The Better Morality: Kant and Aristotle on Happiness

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Immanuel Kant and Aristotle agree that all rational beings desire happiness and that all rational beings at least should desire moral righteousness. However, their treatments of the relationship between the two are starkly opposed. While Aristotle argues that happiness and morality are nearly synonymous (in the respect that virtue necessarily leads to happiness), Kant claims that not only does happiness have no place in the realm of morality, but that a moral action usually must contradict the actor’s own inclination toward happiness. Because Kant and Aristotle hold practically equal definitions of happiness, the difference must arise from the respective relationships between happiness and each author’s framework of morality. Because Kant offers a more universally accessible route to morality, whose end is the happiness of others, the world as a whole would be both happier and more virtuous if it operated under his philosophy. It is clear that Aristotle thinks happiness is what every human desires. He defines happiness as the highest good (Ethics 1095a), which by definition every person pursues as an ultimate end (1094a). Furthermore, he says that happiness can only be achieved through fulfillment of our characteristic activity, which is the thing that something does which makes it be that thing; for example, the characteristic activity of a flute-player is playing the flute. The good of anything with a characteristic activity is to perform that activity well (1097b). The characteristic activity of a human, says Aristotle, is a life concerned with reason (1098a), or more specifically, the activity of a soul concerned with reason. Therefore, the good of a human is to perform this activity well; that is, to live a life in accordance with virtue. Because this is a good of the soul, and goods of the soul are the best type of good (1098b), and because achieving the good of a human is the ultimate goal of being a human, Aristotle says that a life in accordance with...
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