Difference between aristotelian ethics and utilitarianism

According to Aristotle, the ultimate human good is happiness, which is synonymous with virtuous activity and living well. Here virtue should be defined as excellence, or doing one’s life-long activities well, in accordance with completing one’s proper function. Aristotle’s notion of the proper function of mankind is described as the activity of the soul in conformity with virtue and principle, and is also what he considers to be the highest value. The moral criterion for completing one’s proper function is to act in the same manner as a person of virtuous character. Man is not here simply to live, but is endowed with the faculty of reason and should exercise this capacity virtuously, as part of his proper function. Aristotle asserts that activity, especially right activity, is the function of man. Merely having the capacity to think rationally is not enough; rather, one must make use of this ability to determine whether or not the actions he wants to take are in conformity with excellence and virtue. Upon doing so, he is acting virtuously and must continue this course of action for his entire life in order to be person of good character and to complete his proper function. Aristotle defines The Good as being the object at which man’s actions aim and “good”‌ as simply being the end of one’s action. While he does not consider this form of The Good to be visible, the idea is very closely associated with the proper function of mankind. A proponent of teleology, Aristotle believes in a definite right way to act, as well as the existence of a universal order. Therefore, in order to complete one’s proper function, one has to be the “right”‌ kind of person; specifically, he must be of moral, virtuous character for his actions to be considered good. Aristotle notes that it is not enough simply to do these virtuous activities, but one must purposefully complete such activities to truly perform his proper function. For man to be able to act virtuously, be moral, and achieve supreme happiness, external goods are necessary. Such goods may be friends, wealth, and political power, though Aristotle also mentions that the lack of goods like “good birth, good children, and beauty”‌ could spoil ultimate happiness (Aristotle, 21).

Also important to Aristotle is the concept of a moral mean””every virtuous action is a mean between deficiency and excess, and he considers such extremes to be bad. Consider the following example: a lack of courage is associated with cowardice, while having too much courage leads to recklessness–neither of which would be seen as “good”‌ qualities. This moral mean is not universal, but relative to each individual. Associated with the idea of a moral mean is the importance Aristotle places on living a balanced life in which everything runs smoothly. Aristotle also addresses the concepts of pleasure and pain, and their association with happiness. As previously stated, happiness is identified as virtuous activity, as opposed to an emotion or feeling. While Aristotle does not believe that happiness is a feeling, he does recognize pleasure to be such. His concern with pleasure comes when man seems to be living solely for this feeling, for such a life is not virtuous. When man performs his proper function, he knows himself to be happy, and as a consequence, he feels pleasure for having done so. Aristotle does not think that this kind of pleasure is vulgar, but a natural result from leading a virtuous life.

In his presentation of the doctrine of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill bases the moral system on his observations of how people already behave in their daily lives. This process demonstrates the application of inductive ethics, which is the idea that observation and experience give knowledge of morality. If an innate moral sense does exist, according to Mill the best that this sense can do is tell us moral laws, but Utilitarianism is still necessary to decide how these laws should be applied. For Mill, the ultimate goal of man is the promotion of happiness, which he defines as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain and recognizes to be an emotion. More specifically, the utilitarian tries to promote the general happiness of mankind, while simultaneously trying to pursue his own pleasure.

These ideas lead to the General Happiness Principle, which holds to the concept that actions are right if they lead to increased happiness and decreased unhappiness, and wrong if they do the opposite. Man should always act so that society is improved, but should also be careful not to neglect himself in the process. Mill places importance on the consequences of one’s actions, rather than on one’s motivation for performing the actions. As long as promoting happiness is the end of the action, that action can be considered good and moral, even though one’s motivation is frequently the hope of personal pleasure or gain.

The doctrine of Utilitarianism is enforced by external and internal sanctions, as are all other moral systems. External sanctions are those outside of one’s mind, such as the police or the opinion of the society in which one lives, which prevent one from completing certain actions. Therefore, the internal sanctions of man’s actions come in the form of one’s conscience and sense of duty. These sanctions are not intended to be the reasons for acting a certain way, but are protective mechanisms in case one performs an action as the result of poor judgment. Mill believes that character need not be considered when assessing the worth of one’s actions; rather, one should take into account the character of another in his estimation of the worth of that person.

