What is happiness? Is it as Mahatma Gandhi says “when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”1, or is it merely a fleeting emotion that comes and goes? In the essay titled “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, the theory known as the harm principle is a utilitarian evaluation on what individuality means. According to Mill the test of what a person ought to be able to do should only constraint if those actions will harm others. Through the harm principle we can see that Mill believes that people should not be ruled by the beliefs or laws of society but rather find happiness through fulfilling their own desires. In this paper I will discuss the writings of John Stuart Mill and contrast them to the writings of Immanuel Kant who was a proponent of metaphysics. I will begin by giving a more comprehensive analysis of Mill’s definition of happiness. To illustrate why John Stuart Mill’s belief that liberty and freedom bring happiness I will provide two arguments from the book Happiness and Goodness which tries to disprove Mill’s theory. Following this I will counter Mill’s theory with the belief by Immanuel Kant who believes that happiness is the sum of our desires rather than our personal freedoms. With this format I will give sufficient evidence to prove that happiness is best defined by the utilitarian approach which says that personal liberty constitutes happiness.
To begin I will provide an in depth analysis of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle and why liberty is the best approach to determining happiness. Mill begins his essay “On Liberty” by discussing that civil liberty is the struggle between what individuals are allowed to do within the constraints of the legal system and accepted social norms. When we define liberty as the availability of choices without the constraints of political leaders it is possible to deduce that when people are able to do as they please rather than what they are told they are free. Furthermore, Mill believes that when we have the liberty to make our own choices we act in accordance to our own well-being and therefore make our own statuses better. By this logic we can say that when we act as we please we are happier because we are better off. Mill calls the consequences of our actions utility. We can maximize our utility when our consequences make us better off and every choice we make can be compared in utility to the other available choices. According to this philosophy when we have the rights to make decisions regarding our opinions and desires without infringing on those same rights of others then we live in a free and happy society. Unfortunately no society is free and therefore when we infringe upon laws we are reprimanded and punished. By this logic harming another will have a very low utility because it makes our own state worse off due to the fact that we end up in jail or dead; however, making amends with that same person results in a much higher utility. 2
To further explain the concept of utilitarianism Mill explains that humans seek pleasure and avoid pain, this is known as hedonism. By understanding that utilitarianism is based off gaining the maximum pleasure from each example we can deduced that we aim to be happy when we avoid pain. This pain in the social concept is related to avoiding legal punishment. Mill argues that humans have the right to be happy because we find small amounts of happiness spread throughout our lives, and therefore we have our purpose to live. The two necessities for happiness are wisdom and selflessness. This is because utilitarianism seeks to better mankind by seeking the greater good and envious men will never be satisfied without comparisons.3
To challenge Mill’s principle of happiness I will use an example from the book Happiness and Goodness by Stephen Cahn and Christine Vitrano. The authors point out the flaws in Mills happiness argument by saying that utilitarianism allows for the suffering of one to bring pleasure to others can be used justify gladiator fights like in the Coliseum in Rome. For hundreds of years under the Roman Empire these fights were held with the purpose of bringing pleasure to the thousands of spectators that went to these fights. Alternatively, the book considers the advantage of a piano recital which would have a high utility value where there is very little suffering and a large amount of pleasure.4 While this does raise some valid points the higher utility still lies with the piano recital because there is no suffering and therefore it brings about the greater good. Additionally, Mill argues that true happiness should be selfless and not inflict torture on others.
An objection to Mill’s utilitarian approach arises from Immanuel Kant who believes that we define happiness by our own goals. Kant’s theory of prudent reason means that we must all pursue happiness. His definition of happiness is that all of our desires make up how we see happiness. In other words there is a correlation between what we desire and how we feel pleasure. We see goals and gain happiness by completing them and this remains true whether we are seeking tangible objects such as money or ideologies such as power. Kant believes that this is a necessary goal because we are rational and are purpose driven. With this framework it is obvious that Kant believes we must always work towards happiness and therefore need it to survive. The author of Kant on Happiness and Reason argues that this cannot be the truth because we often believe that we want something and are ultimately disappointed by it in the end. It is a common human mistake to believe that we want wealth or power and yet countless people have learned that these do not alleviate their desires or make them truly happy. With this consideration we see that Kant cannot be completely correct in assuming that happiness is either necessary or the sum of our desires.5
In conclusion, the argument presented by John Stuart Mill serves as the best explanation of how we ought to define happiness. Through his theory of utilitarianism Mill provides an intriguing approach to defining happiness. He believes that we are bound to seeking pleasure for ourselves because it is rational; however, true happiness is that which sets out to provide maximum utility. Despite many objectors, Mill’s utilitarian argument stands the test of criticism by considering the fact that happiness is not our self-conceptualization of desire. Additionally, it is not a selfish act because it includes the well-being and reduction of pain and suffering for the greatest number of people. It is through these statements and arguments that we can see that happiness is what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. While there is no such thing as perfection, this argument serves as the best example of what we ought to consider the definition of happiness.