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A Look at Happiness as Described in the Philosophies of Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham

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The word happiness has an immeasurable amount of definitions since everyone is happy through different means. What may make one person happy could bring discomfort or sorrow to another. This causes a dilemma when we attempt to create an all-encompassing definition of the word happiness. Three famous philosophers by the names of Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham each made an attempt to create a definition of what they believed happiness truly was.

Aristotle believed that everything and everyone had a purpose in life and in order to truly find happiness one must discover this purpose. For example the purpose of a knife is to cut and the purpose of a fridge is to cool. Discovering the purpose of an inorganic object is a fairly easy task, as its purpose is generally what it was invented to accomplish. Attempting to discover the purpose of a living being is and entirely different task and it is much more difficult. People can live the entirety of their life without ever actually knowing what their true purpose is. When one does find their purpose and pursue it they will become happy and be a flourishing human being.

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When you go through life, you set goals on what you wish to do and some are more important than others. Such as becoming a doctor is a less important goal than helping to heal people and save lives. Aristotle believes that the highest goal for everyone is to achieve happiness. He believes that this is more important than any other goal and that happiness is an end in itself and therefore there cannot be any goals higher than happiness. Aristotle also understands that there are external factors that may hinder or strengthen our happiness such as materialistic belongings, economic status or family life. Although, he believes that as long as one strives towards their purpose in life they will achieve happiness.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill have similar utilitarian views on what they believe defines happiness. They both believed that it was best to promote happiness while denying as much pain as possible. Bentham believes that there is one kind of happiness that can be achieved through whatever means may make that person happy. Someone may find pleasure in throwing a ball against a wall and another may find pleasure writing novels. Bentham believes that these two acts are equal if they bring the same amount of pleasure to the people.

Bentham created a way to calculate pain and pleasure, which is called Hedonic Calculus. There were seven factors that would determine how must happiness it provided. They were the intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent of the pleasure. All of these variables were taken into account when determining the amount of pleasure an action brought or would bring. There were obvious problems with this system because it is extremely implausible to be able to get an accurate scale of these variables that would be able to be applied to every situation in the exact same way. Since people are brought happiness through different methods and in different degrees, it is nearly impossible to calculate the amount of happiness that was provided.

Mill has similar philosophies to Bentham such as the idea to promote happiness and demote pain and suffering. Mill, however, believed that all happiness’s are not equal regardless of the amount of pleasure it brings you. If someone was brought happiness by reading Dr. Seuss and another was brought the same amount of pleasure by reading Shakespeare, Mill would say that Shakespeare is the better of the two because it is a higher pleasure. He believed that there were higher and lower pleasures but between the two, higher pleasures surpass lower pleasures and are far more superior. Mill believed that higher pleasures were those that stimulated the mind and allowed one to be enriched. If one were to choose between the two, Mill would say that the higher pleasure would be the correct choice because even though it may bring discomfort, it will be an enlightening experience and therefore would be the better choice.

I believe that the correct definition of happiness lies with a combination of these three philosophers ideas. Aristotle idea that everyone and everything has a purpose in this world and finding it will bring happiness to you seems true. The famous saying “If you love your job, then you never work a day in your life” seems to apply to Aristotle’s idea of happiness because when someone is happy with what they are doing it no longer seems like a chore. The same is true with college students and their classes, when you are taking courses that involve your major you tend to put in more effort and be more interested then when you are in core curriculum courses. Taking Aristotle’s thoughts and combining them with Mill and Bentham’s ideas will give us a decent description of happiness. There are certainly higher and lower pleasures as Mill says, but I don’t believe that the higher pleasure is always necessarily the better choice. When Bentham says that pushpin and poetry are equal he has some validity but is not completely true. It is certain that poetry would be more enriching in some cases, but suppose someone does not obtain pleasure from reading poetry. They will not attempt to understand the poetry when they are forced to read it and therefore will not be receiving the enrichment. Every activity has some sort of enrichment weather it be small or large. Many people believe that reading is better than playing video game, but that is not completely true. While books may enlighten people and enhance their thought ability, video games are proven to improve hand eye coordination and reflex time. Also certain video games have accurate historic plots and therefore provide enlightenment also. Therefore you can’t say that one activity is better than another because they each have their own benefits. This is why I believe that all three philosophers are partially correct with their definitions.

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