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Utilitarianism And Aristotelian Ethics

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Utilitarianism and Aristotelian Ethics

John Stuart Mill and Aristotle are two of the most notable philosophers in history to date. Between Mill’s Utilitarianism and Aristotle’s virtue ethics you can see a large portion our cultures ethics today. Their philosophies are apparent in contemporary everyday life. Aristotle has written several pieces on virtue and friendship. The two most notable works being the Magna Moralia and the Eudemian Ethics. However, his Nicomachean Ethics were by far the most notable thing written from Aristotle’s teachings. His Nicomachean Ethics are made up of ten books, which are a combination of Aristotle’s lecture notes and his students’ notes from the Lyceum. Mill has written a number of works also, although they tend to not be as recognizable to the common people because they are philosophical economy based. Additionally, I must define the term “self” as I intend it. When I say “self” I mean a fully autonomous human being. In short, the content of this paper will be examining the notion of the “self,” both as it relates to itself and as it relates to others.

In order to determine what happiness is in term of the “self, ” first take a look at some of Mill’s utilitarian ideas. Mill’s define Utilitarianism as

“… the creed which accepts as the foundations of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds 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.”

From the utilitarian perspective pleasure and pain are absolutely essential in finding out one’s happiness. They way which Mill’s presents this highly simplistic definition of the complicated utilitarianism, brings up only a number of questions. There is something to this basic definition, but what? Do all pleasures lead to happiness? Are some pleasures better than others? Does pain really matter?

As far as utilitarians are concerned, pleasure is the only intrinsically good thing. However, this brings up another important question: What is pleasure? To be very simple, it is the absence of pain, but there are so many things that can lead to pleasure. For some money or financial security is pleasure, others find sitting at home watching television or playing a board game with their family to be pleasurable, and there are even some other people that find doing charitable or good deeds as pleasure. Mill would argue that despite these both being pleasure, they are not the same; while there are others such as Jeremy Benthem, who would say Mill is wrong. Benthem would say that pleasures are all the same except for when they differ in duration or intensity. These two obviously see a difference in the value of pleasure. Consequently, if there’s a dispute to what pleasure is, then there is a dispute with what happiness is.

Pleasure and pain are a part of happiness regardless of their definitions from different sources. Mill talks about the differences of the two; though, his ideas of “quality in pleasures” seem to lean to being part of the equation. He says, “It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others.” So this raises the question what kinds of pleasures are more desirable and more valuable than others? Maybe Mill means that the pleasure of “doing good” is more valuable than the pleasure of wealth. Does this then suggest that there is something more substantial than physical or material pleasure? If there is, then we can say that acting morally or acting for the benefit of others (Utility principle) brings a better type of pleasure to the individual. We can also say that it brings a more valuable pleasure to the individual if he or she acts in the best interest of others, but what if acting for others brings about pain? If the absence of pain is supremely important for individual happiness, then how does one reconcile the occurrence of pain as a direct result of pleasure? For example, a firefighter finds great pleasure in rescuing people from fires, but he often incurs injury due to the conditions of fire. It seems that his pleasure is more important than his pain and that the first is not always possible without the second. Additionally, it is reasonable that the firefighter would not live a fulfilling, complete, happy life if he were not a firefighter. It is plausible to say that in order to achieve pleasure in this life that one must endure pain also.

It seems that pleasure is not merely the absence of pain, but more importantly, the way in which one experiences it. Pleasure is an important component to happiness, but it is not, according to the utilitarian would say, all that encompasses happiness. Mill is correct to say that certain pleasures are better or more fulfilling than others. Evil pleasures such as masochism do not lend themselves to the happiness one thinks they are receiving, because they violate another large component of happiness…virtuous living.

It is rash to suggest that living virtuously and living happily are independent of one another…they must unite. Aristotle’s notion of happiness or eudemonia hinges on the idea of mental astuteness, specifically defined as, “the good of man is activity of the soul in accordance with excellence.” (Glassen) Aristotle believed in two types of human flourishing: practical moral excellences through virtue and contemplative, intellectual virtue. Living a virtuous life is very important. Take the CEO of a huge company or someone that has inordinate amount of wealth since they were a child, for example; he or she lives in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with two cars and a vacation home in the Hamptons, has no immediate family, embezzles their money and manipulates every one around them. If you were to ask them, they would think they were happy, but the reality is that they are not. One cannot live a happy fulfilling life without virtue. Despite the material happiness the wealthy person has amassed they will never flourish.

Now that it is clear that living virtuously is fundamental to living happily, lets define what it means to live virtuously. Aristotle tells us that virtue is a disposition to choose things in just the right amount. Defining what character traits people assign as virtues is important. Usually, four specific traits

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