An entire chapter of Mill’s work is devoted to justice. Mill describes justice as being natural and absolute, as well as a composite of several sentiments, namely vengeance, self-defense, and sympathy. Mill relates five characteristics of justice in his discussion. The first is the view that the violation of a person’s legal rights is unjust. It then follows that the upholding of moral rights would be considered just. Receiving what one deserves–or earning the consequences of one’s actions–is the third characteristic, and for Mill the most crucial, as this concept presents the clearest conception of justice by the general population. The fourth attribute of justice is the accepted belief that breaking promises to others is an unjust action. Lastly, being impartial is admitted to be consistent with the notion of justice. Unjust actions require punishment because man has certain duties that must be performed, and justice is intended to ensure that each individual completes the actions for which they are responsible. Every individual has rights that they expect society to honor, and justice is necessary to uphold these rights and ensure the existence of a society in which the general happiness can be achieved. For these reasons, Mill believes that justice is the highest form of pleasure.

Mill offers a proof for Utilitarianism with the following premises: (1) whatever is desired is a good; (2) each person desires his or her own happiness; (3) from the first two premises it follows that happiness is a good for every individual; (4) society consists of individuals; (5) one concludes from (3) and (4) that the aggregate good is equal to the sum of the good of each individual. Therefore, the social good is equal to the sum of the good of each individual in society. Mill arrives at his conclusion by using empirical observation, working from the ground up to build his argument. He notes that one can conclude that happiness is desirable because of the fact that people actually desire it, making happiness a good for every individual. Because society is made up of individuals, the social good is the sum of the good of each individual. Each premise is formulated from observation and experience, starting at the base and building upon these ideas, which demonstrates Mill’s empirical formulation of the principle of Utilitarianism. Mill believes in the perfectibility of man and society through Utilitarianism, since its adherents would be striving for the good of all, continually aiming at higher morality.

The utilitarian offers objections to Aristotelian Ethics, specifically in regard to Aristotle’s opinion of how to determine the nature of one’s character and actions, as well as his treatment of the nature of pleasure and pain. A proponent of Utilitarianism questions Aristotle’s view of what constitutes a good or bad character, as well as his criteria for what makes actions good or bad. One recalls that for an act to be good, according to Aristotle, it must be performed in the manner in which a virtuous person would perform the action. In his definitions of bad acts and bad character, Aristotle uses each idea to define the other, presenting a circle that is not quite justified. He believes that a person of bad character is one that performs bad acts; however, he also believes that a bad act is one that comes from a bad character. Aristotle does provide several acts that are said to be absolutely wrong, and those who perform these acts are of bad character. However, no mention is made of actions that are absolutely right””Aristotle merely states that actions taken by people of good character are right. The Utilitarian wonders how to define a good character if there exist no absolutely right actions that may be performed to provide a basis for what constitutes a good character. The notion of absolute rights and wrongs cannot be fairly used if only the absolute wrongs are taken into consideration when defining the nature of one’s character. Another inconsistency found in Aristotle’s argument is when he allows that a virtuous person is capable of making a mistake, but can still be considered to be of good character, so long as the mistake is not so great that it cannot help but be noticed (Aristotle, 51). He does not agree that a person of bad character can do something good and have his action truly be considered good, which follows from his criteria for what constitutes good and bad actions. If one chose instead to focus on the consequences of a man’s actions to determine the goodness or badness of his actions, the character of this person could be more easily determined. An act ought to be considered good if it promotes pleasure and decreases pain, regardless of the character of the person who performs the act. Similarly, a bad act would be one that decreases happiness and promotes pain. Here, character is not a measure of the virtue of the action, but can be justly determined by observing the results of one’s actions over time. Such is the view of the utilitarian.

