The Better Morality: Kant and Aristotle on Happiness

Because Kant and Aristotle hold practically equal definitions of happiness, the difference must arise from the respective relationships between happiness and each author’s framework of morality. Because Kant offers a more universally accessible route to morality, whose end is the happiness of others, the world as a whole would be both happier and more virtuous if it operated under his philosophy. It is clear that Aristotle thinks happiness is what every human desires. He defines happiness as the highest good (Ethics 1095a), which by definition every person pursues as an ultimate end (1094a).

Furthermore, he says that happiness can only be achieved through fulfillment of our characteristic activity, which is the thing that something does which makes it be that thing; for example, the characteristic activity of a flute-player is playing the flute. The good of anything with a characteristic activity is to perform that activity well (1097b). The characteristic activity of a human, says Aristotle, is a life concerned with reason (1098a), or more specifically, the activity of a soul concerned with reason. Therefore, the good of a human is to perform this activity well; that is, to live a life in accordance with virtue.

Because this is a good of the soul, and goods of the soul are the best type of good (1098b), and because achieving the good of a human is the ultimate goal of being a human, Aristotle says that a life in accordance with virtue can be equated to the chief good, i. e. happiness. It is important to clarify that a life in accordance with virtue is a full life of virtuous activity. For if a person is truly virtuous, she will enjoy doing virtuous things (1099a), and because she enjoys virtuous activity she will continue performing virtuous acts throughout her life (1098a).

Thus, Aristotle claims not only that happiness is the most desirable thing to humans, but that the way to achieve happiness is to live a life of virtuous activity—in this sense, morality’s desirability equals that of happiness because morality is the only means to happiness. Kant describes happiness as an end that all rational beings must have according to our very essence (Groundwork 4:415), the inclination to which is the strongest inclination we have (4:399).

However, Kant does not consider happiness to be in any way related to morality. Unlike the Categorical Imperative, which abstracts all objects and ends from its legislation and drives the core of Kant’s ethics (4:414), the pursuit of happiness is a hypothetical imperative (4:415)—that is, a person can only pursue objects that he believes will help achieve happiness, rather than pursue happiness itself, because happiness is not a clearly defined object, nor is there a clearly defined set of objects that lead to happiness (4:418).

Furthermore, Kant makes explicit that “making a human happy is something entirely different from making him good” and that attaching happiness as an incentive to morality completely undermines its sublimity (4:442). Hence, like Aristotle, Kant believes all humans have a strong desire for happiness, but Kant argues that happiness should not be associated with morality. Despite how it may seem, Kant and Aristotle define happiness in essentially equal terms. Kant says the “gifts of fortune” such as power and wealth are features of happiness (4:393), and Aristotle concedes that at least some good fortune is required to be happy (1179a).

Furthermore, neither of their definitions depicts a “universal happiness. ” In book 1 of his Ethics, Aristotle describes the ongoing debate about what happiness is: some think it’s wealth while others believe it’s honor. Likewise, Kant says that there is no reliable concept of happiness (4:399) and that we can only infer the objects related to happiness through experience, which is inherently misleading as a source of truth (4:418). Lastly, both philosophers believe that happiness relies on reason.

As previously discussed, Aristotle’s conception of the path to happiness depends entirely on our use of reason to conduct virtuous activity. And although Kant says that reason distances us from happiness (4:395), I argue that reason and science have raised our standard of living throughout history. Does he really believe that the cavemen huddling around fires were happier than the healthier, longer-living and more enlightened modern man? Furthermore, reason gives us the tools to pursue wealth and power, whose category he labels as happiness.

Lastly, he specifically calls happiness “Power, riches, honor, even health, and the entire well-being and contentment with one’s condition” (4:393). Self-awareness is a faculty of cognizance, and thus to be “content with one’s condition” requires some level of reason. Thus, as I have shown, Kant’s and Aristotle’s definitions of happiness are equal: both require fortune, neither is universal, and both require reason. If both philosophers define happiness in equal terms, yet treat it in opposite manners, then the difference must arise in their moral structures themselves.

Let us examine the accessibility of happiness according to each philosopher. As previously mentioned, Aristotle believes the only way to happiness is through virtuous activity—thus, the accessibility of virtue should equate the accessibility of happiness. He says that the capacity to acquire virtue derives from our nature, although its actual acquisition comes from habit alone. (1103a) Habit is instilled by teachers and lawmakers, so our acquisition of virtue is highly dependent on the quality of our upbringing and the society in which we are raised. 1103b) Therefore, it seems that, in Aristotle’s perspective, unless we operate under the assumption of a perfect socialist state, virtue, and thus happiness, is limited to the privileged few. At first it appears that Kant offers a similarly bleak view. Not only does he say that happiness can nearly be equated to power and wealth, which is obviously much easier for the privileged to attain, but that most people don’t even know what they actually desire to make them happy (4:418). He also implies that happiness and morality might be mutually exclusive.

The most powerful inclination against one’s duty is that towards happiness (4:405), and a moral action is one done from duty despite inclination, rather than from inclination or even in accordance with it (4:397). If morality is to act against one’s own happiness, one might ask: why even bother? At least the moral person in Aristotle’s view is rewarded with happiness. The necessity of morality, Kant says, derives from the relation of rational beings to one another. Importantly, one of the three formulations of his Categorical Imperative is to treat all rational beings as ends, not means (4:429).

We all have something called dignity, which is the idea that rational beings have a worth beyond any price (4:434), and so each rational being should be treated as an end more valuable than anything else. Furthermore, because it is one’s will that must legislate the laws of morality, acting in accordance with morality is an act of respecting one’s own will (4:440). Still, it seems that Kant believes everyone should act morally simply because they ought to. That alone is not enough to necessitate morality.

Perhaps it would be better to imagine a world in which everyone does follow morality. In Aristotle’s case, as discussed, this is impossible without massive societal upheaval. However, for Kant this world is not just a possibility, but a fulfillment of the Categorical Imperative, which by definition is universally necessary for all rational beings to follow (4:414). In this world, the advancement of other people’s happiness is a universal law such that all people benefit from the widespread benevolence of those around them (4:430).

This, I argue, is Kant’s way of offering a path to universal happiness. Although a person’s own morality might typically contradict her pursuit of happiness, the collective good will of everyone else would likely overwhelm each individual’s denial of inclinations. For this reason, Kant’s conception of morality offers a more universal way of achieving happiness. In Kant’s “ideal world,” everyone is virtuous and at least relatively happy. In Aristotle’s “ideal world,” on the other hand, many people are both virtuous and moral, but the rest are neither.

Because a world in which everyone follows Kant’s philosophy appears more realistic and simply better than a world following Aristotle’s philosophy, Kant’s moral framework is more beneficial for the world as a whole. It is interesting that in both these “ideal worlds,” there seems to be a causal link between morality and happiness, albeit through different means. The necessitation of morality for Kant, then, is precisely this ideal world—we should be moral not just because we ought to, not just because we should respect ourselves and others, but because if we all act morally then our world would be a better one.

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