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The Greatest Good: An Analysis of Utilitarianism and Nicomachean Ethics

1335 words (5 pages) Essay in Philosophy

08/02/20 Philosophy Reference this

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The greatest good is the end goal for all humans. In order to fully achieve this greatest good, they must achieve it for themselves as well as those around them. There is no single specific way to achieve happiness for each individual because the happiness of each person varies. Although there are specific elements that lead to this happiness. Virtue is a crucial part of not only pursuing happiness, but also promoting it in a positive way. Virtue can be promoted through the repetition of virtuous actions done by a politician or how humans socialize with each other. This essay is an analysis of how Mill and Aristotle’s moral theory based on happiness and show the steps to take in order to reach happiness and have the “greatest good” as an end.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics, happiness played a major role in his theory of ethics. He believes that the greatest good equates to happiness. Even though “…for both, the many and the cultivated call it happiness…”, people disagree what happiness is (Aristotle 3). Therefore, Aristotle brings up the three most favored lives, the lives of gratification, of political activity, and of study. These lives are separated because of the values they hold when it comes to defining happiness. The life of gratification is looked down upon the most because their happiness resides in pleasure. It is so looked down upon by Aristotle because he refers to those people as “grazing animals” (Aristotle 4). He then explains the happiness of one who is politically active, is the honor of others and being viewed as virtuous, but then he explains that no one would count him as happy. Aristotle explains that, happiness comes in different forms, and pleasure is separate from happiness.

In Mill’s Utilitarianism, he theorizes that happiness is the greatest good for the greatest number. Then he goes in depth by dividing happiness into an inferior and higher forms of pleasure because of the critic’s reduction. Similar to Aristotle, Mill explains that the lower pleasures are of beasts and a lower grade of existence. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetite…”, these faculties are responsible for our higher forms of pleasure (Mill 8). These pleasures include a sense of dignity, moral sentiments, intellect, feelings, imagination and finally is virtue. These higher pleasures are forms of happiness that are more desirable from a person’s experiences. These pleasures are not intended to be enjoyable, they are intended to have a happier and greater outcome.

The division of pleasures are present in Mill and Aristotle’s books because they know the multiple forms of happiness. They have experience in both, therefore they broke down the pleasures into a higher and lower form. They also did this because critics would attack their claim of “Greatest happiness”; the critics would attack because happiness can come in a multitude of forms and the lower forms should not be included with the higher pleasures. Both Mill and Aristotle used animals to depict the inferior pleasure because animals only have those pleasures whereas humans have a higher more intellectual form of pleasure.

Virtue is a prominent aspect of happiness in Nicomachean ethics because Aristotle wrote “… happiness requires both complete virtue and a complete life” (Aristotle 12). Virtue is important because it becomes multiplied throughout the people of the city. If political leaders are virtuous, then their people will reflect their virtue through habituation. This virtue acquired through habituation is a virtue of character, that isn’t taught but is not a natural form of virtue. The virtue is taught to the youth through the repetition of seeing elders doing virtuous actions. These virtuous actions must be done in the right state of mind in order for the person preforming the action to become a virtuous character. Through a virtuous leader, people will become more virtuous because of the repetition of seeing the action; this is a process called habituation, which results in the growth of virtue among the people.

Mill also references virtue in a way where virtue and happiness are multiplied through the sacrifice of a person. He said that martyrs reach the highest level of virtue because of their “readiness to make such a sacrifice…”; they sacrifice their happiness for the greater happiness of others (Mill 16). The act of being selfless and sacrificing one’s happiness for the happiness of others is an act of not only virtue but an act of a leader. He also believes that virtuous actions can become a habit because the repetition of those actions allows humans to do them subconsciously.

Both Mill and Aristotle incorporate the multiplication of happiness through the virtuous acts of others. Once an act of virtue is done, the outcome results in a greater good for multiple people giving them a reason to be more virtuous. They both imply that virtue is a form of higher pleasure that will result in the happiness of others. They also both believe that virtue comes to humans mainly through habit and repetition. That way they are proving that virtue results in the “greater happiness” of that society.

These forms of ethics heavily influence politics in multiple ways. Aristotle mentions that if someone is raised under correct laws, they would not have a problem with the law because they would be used to them. Legislators are supposed to create laws to promote virtue so people within the area become habitually virtuous (Aristotle 168). The implementing of Nicomachean ethics in politics would mean that hypothetically the people would become better citizens through their leader’s virtue; these citizens would pass their virtue to their youth. This would create a happy and virtuous society for these people, where the law only promotes acts of virtue.

Mill breaks down the politics of happiness into a social form. He believes that happiness is “wrapt up” in others meaning that humans experience happiness through other humans (Mill 15). As social beings, we have a desire to be in unity, we cooperate with others, we have collective interests and a regard to others. This creates a positive and harmonious environment that promotes the greater good. If the ethical is used in the social more often it would result in the greatest happiness for the people; this makes the politics that governs these people have a more positive outcome.

Even though having a society of happy people due to the virtuous politics and social values their leaders hold is a desired end, it is a utopian view of ethics. It is a way of expanding and multiplying happiness amongst the people, but people have different views of happiness. Therefore, this way of spreading and promoting happiness, only if the people will it. Once everyone does their part in being virtuous, then the society and politics of that society will become more wholesome.

In conclusion, both Aristotle and Mill had similar approaches in creating a universal moral law through happiness. Happiness was divided into a superior and inferior forms by both Mill and Aristotle because they are differentiating the lower animal appetites from forms of happiness that only humans are capable of. Then they both explain how the virtue of one person multiplies the happiness in a group of others; either through the form of a virtuous politicians or a martyr. Aristotle focuses on spreading virtue and happiness to people through the social aspect of politics; similarly, Mill believes that the ethical and social are intertwined with each other making the social result in the overall happiness. Both of these philosophers displayed that there are means to reaching the “greatest good” through happiness and thoroughly explained the means to reach those ends.

Work Cited

  • Mill, John Stuart, and George Sher. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2001. Print.
  • Aristotle. Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle. Place of publication not identified: Hardpress Ltd, 2013. Print.
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