Is it a Moral Obligation to be Charitable? (According to John Stuart Mill & Aristotle)

Firstly, we must define what is the meaning of the word charitable. According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary the word charitable is defined as “full of love and goodwill towards others; liberal in benefactions to the needy, of or relating to charity; and merciful and kind in judging others.” Referring to these definitions, they cannot only be associated with helping those in need, but also could be related back to justice within law, because of the component about compassionate or merciful judging.

In comparing John Stuart Mill’s and Aristotle’s point of views on the moral obligation to be charitable would be something along these lines after reviewing their works. Ultimately Aristotle doesn’t believe charity is an obligation but it is an individual’s decision; yet he mentions that helping a greater being such as a city, will help achieve a higher good of the soul through virtue of generosity. On the contrary, John Stuart Mill would believe that morality (which could include charity) is only rooted in us when we seek a higher good or pleasure later resulting from the act. It is not an obligation rather option to help one achieve greater happiness. This is almost an act of selfishness, which is called the Theory of Life. The only exception to this could be if the helping of others could benefit the greater population (II.7, p. 7).

However, there is the idea that being charitable also includes justice within judging law. This would be their stance on this matter; Mill believes that a person can break a bad law justly, that the law should not be the standard of justice, nor favoritism show in judgment, and that a person who is charged should receive what they deserve (V). Aristotle’s view on this is that the law helps people to act or behave virtuously, and the just person is then lawful which will make them virtuous (V).

Aristotle doesn’t necessarily believe charity is an obligation but that it is the individual’s decision. Although he does mention that we will be the happiest if we reach the highest good, which could include helping a bigger group of people such as a city, and as a result, help us attain a higher happiness than if we were just helping ourselves (I.2, p.2). “For even if the good is the same for a city as for an individual, still the good of the city is apparently a greater and more complete good to acquire and preserve. For while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for people and for cities.” Aristotle is explaining that you should want to achieve the highest good and in this case helping a larger amount of people is indefinitely a higher good.

There are other goods as well such as external goods, goods of the body but Aristotle deems the highest good the goods of the soul (I.7 p. 10-11). The goods of the soul can flourish when you seek out the median or virtue. Also he discusses virtue and one of the virtues he talks about is generosity, which is only good in moderation; too much is a vice but too little is also a vice. Aristotle compares the soul to a sick person. He says if the doctor gives the patient instructions on what to do to improve their health and the patient does not listen the sick person will not improve (II.4, p.22). He is saying that your soul cannot improve and unless you make the decision to improve it, it will not improve. One way that it could be improved would be if one helped others through generosity but you have to make your own decision on it because Aristotle himself highly advises it. According to Aristotle the highest good for humans, cities, or communities is happiness, and happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and virtue is a state of the soul that decides whether they do too much, too little or just enough (Book I and II).

In addition Aristotle’s quote talking about the city could also be referring to the justice system and that is one of the reasons justice in the government is so important to preserve the good of both the individual and city (I.2, 2). “Further each person judges rightly what he knows, and is a good judge about that: hence the good judge in a given area is the person educated in that area, and the unqualifiedly good judge is the person educated in every area” (11.2 p.19). Having a judge that is well educated is vital because some are more familiar with a certain kind of case than others. In courts today, most judges have special jurisdiction in one of the following areas: criminal and civil, assigning probation, family law, juvenile cases and so on. He also considers that the law encourages persons to behave virtuously hence making the just person not only lawful but also virtuous. Justice can be restored in a court case when the judge is able to equal out the gains and losses of both persons or parties restoring the equilibrium (V.3, p.72).

As stated above, Mill would believe that morality (which could include charity) is only rooted in those seeking a higher good or pleasure, which later results from the act. It is not an obligation rather option to help one achieve greater happiness. The only exception to this could be if the helping of others could benefit the greater population. Therefore, Mill would think that it would be more beneficial to a larger group of people for happiness to be generous and that would be the ideal choice to help the people in need. “The theory of life on which this theory of morality is only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (II, p.7). Mill says that people’s actions stem from the “Greatest happiness principle” or men’s (women’s) pursuit of happiness, as well as, the actions they take to achieve that happiness and avoid pain. “Those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of its pleasure or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain” (IV p 38). Hence people only do something that is morally right just to benefit them-selves with a more rewarding pleasure in the future (I, p.2). Mill is expressing that virtue is only needed if it helps you achieve happiness or avoid pain otherwise it is not worth your time.