Nicomachean or American Ethics?

Caitlyn Epes- Period 6

Each individual person has a different opinion on what makes them happy. My mother might say that her children make her happy while my father might say watching sports makes him happy. Happiness differs between every generation, gender, and social class in America as well as around the world. America’s view of happiness also might not correspond with Aristotelian views of happiness.

When I first googled “What defines American happiness,” one of the first articles that pops up is one from titled “How Americans Now Define Success.” [1] The fact that “happiness” in America is interchangeable with “success” illustrates the complicated relationship that Americans have with the concept of happiness and finding their own personal happiness. According to this article, Americans today are realizing that success can be defined by level of happiness, but happiness should not be defined by amount of “success.”

The traditional American view of happiness is a lot of money and material items. This “American Dream” is what drives thousands of workers here from all over the world to try and make it big and support their families. While one in five Americans still believe that monetary wealth defines success [2], more and more people are discovering that Aristotle’s view of happiness is one that is more suitable to follow.

In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes “The good is the final end, and happiness is this.” [3] He is saying that our paths are correct if the end product of our actions is ultimately happiness. He is also pointing out that happiness is the end of all means, so technically happiness is inevitable. While Americans think of their ends as being wealth, success, and fame, Aristotle says that those are not true ends. Material ends are just means to ultimate and final happiness, according to Aristotle.

In the article titled “A Short History of American-Style Happiness,” the author quotes Herbert Hoover’s speech before the 1929 stock market crash:

“One want satisfied makes way for another…. We have a boundless field before us; there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied…” [4]

This idea that fulfilling desires leads to more desires is not in line with Aristotle’s “final and self-sufficing” happiness [5]. The American way of consuming more than we need and begging for more products continues the cycle of unhappiness that we think stems from lack of material items or wealth. We are blind to the fact that our own happiness is not success, but the feelings that we gain from that success, and happiness is our ultimate goal, not success.

Since the start of the 1920s consumerist advertising, Americans have maintained a heavy desire for anything and everything that could make them “happy.” I put happy in quotes because happiness is skewed in the minds of most Americans. As Aristotle says, “The good cannot be pleasure, nor honour, nor virtue.” [6] American culture portrays happiness as monetary success or fame, which is not the ultimate good. Only a fraction of Americans are able to achieve monetary success anyway, so why do they think that that is the ultimate good? How is monetary success supposed to make me happy if I have to work so hard to achieve it? Aristotle points out that I do not need money to make me happy, but he does not say what exactly would make me happy.

Since all we know is that we are supposed to keep happiness in our minds as our end goal, how are we supposed to live our lives? Aristotle gives us three types of living to choose, even though he has a personal favorite. “This life of enjoyment, the life of the statesman, and, thirdly, the contemplative life” [7] are the types of lives that have different views of happiness, and American culture can be broken down into categories as well. The life of enjoyment could be attached to pleasure and fame, like the lives of celebrities or people with rich parents. The life of the statesman is defined by Aristotle as having honor as its aim, so politicians would fit the bill in American society. Finally, the contemplative life would be all of us normal people who just want to figure out what will make us happy and how we can get it. Each type of life is supposed to achieve ultimate happiness, but they all have different means to the end.

American culture is not in line with Nicomachean Ethics, for Aristotle explicitly writes, “The money-making life, it is something quite contrary to nature…” [8] Our whole country is based on the idea of capitalism and how money makes the world go round, so why does Aristotle write that we are wrong? He states that while wealth can make you happy, it is just a means to something else. We do not enjoy the physical pieces of money themselves; we enjoy the items that money can buy us. These items are still not the ultimate ends to our means, but they allow us to experience joy and pleasure, which is the end.

Another reason that Aristotle does not align with American culture today is that the number of Americans that live below the poverty line continues to grow exponentially. I am writing a discovery paper for Mrs. Mendina this semester, and I am learning about how hard it is for poor women to get out of the cycle of poverty. According to American logic, money is the way to happiness. How are poor people supposed to be happy if they can never get any money? This is where Aristotle shuts us down. His writings about how happiness is the ultimate end can inspire impoverished people by showing them that their situation might have a happy ending after all.

American culture promotes money, fame, and pleasure, which are the three things that Aristotle explicitly denies as ends to our means. America needs to find other ways to find happiness, such as family, love, and respect, in order to coincide with Aristotelian ethics. If we do not start following the right path to happiness, we might end up obsessing over money so much that we forget our real purpose in life- to be happy. Living by Aristotle can help us realize our true potential to be happy and guide us towards choosing the correct life for ourselves.

I have lived in America all of my life, and I have experienced the ups and downs of a capitalist culture. Until this semester, I had never known of Aristotle’s teachings on happiness. His writings show me that American society has molded our brains to think that money and power is all that matters in the world, but it is wrong. What we can learn from Aristotle is that we need to count every experience as a means to our happiness, and we cannot forget that everything eventually leads to our ultimate happiness.

  1. Smith, Jacquelyn. “This Is How Americans Define Success.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 03 Oct. 2014. Web. 04 May 2016.
  2. Jacquelyn Smith
  3. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Ed. Aparicio, Bernardo. Dallas: Ursuline Academy, 2016.
  4. Van Gelder, Sarah. “A Short History of American-Style Happiness.” YES! Magazine. YES! Magazine, 15 May 2015. Web. 04 May 2016.
  5. Aristotle.
  6. Aristotle.
  7. Aristotle.
  8. Aristotle.

Photo: Schall, James. Aristotle and American Flag. Digital The Catholic World Report, 13 Mar. 2016. Web. 4 May 2016.


One thought on “Nicomachean or American Ethics?

  1. I agree with you stance on an American culture the centers predominately on wealth. I find it interesting that this idea that wealth equals happiness is common place in society. There is that saying, “Money doesn’t buy happiness”–which is in accordance with the traditional definition of the world. However, that saying is often mocked for being “unrealistic” or “cheesy.” I think that money can buy contentedness and comfort, and, in a way, those lead to happiness. However, I truly think that the belief that money=happiness is perpetuated in our capitalist society in an attempt to make people buy more things.

    LeAnne Maduka

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