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Moral Theories: Kant and J.S Mill Essay

Throughout this paper, I will contrast and compare two moral theories in attempt to uncover what one provides a better argument and can be applied as a universal moral code. The two moral theorists Immanuel Kant and J.S Mill have created two distinctly different theories on morality and how to develop a universal moral code. Both theories focus on intentions and consequences. Kant believes that the intentions and reasons of our actions can be measured and defined as morally correct, where as Mill believes that our intentions really play no role in morality, and that we should focus on the consequences and outcomes of our actions to evoke the most happiness for the most people. Even though both philosophers make incredibly different points, each encompasses strong arguments as well as issues with their approach. However, Kant will be successful in articulating a better universal moral theory through the use of his categorical imperative.

Immanuel Kant and his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) attempts to uncover a universal moral principal for all to use. According to Kant, we aren’t only knower’s, we are also doers as we act and make certain decisions in the world. He wants to know what decisions we should make and how should we treat people in this diverse world. He contemplates the use of internal feelings of approval or disapproval to know when something is right or wrong, but deems there are many problems with this has feelings are always changing. Kant believes that goodwill and goodwill alone is good in itself without qualification. “Understanding, wit, the power of judgment, and like talents of the mind, whatever they might be called, or courage, resoluteness, persistence in an intention, as qualities of temperament, are without doubt in some respects good and to be wished for; but they can also become extremely evil and harmful, if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature, and whose peculiar constitution is therefore called character, is not good.” (Kant, 1785) In this quote, Kant is saying that even though there are characteristics that are seemingly good such as intelligence and courage, if these things can be used for evil, they are not within itself without qualification good. So good will is the only thing good and is the basis of Kant’s moral philosophy. Essentially, Kant’s goes on to explain that even if you produce a positive outcome with your action, if it lacked goodwill as an intention, it meets the criteria of a moral action, but is not good in itself. “The good will is good not through what it effects or accomplishes, not through its efficacy for attaining any intended end, but only through its willing, i.e., good in itself, and considered for itself, without comparison, it is to be estimated far higher than anything that could be brought about by it in favor of any inclination, or indeed, if you prefer, of the sum of all inclinations.” (Kant, 1785)

Therefore it’s neither the outcome nor the effect of the action, it’s the inner state of the will itself that determines morality. Kant describes two types of imperatives that can be used to evaluate intentions. The first is hypothetical imperatives, which apply to someone who is dependent on having certain ends to the action. Example, a person may act in a certain way only to receive something in return. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the one he uses to evaluate motives of actions. The categorical imperative is absolute, universal, unconditional commands and can be defined by “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. According to Kant, reasons and motives are everything and count far more than the action itself. If you act in goodwill, it is moral. Even if the action causes unintended harm, if it had good intentions and that alone, it is moral.

I agree with much of his theory and how we ought to act in ways that only have the best intentions behind them by acting in goodwill. The problem with Kant’s moral theory is that, even though it is important and necessary to act in goodwill, to disregard a positive, good action just because it lacks solely good intentions is flawed in my opinion. Even though Kant does acknowledge that behaviour and actions that produce a good outcome or consequence is in fact aligned with morality, he believes if you do anything that benefits you is wrong. As a personal example, I volunteer and produce ‘good’ actions because not only do I know it is right, or the good thing to do, but it gives me a sense of purpose. I feel good putting people before myself. Some people will do nice things for others because it makes them feel good as well. In my opinion, if people love to help others and act in ethically sound ways because it gives them a feeling of approval, and the action is causing a positive consequence, that should be moral. It should be a wonderful thing that mankind can actually have feel good chemicals run through there body when assisting humanity. Kant should take this into consideration that if we feel good acting in good ways, it is more likely to be sustainable.

John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham have been recognized as the founders of Utilitarianism. Contrary to Kant’s moral theories, Utilitarian’s would disagree with most of Kant’s theory. While Kant believed that it is the intention of the action that should be recognized as moral or unmoral, J.S Mill and Bentham would say that it is in fact the outcome of said action that determines morality.

Mill attempts to settle disputes about right and wrong with his theory of “Utilitarianism”, which is his moral theory that is based on the “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. Mill believes that actions are morally sound or unsound in proportion to how much happiness is produced. He defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain and believes that happiness is the sole basis of morality. Mill says that our actions have a teleological structure to them, and introduces the principal of utility, which states that actions are right as long as they promote happiness of pleasure, and are wrong is the actions tend to cause unhappiness or pain.

However, Mill argues in his work that pleasure can differ in quality and quantity. Bentham offers a hedonistic calculus as a way of quantifying happiness or pleasure. He lists 6 hedonistic measurements as criteria; intensity, duration, proximity or remoteness, fecundity, purity and extent.

Most of our society’s laws, rules and regulations can be compared to utilitarian principals as it very effective to think in terms of what is best for the greatest amount of people. Although Mill makes very good conclusions and has done a relatively good job at developing a universal moral code, there are some issues with his theory. The problem with J.S Mill’s Utilitarianism theory is that it is a moral based primarily on happiness. The standard of happiness cannot be measured for everything and is much more complex than Mill expresses it to be in his theory. Not everyone’s definition of happiness will be the same, and in many cases, one person’s happiness is not the same as another’s. Therefore, there can be huge conflict depending on different people.

Both moral theories have very strong points and in theory, can be used as universal moral principals. However, each argument from both Kant and the Utilitarian’s have problems with them and weak points. I personally believe that both theorists make good points. I agree with Kant in that morality is defined by intentions and that we ought to have goodwill and good intentions that follow the categorical imperative, however disagree in that if we do anything to better ourselves that it is no longer morally correct. With utilitarianism, I strongly believe that we should be looking out for the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, but strongly disagree with that personal happiness should be the measurement. As a selfish, entitled society, I believe that solely acting out of happiness could be detrimental to the well-being of the planet. In conclusion, I believe that Kant’s moral theory is the best. Even though our society can be deemed at utilitarian and Mill does make strong points, I personally believe that Kant’s morals, when applied and taken seriously, could become a solid universal moral code.

Work Cited:

Kant, Immanuel & Wood, Allen (2002). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Retrieved from http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Kant%20-%20groundwork%20for%20the%20metaphysics%20of%20morals%20with%20essays.pdf

Notes from class
-Lesson on Kant
-Lesson on Utilitarianism

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