Kant and Aristotle on Happiness
Human happiness has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years. The discussion focuses on how to reach true happiness, and the relevance of happiness to decision making. Over time, philosophers have mulled over human happiness, with Aristotle and Kant taking opposing stances. Aristotle believes happiness is the goal of human activity. Kant argues that the purpose of human activity is to uphold universal law without taking happiness into consideration. Acting out of respect for duty leads to a morally fit society without abandoning all hopes for happiness.
Aristotle holds the belief that eudaimonia is the end goal of all human activity, and eudaimonia is the state reached from acting virtuously. In Nicomachean Ethics, “eudaimonia has been translated into the term “happiness, but they do not hold the same meaning. In the text, happiness, traditionally representing the feeling of contentment, holds the meaning that eudaimonia once did, flourishing or living well. Aristotle gives his definition of happiness as, “The function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accord with the best and most complete (Aristotle 129). According to Aristotle, a person has a purpose, and if this person performs his purpose, and does so well, that person is outstanding. Humans have a function in reasoning and acting in accord with reason. Acting in accord with reason is also acting in accord to virtue.
Acting virtuously will lead to eudaimonia, or a flourishing life, only if done on a regular basis. Aristotle states, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth, it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference (Aristotle 135). Virtuous behavior needs to be a habitual act to impact one’s life and lay the foundation for a happy life. Aristotle explains why virtuous behavior needs to be habitual by stating, For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy (Aristotle 129). In this statement, Aristotle is saying to live a happy life, one must act virtuously their whole life. A few moments of virtuous behavior do not prove a virtuous person; therefore, a few moments of happiness cannot define an entire life as such. Because happiness cannot be reached until the end of life, it is the supreme end and entire purpose of the existence of humans. Aristotle proclaims, “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (Aristotle 129). The self-sufficiency of happiness makes that life is desirable when isolated and as the most desirable thing that can be achieved. This is the final goal and purpose of human existence.
Although happiness shapes ideas of Aristotle and virtue ethics, Immanual Kant, a deontologist, does not hold the same beliefs. According to Kant, happiness should not be the motivation for action, but it may be a result of acting out of respect for moral law. According to Kant one must, “For its maxim lacks the moral merit of such actions done not out inclination but out of duty (Kant 320). To act morally, one’s action must be done for respect of duty and moral law themselves. To act for the consequence of happiness does not hold moral worth, according to Kant, because the action is not for respect of duty; therefore, happiness should never be a sole motivation for action. “Reason’s true vocation must therefore be to produce a will which is good in itselfSuch a will must not be the sole and complete good, but it must be the highest good and the condition of all the rest, even of all our longing for happiness (Kant 319). Humans can have the desire to be happy, but happiness should never be more important than upholding moral law and producing goodwill. Rational beings, using reason to make decisions to act, will not act solely for personal happiness, because rational being’s purpose is to act in accord to universal law. With this, happiness is not synonymous to morality.
Although Kant does not believe actions should be performed for the sole purpose of happiness and that morality and happiness are not equal, he does state that happiness can be a consequence of acting out of respect for duty. Kant states, “Power, wealth, honour, even health and that total well-being and contentment with ones condition which we call ‘happiness,’ can make a person bold but consequently often reckless as well, unless a good will is present to correct their influence on the mind (Kant 317). When making decisions based on personal desires, no matter how valid or innocent, a person can begin to act immorally. When the desire for good will and acting out a duty are present, the person will act morally, and happiness can arise from the action, although not intended. Acting out of the duty to promote personal happiness can itself be moral law. “The Law that he ought to promote his happiness, not out of inclination, but out of duty. And only from this law would his conduct begin to have real moral worth (Kant 321). In this case, the action is performed for respect of duty to promote happiness. The moral worth of this action comes from acting for duty and not acting for happiness.
While both Aristotle and Kant eloquently discuss the relationship between happiness and morality according their moral philosophy, I agree with Kant’s view of happiness and an action moral worth. Although happiness is desired by everyone, happiness should not be the basis for performing an action because personal happiness will not lead to a moral society when applied to a large scale. Happiness and morality are not synonymous, and happiness does not lead to morality. A person’s happiness can be the result of immoral and hurtful actions towards others. Even innocent acts for happiness are not inherently morally worthwhile because they are not done out of respect for duty. For an action to be morally worthy, the action must be motivated by the duty of universal law. It is my belief, that, a society that acts out of respect for universal law is a morally correct society. If personal happiness influences peoples’ actions, the society is no longer making the same morally worthy decision because each member of society will have different routes to happiness. If each member of society is acting out of desire for happiness, chaos can result, leading to immoral actions, and resulting in the society being unhappy. Acting solely for respect of universal law will uphold morality.
Kant is not encouraging that the goal of happiness be completely abandoned. I believe that it is important to remember that happiness can be achieved when following Kant’s philosophy. Although happiness is not the sole reason, or the main reason, for action, it can be a secondary reason for action. For me, acting morally, out of respect for universal law, brings me happiness because I am doing the “right thing.
Act utilitarians would object to the stance Kant takes on happiness and morality. An act utilitarian judges the moral worth of an action based on the action’s ability to augment or diminish pleasure or happiness. According to Kant, to act morally, a person must not consider the consequence of an action. To an act utilitarian, the moral weight of an action is solely based on the consequence of the action. The moral worth of an action can change, according to act utilitarianism, based on the situation at hand. A person can act morally in a situation by acting immorally in another based on the propensity of the action to augment happiness or diminish the opposite.
An evaluation of an act utilitarian opposition to Kant’s stance would lead one to understand that act utilitarianism is based in contradiction. An action cannot be both moral and immoral, distinguished only on the situation that action is being performed under. Also, the consequence of an action can skew and mislead the moral intention of an action. Under act utilitarianism, actions can be encouraged and deemed moral right even if it harms others, leading to contradiction.
Aristotle and Immanual Kant both find actions lead to morality and morality is the purpose of human beings. Aristotle believes that people that live virtuous lives live happy lives;therefore, they have lived morally. Kant disagrees with this, believing happiness can arise from morally worthwhile actions, but they are not the cause of them. The relationship between happiness and morality most closely match Kant’s ethical belief system.