Also in question is Aristotle’s teleological view of mankind that is manifest in the presentation of his moral system. His espousal of the notion that man has a proper function and that there is a definite right way to do things demonstrates Aristotle’s support of teleology. In other words, the existence of a proper function of man is what causes one to act the way he does””in a manner striving to complete this proper function. In opposition to this viewpoint, the utilitarian doubts the existence of one right path for every individual to take in life””the direction one chooses to follow ought to depend on the consequences of the actions that he desires to pursue. Aristotle believes that the reason man acts morally is because that is what he is supposed to do, simply because completing his proper function requires such action. The utilitarian, in favor of an empirical view of ethics, looks at what man obviously desires: happiness. Every individual has an interest in achieving and maintaining his own happiness, as well as promoting the general happiness of society to a certain extent, so it follows that man would want to act in a way that increases pleasure and happiness, while lessening pain. By promoting the good””happiness–he is acting virtuously. From this, one realizes that there are different kinds of happiness that can be desired; reaching these states of happiness necessarily requires all kinds of people (both so-called good and bad people) taking different actions. This admission indicates that there is not one right direction that can only be followed by the right kind of people, as Aristotle suggests.

A crucial difference between Aristotelian ethics and Utilitarianism is the respective roles of pleasure and pain as they are related to right and wrong. Aristotle believes that pleasure and pain are subject to the criteria for right and wrong, whereas the utilitarian believes these feelings determine the criteria for right and wrong. The criteria Aristotle uses to determine the virtue (or lack thereof) of one’s actions is whether or not the actions are those that a person of virtuous character would perform. One recalls that Aristotle believes that performing virtuous actions in accordance with one’s proper function is synonymous with happiness. When one is completing his proper function he might feel pleasure as a consequence, but that is not his reason for choosing to act the way he does. Pleasure, then, would not be the desired end to one’s actions””acting virtuously and completing one’s proper function are the goals. However, if one accepts the view that happiness is what man most desires, then he should see the importance of acting in a way that promotes pleasure and happiness. It would seem that right actions promote overall pleasure, for the person performing the action and often for others around him; therefore, one should choose to act in a way that promotes pleasure, as this is the right way to do things. In this manner, also, the utilitarian denounces Aristotle’s teleological view of the existence of humanity; clearly, man chooses actions that bring pleasure, for the purpose of attaining happiness.

Utilitarianism can be considered to be practical moral system, as its ideas are based on observations of people’s actions and behavior in daily life. The inconsistencies found in Aristotle’s argument””his method for defining a good or bad character, as well as the allowances he makes for one and not the other””make accepting his moral system difficult for the utilitarian. Also difficult to accept is Aristotle’s teleological view of a universal order and only one moral path to take, the existence of which is supposed to be the cause of our actions. Rather, it seems evident that the promotion of pleasure and diminishing of pain are the causes of human action; therefore, they are the determinants of right and wrong. Following the notion of empiricism–accepting that all knowledge originates in experience””allows one to logically conclude that because pleasure and happiness are things that everyone desires (the groundwork) people should act in a way that promotes happiness (the end).

Place your order
(550 words)

Approximate price: $22

Calculate the price of your order

550 words
We'll send you the first draft for approval by September 11, 2018 at 10:52 AM
Total price:
The price is based on these factors:
Academic level
Number of pages
Basic features
  • Free title page and bibliography
  • Unlimited revisions
  • Plagiarism-free guarantee
  • Money-back guarantee
  • 24/7 support
On-demand options
  • Writer’s samples
  • Part-by-part delivery
  • Overnight delivery
  • Copies of used sources
  • Expert Proofreading
Paper format
  • 275 words per page
  • 12 pt Arial/Times New Roman
  • Double line spacing
  • Any citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, Harvard)

Our Guarantees

Money-back Guarantee

You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.

Read more

Zero-plagiarism Guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

Read more

Free-revision Policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

Read more

Privacy Policy

Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

Read more

Fair-cooperation Guarantee

By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.

Read more