures to better the good of society and achieve happiness thus leaving behind pain. Most importantly Mill says, “[happiness is a] feeling in most individuals much inferior in strength to their selfish feelings, and is often wanting altogether. It does not present itself to their minds as a superstition of education, or a law despotically imposed by the power of society, but as an attribute which it would not be well for them to be without. [Happiness] constitutes in itself a powerful internal binding force.”

 

 

 

 

[1] Dictionary.com. “hedonism.” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hedonism?s=t (accessed May 4, 2014).

[2] Ramesh, Randeep. “Charitable giving by country: who is the most generous?.” theguardian.com. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/sep/08/charitable-giving-country#data (accessed May 4, 2014).

Image Citation: Happiness Street.http://dailydownwarddog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Happiness-Street.jpg

 

Works Cited

Dictionary.com. “hedonism.” Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/hedonism?s=t (accessed May 4, 2014).

Ramesh, Randeep. “Charitable giving by country: who is the most generous?.” theguardian.com. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/sep/08/charitable-giving-country#data (accessed May 4, 2014).

Image Citation: Happiness Street.http://dailydownwarddog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Happiness-Street.jpg

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