Kant and Mill appear at first to be entirely opposed to one another in terms of their moral authority. Both argue for the value of reason as a guide to morality, and yet they come out with different answers. This difference comes down to a disagreement over scale. Kant attempts to use reason to create universal moral laws, while Mill attempts to use reason as a tool to make moral choices within each particular circumstance.
Comparing their arguments side by side, however, one quickly sees that Mill’s argument is far more internally consistent than Kant’s. This is deeply ironic, considering that Kant bases his entire moral theory on the importance of consistency. So if we allow Kant to set the base value of consistency, then we must see that Mill’s moral philosophy emerges triumphant. Kant’s inconsistency is created by a flawed prejudice in regards to good results. In short, he only espouses deontological morality inasmuch as it complies with traditional Christian morality.
For example, I could argue with complete self-integrity that every person should perform acts of sexually reproduction with anyone who requested it of them – that there should in fact be a moral imperative to be sexual available. In fact, it is quite clear that the inverse is logically incoherent – after all, if the rule to be sexually chaste was applied globally, in short order there would be no more humans to act with autonomy. If humans are to be the end, it follows that the means would be indiscriminate sex.
Yet Kant would no doubt disagree strenuously. Similarly, Kant would never agree with Ayn Rand’s deontological argument that “each person should take care of himself,” despite the fact that this also is entirely consistent internally. Kant would never suggest or admit either imperative, because at the core of his philosophy there is not pure logical consistency, but in moral rigidity. His goal appears to be less to discover logical principles, however unlikely they may appear at first, than to defend previous religious principles on the grounds of reason.
Subsequently, Kant cannot put his own deontology into an entirely accurate deontological statement: “One should take for one’s morality those things which can be enacted with entire consistency as universal laws. ” Instead, his argument hinges on the much less deontological question: “Would I indeed be content that my maxim should hold as a universal law for myself as well as for others? ” (Kant, 358) One ought note that he says uses “contentment” to describe the serendipity of knowing what moral ground to hold.
He might as well say “Would I indeed be happy…,” for it amounts to the same sort of utilitarianism. Kant himself makes an argument against personal contentment or happiness as a grounds for morality, and as such undermines his own position. Moreover, if Kant is secretly a consequentialist, he is a particularly ineffective one, for he does not approach each situation individually. By trying to establish over-arching “universal” laws which are to be theoretically correct in their consequences, he gimps the very power of utilitarianism that he is secretly invoking.
If one is to base one’s morality on whether one will be contented or not, then one should do so openly and with flexibility. This is where Mills triumphs, for he uses the same sort of logical thinking that Kant applies to universals, and applies it to individual decisions. In fact, it is possible to form an autonomous and consistent deontological law mandating utilitarianism: “In all things, act first for the greatest good of all people — where good is defined as happiness, autonomy, and dignity. ” If Mill can be consistent and Kant cannot, then by all measures it seems that Mill triumphs in this debate.
As an aside, one might argue that – taking Kant’s spirit into account here – one cannot be content with situational utilitarianism as a deontological imperative, because it may give rise to horrid abuses of humankind. Kant would argue that utilitarianism may be treating humans as a means rather than an end, in that Mill’s philosophy might sacrifice the few for the joy of the majority. For example, perhaps a Utilitarian could have supported American slavery, because the few enslaved blacks were creating great prosperity for the majority of the rest of the nation.
However, Mill has successfully addressed this by arguing that society is not responsible for assuring the happiness of those who value their own pleasure over that of others. Mill would argue that a society based on slavery or human rights abuses would be creating only nominal animalistic pleasures of wealth and material comfort, while robbing all of its people of the higher pleasures of being part of an equitable and libertarian society. Utilitarianism would mandate freeing the slaves both for their own happiness and for the sympathetic happiness of the rest of society as well.
In this manner, Utilitarianism looks both at the particular and the universal, embracing not just animal pleasures but also autonomy and dignity as their own special brand of spiritual pleasure. As Mill has the most universally consistent argument and also the most practical and utilitarian argument, his perspective may be seen to win out both on Kant’s terms and one his own. With this being the case, he is inarguably the victor in this battle of the philosophers.