The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher. The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.

(Kate Rinehart) There are many ethical theories as to how man should live in accordance with most accurately fulfilling his purpose. However, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill have ideas which are based on the same principle but differ slightly on the execution of achieving happiness. So, which is right? In a society such as ours, who should we to choose, Aristotle or Mill? Aristotle uses Nicomachean Ethics to make the case that the ultimate human good is happiness as well as virtuous activity and living well. “Happiness, then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed,”[1] “… the good for man is an activity of the soul… in accordance with the best and most perfect kind [of virtue],”[2] Aristotle is defining virtue as excellence in one’s life-long activities in conformity with fulfilling one’s proper function. In order to better understand Aristotle’s definition of virtue, he delves further into the topic by explaining the function of man to be, “activity of the soul in accordance with reason.”[3] The use of the term “soul” internally organizes life functions of man; the soul divides into two portions, irrational and rational. Believing exercise of the latter part of the soul was the function of man, Aristotle makes the claim that not all people fulfill their function, which takes a person of moral, virtuous character to complete their proper function, but this excellence of living is to be strived for. In his definition of man, it is expressed that man is not here simply to live, but is endowed with reason and should exercise this as a part of the proper function.

Aristotle defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and virtue as a state between excess and deficiency. “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions… the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.”[4] Aristotle uses Nicomachean Ethics to prove that to fulfill one’s function one must be the “right” kind of person as defined by him. To be determined as good one must be of moral, virtuous character and be so with intent. Aristotle believes that certain components, such as friends, wealth, or political power, are necessary to achieve true happiness.

A happy medium is to be made between “too much” and “not enough,” according to Aristotle. It is essential to find balance in everything so as to have “good” qualities.[5] Aristotle believes in living for happiness, a virtuous activity, rather than living for pleasure, which is merely a feeling. Feelings are portrayed as inferior to virtuous activity, which leads one to complete their proper function. While happiness overtakes pleasure, pleasure can be found in ultimate happiness.

Through presenting the doctrine of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill’s ideas of the moral system are based upon observations of human beings and their behavior. “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that 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.”[6] He believes that if we are born with a moral compass, we must still learn what to do with it and how to apply it to our lives. The ultimate goal, according to Mill, is happiness, which he portrays as an emotion, contrasting to Aristotle’s definition of happiness as a virtuous activity. Through Mill’s perspective, happiness and pleasure are synonymously important and essential to life. Furthermore, pleasure can come out of obtaining happiness.

The General Happiness Principle presents the concept that actions are morally correct if they lead to happiness. “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.”[7] From this outlook, a man should look out for the good of society, while also looking out for his own good. The steps you take along the way are insignificant so long as the end of the road leads to happiness.

External and internal sanctions protect the doctrine of Utilitarianism. External sanctions refer to police and public opinion while internal sanctions refer to the conscience of man. These variables do not keep a man from poor decision making but instead protect the man who makes poor judgment. According to Mill, one’s actions do not define them and the whole person, including their character, must be assessed to determine their worth.

Mill finds importance in the concept of justice, which he defines as “natural and absolute,” and “composite of several sentiments, namely vengeance, self-defense, and sympathy.”[8] It is unjust to violate the legal rights of a person and it is just to uphold moral rights. The most important concept of justice is that one must receive what they deserve because this is the concept most familiar to the majority of people. People believe that good actions should be rewarded positively, while poor actions, such as the breaking of promises, and poor judgment should be penalized. Justice ensures that each man’s responsibilities are fulfilled; therefore, there must be punishment for duties that are not performed. For each person’s individual right to be supported, justice must be provided so that the overall happiness of society can be achieved. Happiness is related to pleasure in that Mill believes it is “the highest form of pleasure.”[9]

Society, made up of individuals, comes together to form a union. Likewise, the composite good of mankind comes from the good of each individual man. Desires are seen as good, and the desire of happiness leads to the conclusion that happiness is essential to each person. Society’s aggregate good is built by the equal sum of good for each member of the society. Mill’s writings make it clear he believes that man and society are able to be made perfect and complete through Utilitarianism since it strives for the good and is continually aiming at higher morality.

