Before we begin, I propose a drinking game. You’re going to be reading a lot of “happy” papers today, so you might as well have fun with it. Bring out your Gin and Tonic and let’s drink every time you see the word “happy”, (this goes for all your papers). 

I’ll start by saying Aristotle isn’t even trying to define happiness. He’s trying to define “eudaimonia”, which has a broader meaning in Greek than it does in English. A better translation may be prosperity or blessedness, but we’re going to stick with happiness so you can enjoy the next 172 papers you have to grade. Aristotle assumes you have to be a moral person to feel this. Kant suggests that by following rules you are rewarded with morality. Aristotle and Kant both think it is in our self-interest to act morally, they just give different reasons for it. Kant isn’t trying to explain how to become moral, he’s trying to explain what morality is, and Aristotle isn’t trying to explain morality, but instead how to become moral. Their arguments have conflicting principles, but the same goal exists: to find the fundamental rule of morality.

Kant believes the fundamental rule of morality is a categorical imperative. He argues that there is only one categorical imperative, which can be understood in three ways.

Kant defines two basic human goods: qualified and unqualified. The qualified goods, such as gifts of fortune and nature, would be bad if the wielder were to not have goodwill. These are values such as intelligence, courage, and power. Goodwill, on the other hand, is the only unqualified good. It is the only gift that should be praised, despite not being a gift. He comes to this understanding by asking a question, “what is the function of a human being?” He rejects Utilitarian beliefs of deciding actions based on consequences, by saying consequences are irrelevant and the only thing that matters is goodwill. Happiness is a subcategory to goodwill.

Kant says that rationality separates us from animals and allows us to make moral decisions. Mentally challenged people, babies, and animals are all “things” according to Kant. People who don’t have the will to choose have no moral worth. His law of humanity states, “you ought to always act so as to treat humanity whether in your person or someone else’s, always as an end in itself and never merely as a means.”Only a rational being has the power to act according to his conception of laws, thereby, he has a will. Rational human beings are not “things”. His definition of humanity is reasoning and rationality. 

Kant says you must follow his laws regardless of desires. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. We have a moral obligation to do things out of goodwill. That’s why they are called moral laws. If you try to universalize them and say everybody may kill themselves and lie, then there is a logical contradiction. If you violate a categorical imperative it makes you irrational. You just become an animal that only functions through desires and wants. What’s wrong with becoming a raccoon is that you are not one, so you shouldn’t act like one. If you don’t act morally you lose your goodwill, if you lose your goodwill you lose your rationality, and if you lose your rationality you lose your humanity. Therefore, we must act morally to retain our humanity. 

Aristotle argues that there are intrinsic goods, extrinsic goods, and goods of both qualities. He clarifies that the only self-sufficient, intrinsic good is happiness. Happiness is the ultimate human good. Aristotle believes acting morally is the way to become happy.  The order in your soul coming from morality leads to happiness. He agrees with Kant when he says that humanity revolves around having a function, but in his definition of our function lies their differences. He believes that our function acts in accordance with our virtues in a rational way. Life does not need pleasure to be added to virtuous activity as some sort of extra decoration; rather, it has its pleasure within itself. The unique human function comes in the form of acting. We become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions.

You are happy as long as you are a moral being and as long as your character is in order. Morality is a necessary condition for happiness, not a sufficient one. He knows that our function is not to fulfill a life with nutrition and growth, because then we would be the same as plants. He knows that it is not just our sentience, but instead, our duty to the rational part of our soul that makes us human. We must perform the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states of character. The virtue of a human being will be the state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his functions well. When the soul is functioning well, we are happy.

Aristotle is trying to learn about the human function and its purpose. He’s looking for the ultimate human good. He asks, “what does it take for a human to become a moral person?” Kant suggests that it’s the rightness or the wrongness of an action, depending on its conformity with the moral rules. Aristotle responds by saying ethics should not be about rules you prescribe to yourself about others; instead, it should be you looking in the mirror to see what kind of person you are. He thinks that by following rules you become a good person, and by becoming a good person, you don’t need rules because you’re a good person.

Kant dismisses Utilitarian’s reason as to why we should follow rules but follows them nonetheless. He doesn’t want to make decisions based on consequences, but reasons that we should act morally because if we don’t, the consequence is losing our humanity. His premise comes from the Utilitarian’s theory, but instead of pleasure being the highest value, it is goodwill, and instead of pain being the consequence, it is irrationality. On the other hand, Aristotle argues solely on the premise of how to become happy. There is a subtle difference in their arguments, Aristotle wants to define how to be moral, and Kant wants to define what happens if you are immoral. Aristotle believes the reason for all our actions is happiness, while Kant argues that the ultimate value is goodwill. 

Whenever you watch the nightly news about crime, if people are being interviewed at a crime scene, a family member of the person who committed the crime always says something along the lines of, “no not my little Johnny, my little Johnny couldn’t have done this.” Their reason is always, “because I know him.” Regardless of how despicable the action, Johnny is always innocent in his grandparents’ eyes.  This is a reference to knowing somebody’s character. 

If your girlfriend asks you where were you tonight, and you say “out torturing puppies”, this sarcasm works because she knows your character. Ethics is based on character. You don’t need to follow any rules; if your character is already moral, rules become obsolete. 

It’s understood that morality isn’t always in our self-interest, so what are the true consequences then? I believe Aristotle is right. The consequence is not irrationality, it’s unhappiness. The feeling of guilt is worse than the feeling of irrationality. When a cop pulls you over and asks you what speed you were going, the moral thing to do is to tell him the truth. Doing 50 in a school zone is probably not the best truth to admit, but for what reason? Lying will not lessen your rationality, but it will damage your character. You will not become less of a human, just more of an a**hole. Besides, the real problem is that you were going 50 in a school zone. It’s funny to think that the first consequence is getting caught lying, but in reality, the crime is endangering the lives of kids. The act is irrational, but that’s not the cause of unhappiness, it comes from the guilt. The guilt of both acts will damage your soul and leave you unhappy, regardless of what laws Kant institutes. That is the real consequence of immorality…

Aristotle believes acting morally is a way to become happy. The order in your soul coming from morality leads to happiness. Kant thinks if you act immorally, you lose your humanity by becoming an irrational human. He assumes acting morally can sometimes be painful, because if you act morally, you’re not supposed to like it, but Aristotle thinks it is supposed to make you happy. It’s the act of doing, not the fulfillment. Both think there’s a price you pay if you don’t act morally, Aristotle just thinks there’s a greater reward than merely retaining your humanity.


Kant, Immanuel. The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, in Morrow, David. R. Moral Reasoning. Oxford UP, 2018. P. 168.

Niemi. Kant’s Groundwork.

Sober, Elliott. Core Questions In Philosophy. New York: Pearson, 2013, p. 73.