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Hapinness and Morality: Views of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill

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A lot of philosophers have spoken about happiness. Many agreed that it is the ultimate goal of life, something of which many, if not all, would undeniably agree. A lot of philosophers have also spoken about morality and its role in society. Certainly, a society would function well when its people abide by its morals. A society that functions well will make its people happy and satisfied. But what role does happiness really play in morality? Consequentially, a lot of philosophers have also spoken both on happiness and morality.

Among them were Aristotle and John Stuart Mills.

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Aristotle wrote about ethics, which were later known to be the Nicomachean Ethics. There, he argued that the supreme good that humans aim at is Happiness. He argued that people identify happiness with “living well and doing well” (Bk. I ch. iv). The problem, however, is that people disagree over what constitutes happiness. Common people identify good or happiness with pleasure and prefer a life of enjoyment.

He argued that these people are “quite slavish in their taste” and prefers a life “suitable to beasts” hinting that living a life purely of enjoyment lacks moral sense. People of superior refinement, on the other hand identify happiness with honor. In any case, Aristotle argued that pleasure and honor, among others, are only concepts which people seek for the sake of being happy, and happiness is the highest good because happiness is sufficient for itself and the “end of action” (Book I ch. vii). However, one could easily be misled that whatever makes us happy must be good. Aristotle raised the question of being good, the good which would eventually lead to happiness. Aristotle argues about what he considers good, and that being if an entity performs its function well. A musician is said to be good if he plays his music well. Similarly a man, not considering his occupation but just by being human, is considered good if he performs the functions of being human well. This function, according to Aristotle, conforms to rationality, as humans are distinguished from other animals because of this. He argues, then, that the supreme good, which is happiness, must be gained through “activit[ies] or actions of the soul implying a rational principle” and that any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with virtue. These actions of the souls are what Aristotle claims to be morals. Furthermore, Aristotle said that “pleasure is a state of soul” (Book I ch. viii) implying that moral acts could make people happy. He claims that virtuous actions are by nature pleasant, and said that “the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good” (Book I ch. viii). However, Aristotle realizes that men need external pleasantries to do good and, consequentially, to be happy. He claims that “it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment” (Book I ch. viii). The role of happiness to morality, as according to Aristotle, could be clearly understood in his own words: “happiness seems, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed” (Book I ch. ix). Happiness can make a person be like god, and if by “like god” we mean to be moral, as surely there would be objections had god been immoral, then happiness can make people moral. It is important to note, however, Aristotle’s mention of “virtue.” We come into conclusion that happiness could make people moral if it has been obtained through acts which is in accordance to virtue.

John Stuart Mills (1861) wrote about Utilitarianism, what he calls the Greatest Happiness Principle. He held that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wron 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.” He argued, however, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are not all the things desirable as ends. He said that “to suppose that life has no higher end than pleasure” is “utterly mean and grovelling” and is “doctrine worthy only of swine” (Mills, 1861). Like Aristotle, he argued that a being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy than one of an inferior type (Mills, 1861). However, Mills attempts to expound on this, claiming that the superior being is no less happier than the inferior. He argues that “[those] whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect… [A superior being] feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify” (Mills, 1861). Mills argued that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” (Mills, 1861). This statement reveals Mills concept of morality, which is, just as Aristotle argued, not all forms of pleasure are moral; and that all this is due to the fact that true happiness comes not from the quantity of pleasure, but by the quality of it. Simply put, Mills argues that morality does not necessarily mean simply to pursue whatever makes people personally happy. Mills states that the true concept of Utility or Happiness is “not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Mills, 1861).

Mills stated that it is possible for a person to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of others. This would only strenghten his moral principles. For Mills, this would be an honorable act for, despite of losing one’s own happiness, he has nevertheless contributed to increase the amount of happiness in the world. To sacrifice happiness would not necessarily mean to become the opposite of it, only that which neglects pleasure and does not avoid pain; for neglecting pleasure does not necessarily mean rejection of pleasure, and not to avoid pain does not necessarily mean seeking of pain. This sacrifice, according to Mills, must be to some end. Mill argues that a person will choose to sacrifice his own happiness only for the sake of something which he prize better; this something he claims to be that of “the happiness of others or some of the requisite of happiness” (Mills, 1861). He asks: “would the sacrifice be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifices? Would it be made if he thought that his renunciation of happiness for himself would produce no fruit for any of his fellow creatures, but to make their lot like his, and place them also in the condition of persons who have renounced happiness?” (Mills, 1861). This self-sacrifice of men, Mills continues to explain, is only necessary in a “very imperfect state of the world’s arrangements that any one can best serve the happiness of others by absolute sacrifice of his own” and “so long as the world is in that imperfect state,… the readiness to make such sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man” (Mills, 1861). Here we see how morality can affect one’s own pursuit of happiness; that because of his principles of morality, a man may be willing to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of others’ happiness. Notice the reversal of roles, that instead of happiness having some part to play in morality, it was morality that affected happiness. However, Mills emphasized that sacrifice is not in itself a good. He writes: “sacrifice which does not increase or tend to increse, the sum total of happiness, is considered as wasted. The only self-renunciation which it applauds, is devotion to happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others, either of mankind collectively, or of individuals within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind” (Mills, 1861). The self-sacrifice Mills is talking about that does not contribute to others’ happiness is suicide. For Mills, suicide does not attain anything but loses everything. We again notice that it is morality that affects happiness.

The connection between happiness and morality could not simply be made by specifying the role that happiness plays on morality. There is, however, a very convincing relationship between happiness and morality. All people undeniably aspires to be happy. Both philosophers that we have discussed agreed that it is the chief end of life. Though, they have different views of what is virtuous, hence a difference in moral principles, both argued that happiness should be obtained in acts that conforms to morality. While we concluded that happiness could make people moral through what Aristotle have said, it could only be made possible if happiness is obtained through virtuous acts, which are in turn moral. It is, therefore, necessary, from what Aristotle have said, that a person choose to be moral in order to attain happiness that makes him “godlike,” which we meant to be moral. This creates a problem of a cycle of relationship between happiness and morality. Perhaps, it is Aristotle’s objective to tell us that by happiness gained through standards of morality gets us closer to God. This, however, remains to be speculated. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, basically states that morality consists of acts in bringing about the best state of affairs, and the best state of affairs is the state wherein there is the greatest amount of happiness for the greater number of people. Whatever makes the greatest number of people happy must be a moral act, at least as far as the greater number of members of the state. To question what role does happiness play in morality would be difficult to answer. The best one could offer is that a search for true happiness requires men to be moral, that by being moral one could be happy. Better to look that morality is a ground on which people could be happy.

References

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (W. D. Ross Trans.)

Mills, J. S. (1861). Utilitarianism.

Cite this Hapinness and Morality: Views of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill

Hapinness and Morality: Views of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. (2016, Sep 08). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/hapinness-and-morality-views-of-aristotle-and-john-stuart-mill/

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