Normative theory often describes how certain things ought to be, determining right from wrong, in the sense that there is moral evaluation in the actions a person makes in order to discern good from bad. Aristotle has a simple take on virtue. His ethical theory is based simply on the moral character of an individual, rather than a detailed set of rules explaining what to do. John Stuart Mill has a slightly different take on virtue. In his piece “Utilitarianism”, Mill defines this concept of utilitarianism and consequentialism: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." These concepts help determine the morality of an action. Aristotle claims that virtue can be boiled down to doing good actions and consequently being a good person, while Mill views happiness in terms of pleasure.
Aristotle’s claims are indeed lackluster in detail, as he believes being a virtuous person on its own leads to a fulfilling, happy life. According to Aristotle, this is the highest ethical goal: happiness. In order to be happy, Aristotle emphasizes external requirements: friends, wealth, and political power. Many philosophers will agree with this, but will evidently argue over what constitutes happiness. Viewing pleasure as a form of happiness is perhaps sufficient for animals, but humans hold a higher degree of life. Like Aristotle writes, “For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life- [pleasure seeking], … the political, … [and] the contemplative” (570). The political life seeks an ultimate sense of honour- a value people believe to be associated with happiness, but this means of living is superficial. Aristotle acknowledges that some seek to gain virtue as a means to an end of the political life, but even as such this life is yet still incomplete in the eyes of Aristotle, as this title of virtue is simply inactive. Aristotle does emphasize the importance of action, to which he states, “As in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful or the strongest that are crowned but those who compete.”(572). It is one thing to be virtuous, and another to do virtuous things. In book II, Aristotle delves deeper into virtue being an activity. Experience in life leads to habits, repetition of activities develops skill that is acquired through practice. But beyond those actions, it is equally important to evaluate an individual’s feelings once completing an action. It is as a person who performs valiant activities, perhaps providing assistance in a homeless shelter, then evaluated after the activity performed and their negatory ulterior motives are revealed, this person is not truly virtuous as the action in itself does not constitute virtue as a whole.
John Stuart Mill, similarly to Aristotle, does view happiness as that most valuable thing to achieve in life, however, he defines happiness differently than Aristotle. More directly, Mill contralily sees the actions that fulfill happiness as the greatest, but more importantly the pleasure received from performing such actions. Mill writes, “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”(118,119). The ultimate goal in life according to Mill is to achieve pleasure. Utilitarianism has been previously criticized, as seen in the previous discussion of Aristotle, being that these pleasures are seemingly insufficient desires fit for humankind. To this objection Mill makes the point to differentiate between higher and lower levels of pleasure. The first point is that more pleasure equates to a higher degree of pleasure. Beyond this idea is that between two pleasures, performing an action that pleasure derives from without any moral obligation is clearly the superior pleasure. Choosing to perform such an action despite associated with greater amounts of discontent reveals the desire to achieve pleasure. Moreover, Mill contends that it is an "unquestionable fact" that given equal access to all kinds of pleasures, an individual will prefer those that have a greater appeal to their "higher" standards. Mill comments, “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of the beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would would consent to being a fool” (120). Even though a person who encompasses higher standards is more prone to suffrage in life, they will regardless choose to maintain their higher existence. Mill responds to the criticism by claiming that intellectual pleasures are in fact higher and suitable for human beings, and that virtue should be defined as instead the intrinsic values.
Between these two theories of happiness, I find Aristotle’s definition of virtue ethics to be superior in validity. While Mill offers extensive rebuttals to the many criticisms of Utilitarianism, I do not think I can get by in life only focusing on the pleasures in life. I feel that this outlook comes with many flaws, and that applying this mindset leads to a more materialistic life, often disregarding aspects in life simply completed for the very fact that they are desired. Achieving happiness through action does not always focus on the intended outcome of the action, but perhaps is simply desired for the sake of action itself. For example, one does not always receive pleasure in activities of struggle, such as working a tough job or performing any stressful tasks, but may still hold happiness to a higher degree. Pleasure does not completely cover all aspects of happiness, and for this reason, I am more inclined to side with Aristotle’s cut and dry definition of happiness. Happiness is indeed the highest good, simply because we evidently decide happiness as an end sufficient in itself. Aspects such as intelligence and virtue are only decidedly good since the outcome of their existence is happiness. While both normative theories offer respectable ways of how people ought to live and view life, Aristotle describes a more realistic viewpoint and defines the purpose of human life as a means to exercise the rational soul, a unique feature of humans, giving the ability to develop thought and reason.
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