True Happiness: John Stuart Mill Versus Aristotle

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Happiness is a state of mind that is universally sought after. Hinduism states that Ananda, the state of bliss is the ideal state for most men, and must be obtained through the proper practice of morals and righteousness. In comparison to this, philosopher Aristotle believed that a man must perform his function in order to find happiness, as human beings are meant to have certain purposes in life, while John Stuart Mills believed that happiness was sought out through pleasure

Aristotle believed that in order to thrive, we must pursue and achieve the greatest human good, which Aristotle defines as something complete. According to this perspective, we must seek the good in all of our choices, but it is our duty to chase this greatest good for itself and nothing else. “But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. (Nicomachean Ethics I.7.1097a21-24)” Each act we commit must lead to something we desire as an end, but our eventual end goal is the greatest good. Aristotle says that humans can only achieve happiness through the exercise of virtue, and things such as injustice, moral corruption, compulsion, lack of self-restraint, and ignorance will ruin the happiness that we have worked hard to achieve. These vices are what prevent a man from feeling true eudaimonia, which is defined as bliss. There is happiness, but there is this greater eudaimonia like the Ananda found in Hinduism. The act that uncovers this feeling makes not only humans truly happy but allows the gods bliss as is the act of contemplation. Once a human is able to reflect holistically upon themselves and their virtue and actions, they are able to find true happiness in self-awareness. “Contemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.” (Nicomachean Ethics 10.7)

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Mill defines happiness in Utilitarianism as “a theory based on the principle that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.’ He defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain., and argues that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity, and that pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heaviest, as they carry more significance compared to baser pleasures. Furthermore, Mill argues that people’s achievement of goals and ends, such as virtuous living, should be counted as part of their happiness. Mill’s argument for utilitarianism lies in his strong belief that it coincides with ‘natural’ sentiments that originate from humans’ social nature. Therefore, if society were to embrace utilitarianism, people would naturally internalize these standards as morally binding. Mill argues that happiness is the sole basis of morality and that people’s sole desire is happiness. He supports this claim by showing that all the other objects of people’s desire are either means to happiness, or included in the definition of happiness, even saying that rights exist only because they are necessary for human happiness.

Mill and Aristotle had significantly differing perspectives, but agreed on one aspect of “true” happiness, that men should engage in activities that are distinct to humans. Aristotle believed that humans are the only creatures that can live in accordance to reason and stated that “The function of man, then, is an exercise of his vital faculties on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason”. Mill’s outlook on the uniqueness of humans, states that “A beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s concept of happiness” and that “human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites”. Both Aristotle and John Stuart Mill believed that humans have a higher capacity for happiness than all other animals. They also believed that in order to gain this happiness, they are required to participate in activities that make humans truly human. Although both philosophers agreed heavily on the difference between humans and animals in regards to happiness, they disagreed on the other aspects of happiness and what other things are required to truly be happy. According to Aristotle, although there are external needs that a human requires, a truly happy man does not need external pleasures (A 10.9) Aristotle states that happiness is something, “final and self-sufficing, and this is the end of all that man does”, and found that man’s function is the “exercise of his vital faculties in obedience to reason”. Aristotle believed that it is virtues that lead to happiness into a whole lifestyle, not just a state of being. He believed that happiness is, “not a habit or a trained faculty, but it is some exercise of a faculty”, meaning if a man is happy, it would be extremely difficult for him to become unhappy. Since John Stuart Mill was a strong believer in Utilitarianism, he believed that “the theory of utility is not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain”. Mill believes in the Greatest Happiness Principle, which is Utility. This is a belief that says that, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. By happiness, John Stuart Mill means pleasure, or the absence of pain, and by unhappiness, meaning pain and no pleasure. Pleasure, defined as freedom from pain is the only thing that is desirable and is the final end for people, which directly contrasts Aristotle’s perspective. John Stuart Mill believed that anything that brings about the most pleasure for the most amount of people was considered good, and therefore brought happiness. However, this statement is limited to acts that bring others pleasure. Mill believed that if what you were doing brought yourself pleasure, but brought pain to a large number of people, your actions required reevaluation. A person’s search for his or her own happiness should not bring pain to others, and a man must consider others in his quest for happiness, an act that brings pleasure to most people is considered ideal.


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