John Stuart Mill verses Immanuel Kants ethical theories;
Which makes a better societal order?
John Stuart Mill believed in an ethical theory known as utilitarianism. There are many formulation of this theory. One such is, “Everyone should act in such a way to bring the largest possible balance of good over evil for everyone involved.” However, good is a relative term. What is good? Utilitarians disagreed on this subject. Mill made a distinction between happiness and sheer sensual pleasure. He defines happiness in terms of higher order pleasure (i.e. social enjoyments, intellectual). In his Utilitarianism, Mill described this principle as follows:
According to the Greatest Happiness Principle … The ultimate end, end with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible enjoyments. Therefore, based on this statement, three ideas may be identified: (1) The goodness of an act may be determined by the consequences of that act. (2) Consequences are determined by the amount of happiness or unhappiness caused. (3) A “good” man is one who considers the other man’s pleasure (or pain) as equally as his own. Each person’s happiness is equally important.
Mill believed that a free act is not an undetermined act. It is determined by the unconstrained choice of the person performing the act. Either external or internal forces compel an unfree act. Mill also determined that every situation depends on how you address the situation and that you are only responsible for your feelings and actions. You decide how you feel about what you think you seen. Immanuel Kant had an interesting ethical system. It is based on a belief that the reason is the final authority for morality. Actions of any sort, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty dictated by reason, and no action performed for expediency or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral. A moral act is an act done for the “right” reasons. Kant would argue that to make a promise for the wrong reason is not moral – you might as well not make the promise. You must have a duty code inside of you or it will not come through in your actions otherwise. Our reasoning ability will always allow us to know what our duty is.
Kant described two types of common commands given by reason: the hypothetical imperative, which dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end; and the categorical imperative, which dictates a course of action that must be followed because of its rightness and necessity. The categorical imperative is the basis of morality and was stated by Kant in these words: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will and general natural law.” Therefore, before proceeding to act, you must decide what rule you would be following if you were to act, whether you are willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all over. If you are willing to universalize the act, it must be moral; if you are not, then the act is morally impermissible. Kant believed that the welfare of each individual should properly be regarded as an end in itself, as stated in the Formula of the End in Itself:
Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.
Kant believes that moral rules are exceptionless. Therefore, it is wrong to kill in all situations, even those of self-defense. This is belief comes from the Universal Law theory. Since we would never want murder to become a universal law, then it must be not moral in all situations.
So which of the two theories would make a better societal order? That is a difficult question because both theories have “problems.” For Kant it is described above, his rules are absolute. Killing could never be make universal, therefore it is wrong in each and every situation. There are never any extenuating circumstances, such as self-defense. The act is either wrong or right, based on his universality law. Yet, Mill also has problems. If properly followed, utilitarianism could lead to obviously wrong actions being considered right because the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the net consequences. Therefore, conceivably, it would morally okay for a very large and powerful country that was desperately in need of food or else all of its 3 billion inhabitants would starve, to overpower an island of 1000 people who had an overabundance of food and steal their food. In stealing all their food, the larger nation is condemning all the inhabitants of this island to a very slow and agonizing death. Is this right? Of course not. Yet under Mill’s theory of consequences, since the greater good was served, then the act is morally okay. Mill’s theories could also bring about unjust rules, if the rules served the greater majority. Suppose handicapped people were not allowed to be seen in public, ever, except in doctor’s offices. Is this benefiting to the small number of hand!
So, perhaps the right question to ask, is, which of the two theories is the lessor of two evils? I would have to argue for Mill (that is, unless I was one of the 1000 on the island or handicapped) – on a limited basis. I if I, a Bill Gates type rich person, gave a small amount of money to a stranger whom desperately needed it, just to get him to leave me alone, Kant would judge it not moral because I did it for the wrong reason. Mill would examine the consequences of my giving money away. Did it hurt me? No. Did it help the stranger? Yes. Therefore, the net consequence is good. Whether or not I truly felt the act in my heart does not make it any less “good” than the person that gives all his money away to charity because he feels so deeply about it. I also see cons to taking Mill’s values on as societal ethics – they could conceivably give rise to the next Hitler. But with Kant, people would be prosecuted for EVERYTHING since there are no extenuating circumstances. Think of the court system – innocent men who had to protect their family and home alongside hardened serial rapists, both receiving the same sentence. In my personal opinion, Kant may go as far as to say to the starving nation “Starve equally.” And then, the nation slowly starves equally when they could have killed 1000 people to save themselves. Therefore, in my humble and limited opinion, which is merely based on the limited scope of my perception and that which I draw out of that limited scope, Mill’s theories would make a better societal order.