A Brief Comparative Analysis of Kant's and Mill's Ethical Systems

2 March 1997

“An action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is to be determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire.”

                    Kant, Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals

 Kant is considered by many philosophers to be the father of modern ethics and morality, and one of the great philosophers of human history.  His interest in ethics and morality arose after the completion of his magnum opus, the Critique of Pure Reason, which laid the foundation for his concern with practical reason.  The foundations of his critical philosophy were in place with the Critique,, and his intention with focusing on ethics and morality (practical reason, or practical action) was to be able to show, using rationality and reason (logic) that human ethics and morality was based upon an uncompromising, single, supreme principle of morality, a principle that has rational authority, leading rather than following the passions, and binding all rational creatures.  His morality is based wholly on the concept of “good will.”  To have a good will is to act on moral principles that are wholly justifiable by what he called ‘practical reason,’ the result of which is duty.  Kant believed will to be crucial for two reason which will be expanded and discussed in fuller detail later in the paper, especially in contrast to the utilitarian morality set for by John Stuart Mill.  First, Kant refused to accept the view that are actions are just another set of events in the physical universe, determined by factors beyond our control.  We are responsible for what we do, Kant argued; otherwise, they very notion of morality doesn’t make sense (logically), nor does the concept of human dignity, which Kant found all-important.  Second, Kant was aware that it makes no sense to blame people for what is beyond their control; the consequences of what we do are often beyond our control, subject to accidents or interruptions that we could not possibly have predicted using logic or science.  Kant said, “the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will”—in other words, our good intentions and attempts to do our duty.  

Morality and moral rules—whether stated as law or not—form the basic structure of every society (some would argue), defining the limits of what is permitted, and defining what is expected, as well.  The key to morality, according to Kant, is duty—doing what you ought to do.   This obviously is left over detritus (by my estimation) of Judeo-Christian morality which has basically ruled Western societies for two millennia.  Kant also believed in Judeo-Christian morality as he was a devote Lutheran, but at the same time could not come to amends with the fact that if God’s laws are justified because they come directly from God, then humans do not have any autonomy, and for Kant, autonomy was essential for any human to use reason to dictate morality.  

Kant’s moral system relied heavily on the idea of the “categorical imperative.”  The categorical imperative was important for Kant because they offer no reasons, qualifications, or conditions; they just tell us what it is we must do or not do.  It is the authority of the principle itself—or the authority by which it is given to us—that is the sole reason needed to obey it.  In addition, of course, obeying the principle might in fact be good for us;  indeed, it might even be the pre-condition needed for the stability of our society.  But duty-defined morality (of which Kant’s is the prime example of, along with Judeo-Christian theology) insists that it is the status of the principle itself, whatever the consequences and whatever the personal reasons we might find in addition for obeying it, that is its justification for us.  Kant’s theories of moralities of principles are ones that make the authority internal to us.  Accordingly, these theories and rules are not imposed upon us by God or by society but are rather found within us, as conscience for example or the voice of reason.  Kant insisted that morality, whatever else it may be, is first of all a matter of rationality and reason, and that the source and justification of moral principles—however we might learn them as children—are ultimately within ourselves.  This personal autonomy, which he defined as the capability of figuring out on our own what is right and what is wrong through the use of reason, is essential for Kant.  But for Kant, morality was no “subjective” or “relative” as many “post-modernists” might insist that they are.  Reason, for Kant, is the authority within us yet it transcends us.  It is objective  and prescribes universal and necessary laws and duties.  It is the authority of reason that justifies moral principles.  

Kant insisted that it is always the rationality of the principles, not the consequences of our actions, that is morally relevant.  Accordingly, it is not so much our actions themselves what are of moral interest (since any number of circumstances or events can interfere with them) but rather our intentions, which are completely within our control.  A person, for Kant, is moral insofar as he or she tries to be moral, tries to obey moral principles, tries to do his or her duty.  And although obeying these moral principles and trying to do our duty will, in most cases, benefit both us and other people, this is in no way relevant to their justification.  The justification for being moral, as stated earlier, is simply that it is the rational thing to do.  Nothing else.  Our acts should always be judged based upon intentions (which includes a concern for the intended and expected consequences) and not on the basis of actual consequences that occur, which in the case of an unpredictable accident may have nothing to do with the rightness of our intentions.  Moreover, Kant is interested also in the type of action that is in question (e.g., a case of suicide, or a case of lying) rather than the particular action as such.  For example, suicide:

