Given that John Stuart Mill was a student of Aristotle’s work, it comes as no surprise that there are many commonalities between Aristotle’s and Mill’s ideas. One of the biggest ideas shared by the two is that all humans are striving towards the Good in their lives. However, while they both believe happiness is the ultimate Good in our lives, they differ in their conclusions about what happiness is and how to reach it. It is these differences in conclusions that further separate the two in their ideas of the ideal structure of society.
Firstly, we must discuss the ideas shared by Aristotle and Mill, which will then allows to see how each reaches their conclusions about how important the State and the individual are, and which is more important. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that happiness is the noblest and most pleasant thing in life, and therefore the ultimate Good that humans strive for. However, according to Aristotle, happiness is not an emotion, but rather a human state achieved by their actions. The actions that must be taken in order to reach happiness are what Aristotle considers to be virtuous actions.
Aristotle defines virtuous actions as those that, in being performed, are fulfilling our purpose as humans. As Aristotle views things, all humans have a function in their lives and performing that function is all that humans should concern themselves with. That human function is behaving in accordance with reason. Aristotle notes that humans have the unique capacity to communicate with each other and therefore reason. It is because humans possess this ability to communicate and reason that we must always utilize these in all of our actions. When we are behaving by using reason, we are behaving virtuously.
Now, by behaving in accordance with reason, Aristotle is referring to what he calls the “mean between two vices. ” Every action has two extremes; deficiency and excess. Being at either of these extremes is to be without reason. The example provided by Aristotle shows this principle in regards to courage. A deficiency of courage leads to cowardice while an excess of courage leads to recklessness. Either of these behaviors is undesirable because cowardice will prevent someone from helping comrades in the midst of battle and recklessness will unnecessarily endanger your comrades’ lives.
If reason were being used, then both of these extremes could be avoided. The same goes for other actions. For example, drinking alcohol. Drink nothing, and others will not see you as someone who wants to be involved in festivities. Drink too much, and you will be the drunkard one no one wants at their festivities. Virtue is necessary to be a good active citizen in society. When one reaches virtue in all of his actions, he reaches happiness. Further, Aristotle believes that it is the State’s responsibility to encourage virtuous actions from its citizens because it is not something that people can achieve on their own.
The State accomplishes this through laws that tell citizens how they must behave. This idea of state-instilled virtue leading to human happiness has become known as Aristotelian Ethics. While Mill agrees that happiness is the ultimate Good that people strive for, he disagrees with Aristotle that happiness is something that is achieved through virtuous action. Mill believes that happiness is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. Where Aristotle believes that happiness is simply a state of being achieved through virtuous action, Mill claims that happiness is a feeling that is directly obtained through our actions.
As such, Mill believes that any action that will increase our pleasure or reduce our pain is a good action. With this view of happiness, the individual is more important that the State, as opposed to Aristotle who believes the State is more important because it teaches its people who to be virtuous. Mill rejects this. He believes that people find happiness on their own. One of the main reasons that Mill claims that the State cannot guide all of its people to true happiness is because all humans are different and therefore it is impossible to reach a conclusion about how every single person must act.
As Mill points out, “No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike… ” What is deemed virtuous in one State, is not inherently virtuous in another State. It is for this reason that Mill thinks individuals should be free of State coercions when it comes to their actions. The reason being that when the State makes a decision of what should be considered a good action, it based off of what the majority thinks it should be. And thus, the rules of how people should act don’t reflect the ideas of all people.
Further, when this interest is adopted as the rule in society, social tyranny arises. In social tyranny, a minority of people are oppressed by the social will of the majority. As Mill sees this, it is a type of enslavement of the individual. With this kind of system, the dissenting opinion of an individual is silenced and progress is halted. This halts progress because society is not always right. Even if most of society believes something to be true, that does not mean that it is actually true.
Therefore, it is possible that the dissenting opinion of a single person could then provide an insight that would allow all of society to reach a different conclusion regarding the truth. Even if the dissenting opinion is false, it will still challenge the standing opinion and therefore halt society from, well, halting. It keeps the discussion going. If there are no dissenting opinions against commonly held ideas in society (beliefs, customs, traditions, doctrines, dogmas, etc. ), that is when society becomes stagnant and progress cannot be achieved.
Aristotle and Mill are in accordance that young people should be guided by their parents and other adults to cultivate their faculties to utilize them to their maximum capability. However, unlike Aristotle, Mill thinks that once the young are grown enough to utilize their mental faculties, they should be allowed to decide for themselves what is right. Mill then introduces what is known as the Harm Pri The Harm Principle asserts that as long as the actions that are taken by an individual are not harming any other people, then everyone should be able to do as they please.
It is with this freedom that people can truly take something as truth. Under Aristotle’s system of ethics, the young are taught to behave in a manner that follows what the State has laid out as virtuous. The idea is that because the young practice this from childhood, it simply becomes a part of their habit to behave virtuously. However, Mill raises the question of whether people who grow up this way truly know the reason behind their actions, or if they are simply following blindly. We can also examine this question through something all students experience.
When examined to see how much they have learned in their studies, students are usually required to simply memorize all of the information that is going to be present on their exam and regurgitate those facts on the exam. Is this an accurate examination of what the student has learned, or is it simply testing how well the student is at memorizing facts? Similarly, are citizens who grow up habituated with virtuous actions truly virtuous or are they simply behaving virtuously without even understanding what it means to be virtuous?
From Mill’s standpoint, simply behaving in a manner because the State has required you to do so does not make someone happy. A person finds happiness on his own, he cannot be led to it by another, especially not the State. This view by Mill is fundamental to what we regard as utilitarianism. That is, human actions are good if they are promoting happiness for themselves. It is Mills encouragement of individualism and nonconformity when in disagreement with the status quo that makes Mill a progressive.
It is the dialogue that arises when different opinions are pitted against each other that allows progress to occur. When everyone conforms to what society has dictated, then society becomes stagnated. Under Aristotle’s ideas, stagnation is what is sought after. By having the State tell its citizens how they must all act, it discourages nonconformity and the voicing of dissenting opinions. Citizens are expected to simply follow what they have been taught and continue those teachings with their own children and therefore maintain the state that was intended by the State. This is the opposite of progress.
In sum, Aristotle and Mill agree that happiness is the ultimate Good in life that all humans seek in their actions. However, for Aristotle, that happiness has nothing to do with our feelings. It is simply an activity of the soul in accordance with reason. Mill sees happiness as an actual feeling that is acquired by performing actions that increases the amount of pleasure present in one’s life or that reduces the amount of pain in one’s life. It is this differing view of happiness and its requirements that also separates Aristotle and Mill in regards to how society should be structured.
Aristotle’s conservative views would have the population be homogenous in its actions so as to promote a virtuous populace. However, there are concerns about whether this system would actually produce a truly virtuous population. Mill’s progressive views promote individuality and diversity so as to allow each person to reach their own happiness. All humans are different and therefore happiness cannot be universal. Under Mills utilitarianism, no one would feel like they must give up on their own happiness to ensure the State remains happy.