Aristotle expresses a man of awful character is controlled by performing awful acts yet that additionally a man who confers a terrible demonstration has awful character. He additionally asserts that an activity can be neither fully great nor fully awful. Mill brings into question how to determine a decent character if there exist no completely righteous acts that may be performed to give a base to what establishes that somebody has a good and right character. The thought of absolute rights and wrongs can’t be genuinely utilized if just the absolute wrongs are looked into when characterizing the way of one’s character.

Another irregularity found in Aristotle’s writings is the point at which he permits that a righteous individual is equipped for committing an error, however, can at present be thought to be of good character, in as much as the act is not so extraordinary that it wants to be noticed.[10] He doesn’t claim that a man of awful character can benefit something and have his activity be viewed as great, which takes after from his criteria for what constitutes great and dangerous activities. On the off chance that one picked rather concentrate on the outcomes of a man’s activities to decide the decency or disagreeableness of his activities, the character of this individual could be all the more effortlessly decided. A demonstration should be viewed as great on the off chance that it advances joy and reductions torment, paying little heed to the character of the individual who performs the demonstration. So also, a terrible demonstration would be one that brings dissatisfaction and advances torment. Here, a character is not a measure of the uprightness of the activity, however, can be evenhandedly determined by watching the after effects of one’s activities over the long haul. Such is the perspective of the utilitarian.

The two authors come together in unison with their theories of ethics; both involving desires, will, and reason forming the individual. Mill’s philosophy states that the “right” actions are ones that produce happiness for the masses; Similarly, Aristotle’s philosophy states that ethics is ultimately measured by happiness. The major differences in the philosophies are the ways in which they define these broad statements. Aristotle bases his theory off of the “right” action being the decision that a virtuous person would make under the given circumstances. Mill’s contradicts this, deviating slightly by suggesting that the “right” action is the one that produces the most happiness. The two speculations are in agreement concerning goals and reason; these are fundamental to the philosophies. A definitive motivation behind human activities is to produce happiness, which is a focal point for the two theories. Whereas the philosophers agree as to the criticalness of the ability of an activity to present satisfaction, Aristotle’s uprightness framework is more reasonable in this present reality than Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is unadjustable and may be difficult to get satisfaction by applying its unbending standards in times of instability. Righteousness Ethics hypothesis holds that the best result is what is conceivable given specific circumstances though Mill’s Utilitarianism considers the best activity as that which amplifies joy. In short, the best outcome, as indicated by Mill’s Utilitarianism, is what amplifies joy, while Aristotle’s Virtue morals assess activity taking into account the ideals practiced by the person himself.

Through comparison of the two theories, it becomes evident that utilitarianism is unrealistic and unsustainable due to the fact that Mill’s theory makes happiness almost unattainable. Aristotle’s theory provides guidelines that are too basic while Mill’s are much too constricting. The best solution to the age-long debate of who was right, Aristotle or Mill? is to find a common ground between the two. With such comparable basis in desire, will, and reason, a happy medium is possible if only people would stop picking one or the other and take the best qualities of both theories to create one sustainable solution.

[1] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics.” In How to Find Happiness without a Free Lunch. ed. Bernardo Aparicio. Accessed 2015.

[2] Aristotle.

[3] Aristotle.

[4] Aristotle.

[5] Aristotle.

[6] Mill, John Stuart, James M. Smith, and Ernest Sosa. 1969. Mill’s    Utilitarianism; text and criticism. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Pub. Co.

[7] Mill.

[8] Mill.

[9] Mill.

[10] Aristotle.


2 thoughts on “The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher. The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.

  1. Asheleigh Mowery

    I liked your comparison! I especially agree in your conclusion in which you state that Utilitarianism is unattainable partly because I wrote my article on Utilitarianism. This was well written!!!

  2. Lauren Rehman
    I liked the comparing and contrasting of the two ideas! I thought you did a good job in pointing out how two people from two different times could have such similar ideas.

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