Kant uses this example in his text the Grounding of the Metaphysic of Morals on page 38, whereby he describes “a man reduced to despair by a series of evils feels a weariness with life but is still in possession of his reason sufficiently to ask whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life.”  Kant goes on to say that a reasonable man must then ask himself if the maxim of his action “could become a universal law of nature?”  For Kant, it cannot.  Kant proposes that this type of self-love (negative) is contradictory to the regular conception, the rational conception of self-love which would cancel out attempts at suicide.  As Kant says,” One immediately sees a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would be to destroy life by the feeling whose special office is to impel the improvement of life.  In this case, it would not exist as nature;  hence that maxim cannot obtain as a law of nature, and thus it wholly contradicts the supreme principle of all duty.”  Thus suicide for Kant is a no-no that would not fit into his conception of morality which is a natural morality—nature’s intent is not to destroy life, but to constantly improve it and to promote life rather than negate it.  

As we can see, Kant is very logical in these matters, and leaves no room for variations or deviations from the path of good will and duty—what one ought to do.  And the question that arises constantly for Kant is, can your own maxim be a universal law for all rational subjects?  If it cannot, that it cannot be a rational principle of morality.  One must always ask that question when deciding upon the validity and extendibility of a maxim of morality.  Thus we can now see that reason and rationality play and ever important role in deciding the structure of a moral system because, as it is said, all humans are rational animals, and thus all moral maxims are universalizable to all rational agents.  Customs may differ, cultures may differ, but morality must be the same everywhere.  And this led Kant to say that reason and rationality are one in the same with the authority and word of God (though many now have contradicted this ides—Nietzsche, Sartre).

 On the flip side of Kant’s system of morality would be its response—utilitarianism, as espoused by J.S. Mill in the Nineteenth century.  Mill saw that the utility principle, which states that people should always act for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  This sounds similar to Kant’s system, but with one very distinct difference: while Kant favor the intentions of an action, the good will preceding a decision or action, Mill emphasized the consequences of an action, or what occurs as a result of a decision or an action.  Thus a good act for a Millian moral philosopher would be the one, whatever the intentions, that has the happiest (or at least the least miserable) results.   For Mill, the consequences of an action are the only justification necessary for an act to be good or moral or right.  Kant would have balked at this because he separates moral questions of what is right from merely practical questions of what will benefit or harm us.  For Mill, questions of what will benefit or harm us count for everything; as Mill succinctly said, “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything desirable is that people actually desire it.”  The goal of morality is to make people happy, to give them pleasure and to spare them pain.  Mill insisted that there were different qualities of pleasure and pain as well as differences in quantity.  It is better to be only satisfied with a “higher” pleasure than to be very satisfied with a lower pleasure, as Mill says:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

If we applied Kant’s previous example of suicide to utilitarianism, we might be surprised to find out that they both answer the question in the same way because the consequence of killing oneself would be to not exist anymore.  Mill would not, I think, be opposed to suicide, but he would at least see it as being something that is, if anything, the final act of a rational mind.  But the question of rationality would have to enter into here, because suicide is not a very rational thing to do.  In fact, I think it is the very opposite of rational, and should not be seen as a viable alternative to a life of misery. I think Mill would say that things could get better and thus the consequences of one’s actions would presuppose the fact that one was rational enough to see that things might actually get better for someone who is considering suicide.  But at the same time, if someone did not, for a fact that things could never get better--say an incurable disease, with doctors and scientists confirming the fact that they are at least fifty years away from finding a cure, then I think Mill would have to leave the option of not living open.  If one’s life would never get better and would only get worse with a final, disgusting, terrible death after a long decline, then I think Mill might have to at least accept the fact that more harm would come to the person affected and those around him or her than for them to live and make themselves and those around them suffer.  

Both Kant and Mill are suprisingly similar in their approaches to morality, but they diverge when it comes to the basis of the moral system:  Kant want one to always consider rationality and universalizability as prepositions to a moral system which is as think and unmoving as concrete, whereas Mill would necessarily see the consequences of an action or decision as being paramount to what actually intended by  the action or decision.  Mill wants everyone to be happy—or at least ameliorate pain, while Kant wants everyone to follow I the same path and direction under the aegis of reason.  I tend to be more like a Millian moralist rather than a Kantian universalist.  I just cannot seem to come over toe Kant’s side as much as I value his viewpoint.

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