Aristotle and John Stuart Mill on Happiness and Morality

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Aristotle and John Stuart Mill on Happiness and Morality

In this paper I will argue that Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia disproves Mill’s utilitarian view that pleasure is the “greatest good.” The purpose of this paper is to contrast Aristotle’s and Mills views on the value of happiness and its link to morality. First I will describe Aristotle’s model of eudaimonia. Then I will present Mill’s utilitarian views on happiness and morality. Lastly, I will provide a counterargument to Mill’s utilitarian ethical principles using the Aristotelian model of eudaimonia. In this section I will explain Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia and its relationship to happiness, morality and the virtues. Aristotle defines eudaimonia in the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics as “virtuous activity in accordance with reason” and that this is the highest good for human beings. For Aristotle, eudaimonia can be translated into a “human life of flourishing” since it occurs throughout a person’s life. This lifelong happiness is complete and sufficient in itself, meaning that a person lives it as an end in itself and not for anything else beyond it. An important aspect of reaching our own eudaimonia is to function well as human beings. Aristotle presents his concept of the human function by stating that what makes human function so distinct is not just to obtain nutrition and to grow because that aspect of life is shared with plants and it is also not perception because that is something shared with animals. Our ultimate human function therefore is reason and not just reason alone but to act in accordance to reason. Achieving excellence in human rational activity according to Aristotle is synonymous with leading a moral life. To lead a moral life is a state in which a person chooses to act in accordance to the right virtues. Aristotle, defines virtue as a mean between two extremes (excess and deficiency). He argues that the mean is not necessarily the average or half way point, but rather changes in relation to each individual. For example, a person who just finished jogging needs more water after jogging than a person who was not jogging, so the mean between too much water and too little water is different for the jogger and non-jogger. According to Aristotle, it is very difficult to discover the mean, to discover the exact point between the two extremes that is best suited for you. As he says, there are many ways to be wrong and only one way to be correct. Aristotle explains that the choice of the mean is going to depend on what the virtuous person’s reasoning is. As in the case of the jogger, he will drink just enough water to quench his thirst (deficiency) but won’t drink too much that would result in water in water intoxication (excess). Aristotle focuses his moral theory on virtuous action and argues that virtue is necessary, but not sufficient for happiness. You need virtue to lead a happy life, but ultimately, virtue alone will not make you happy. What matters most is that you make a habit out of choosing to act in accordance with the right virtues, which leads to a balance in one’s life and ultimately leads you closer and closer to achieving your own eudaimonia. In this next section I will present Mills utilitarian views and the link between happiness and morality and how his views do not coincide with Aristotle’s eudaimonistic ideals. In chapter two of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill introduces his concept of utility, also known as the “Greatest Happiness Principle” to hold 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." In other words, Mill makes it certain that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as goals and all things that we do is desirable because they produce pleasure or prevent...
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