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Happiness According to Aristotle and Immanuel Kant

We are taught at a very young age that we are to seek out happiness, yet no one really knows what that is. When you are a child, happiness could be found by playing with toys, and schoolmates. When we are children, our concept of happiness is minimal. As years passed, our concept of happiness becomes much more expansive. We are schooled to think that if we succeed at something, whether it is at a career, college or in relationships, we are seeking to be happy. Some people seek out happiness through religion, or a spiritual leader, “Whoso trusteth in the Lord is happy” (Proverbs 4:7). It seems that everyone has their own idea as to what makes them happy. It becomes ingrained in us that seeking happiness is the point of our existence. To find happiness, then we will be living a complete life. What makes happiness, or better yet, where happiness exists is a question that has been pondered by many great thinkers. Aristotle and Immanuel Kant had quite a bit to say on the subject. Both of these well-known philosophers have a road map, if you will, to happiness. Yet, their theories differ ultimately in how to go about attaining happiness.

Aristotle wrote that we choose happiness always for itself, and never for the sake of something else. He believed happiness to be the end, and it is self-sufficient. It is the end at which all-virtuous actions aim. It must be some good, or set of goods that in itself makes it worth living. There are two features Aristotle believes must be present in the notion of happiness. One is that it must be an end rather than a means. For example, I find out that by being cheerful I make money, so I go about making money by having a cheerful disposition. Ultimately, my aim is to make money, so according to Aristotle, my happiness is to be found in riches. Because I found out that by being cheerful (which is not the same as being happy) I could make money, I adopt the attitude that by being cheerful I can attain riches. Aristotle disagrees with that because my ultimate goal it to get riches, it is not to be happy.

The second is that happiness is self sufficient in itself. It is to be sought only for itself, and not for the sake of anything else. Aristotle specifically mentions the life of gratification (pleasure, comfort, etc.), the life of moneymaking, the life of political action, and the philosophical life, i.e., the life of contemplation or study. He has no patience with the life of moneymaking or the life of gratification. Yet, Aristotle does agree that living a life of comfort is pleasurable.

He also writes that it is only through the virtues that happiness can ever be experienced. Virtues are habits of the soul by which one acts well, i.e. for the sake of what is fine and noble. As Aristotle puts it, virtuous actions express correct (right) reason. They are acquired through practice and habituation. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously, i.e. by acting as the virtuous person acts, doing what one should when one should and in the way, one should. The virtuous person comes to take pleasure in acting virtuously (hence, one sign that we have not acquired a certain virtue is that when we perform actions of the sort associated with that virtue; we do not take pleasure in those actions but instead find them burdensome). Similarly, one becomes deficient by allowing certain defective ways of acting to become habitual. A person can acquire bad, as well as good habits. Virtue is difficult to attain, since if we simply follow our inclinations, we fail to realize our potential. Even though we have a natural desire for happiness, our inborn inclinations often lead us away from our true happiness. Some never achieve virtuous activity, and only pursue what immediately feels good. Self-gratification should not be the direct target of our actions. It is impossible to attain happiness without pursuing what is good and true. Intellectual and moral virtues are necessary, and must be habitual. There are rules about what is virtuous and what is not. Everyone is capable of being virtuous, yet not everyone will be. Human beings are capable of learning, and through many years of careful study, a virtuous being can reach a complete and whole life.

A person is not born virtuous, although at the time of birth, a person is born with the senses. It is not until many years of learning, that a human learns how to utilize these senses. It is important to note, that it takes time to learn, and mature to be able to develop virtue. For example, a child because of its young age has not experienced the necessary needed lessons that life teaches to be virtuous.

Aristotle wrote that a life of pleasure, a life of politics, and a life of study were essential to a complete and whole life. Living a complete life involves these goals. Living your goals in accordance with virtue is how to attain happiness. In other words, we have a responsibility to do what is worth doing, as well as doing what we are good at doing. This will lead to the supreme good, which is the end, which is happiness. For example, the pursuit of wealth was ruled out because money is only as good as to what it can buy. It is how someone spends their money that shows us where they really think happiness lies. Is it on luxury, or to gain political power, or perhaps on spending it on the less fortunate? Those are what determine if a person is on the right road towards happiness.

According to Immanuel Kant, the road map towards happiness is not as black and white. Kant thought that the means to happiness could not be clearly known. Kant believed there was too much ambiguity in defining personal happiness, thus making it unsuitable as a basis for morality. Kant holds that the pursuit of a person’s own happiness or interest is of no moral worth whatsoever. Kant insists that we can never determine whether an action is good or right by considering its effects on one’s happiness. He thought that a human is incapable of reasoning happiness to its principle. Happiness is indefinite, and although everyone wishes for happiness, he/she can never really know his/her true wishes and wills. Instead of searching for happiness, he found that the moral law constructed by reason is what a person should be seeking. Kant believes this to be the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is any statement of moral obligation, which I make the principle of my action (my “maxim” in Kant vocabulary). The categorical imperative refers to the principle that all principles of our action (maxims) could consistently become universal laws.

Happiness is both too indefinite, and to empirical to serve as grounds for moral obligation. No two people share the exact same tastes. Nor does everyone share the same interests and goals. Simply, what makes one person happy does not necessarily make another person happy. Everyone’s experiences are different; experience is necessary to attain happiness. In other words, I cannot know that something will make me happy by just thinking of it. Kant says that it is not possible to know a priori before an action whether it really will be conducive to our own happiness. The desire for our own happiness cannot serve as a motivator to determine our will to do this or that action. Our own desire to be happy cannot be completely known. Happiness is not good without qualification. According to Kant, the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will.

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