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Nature of Morality Essay

A Russian born American science-fiction writer and biochemist once quoted, “Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right. ” This statement generates a series of controversial questions. What is right? How do morals affect people and society in which we live? Does everyone have specific morals by which they try to live their life? How does someone realize what their morals are? What are morals? These questions cannot be truthfully answered because everyone has their own definition of what is right and what is wrong and how one should live their life.

My definition of morality is the concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong, which can be seen through someone’s actions based on their ethical principles. That is, if someone lives their life based on their morals. Morality plays an important role in your life and the lives of others whether or not you live with it or not. Philosophers John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant have two very different views when it comes to the nature of morality. Kantianism and Utilitarianism are two theories that attempt to answer the moral nature of human beings.

Immanuel Kant’s moral system is based on a belief that reason is the final authority for morality. John Stuart Mill’s moral system is based on the theory known as utilitarianism, which is based upon utility, or doing what produces the greatest happiness. Perhaps most importantly, they are looking for morality in completely different places. For Kant, an action is good or not based on intentions. If you shoot at someone with a gun and try to kill them, but miss and instead the bullet grazes off a piece of skin that was about to host a malignant and lethal tumor, you are still a villain and not a hero.

Though this sounds like a ridiculous example, the point is that no person can completely control all the variables that are around him; Kant thought that nobody should be blamed for randomness. Mill, on the other hand, was of a much more experimental bent. None of us can ever know what another person’s intentions are, so he thought that the only practical place to look for morality is in results. To him, a well-intentioned bumbler who ruined anything he came in contact with was no better than a malicious individual who caused the exact same chaos. It’s the results that matter.

Another emphasis of utilitarian philosophy is another major difference between them. To a utilitarian like Mills, the natural objective that people should shoot for was their own happiness. Happiness, he argued, was something every person understands… a goal that he can see and work toward, unlike the many other things that some philosophies pursue. Kant’s categorical imperative hardly seems to be concerned with happiness at all. To him, ethics was a universal thing – each act is good or it is not; who does it is as irrelevant and whether it is enjoyable.

Instead of pleasure, the metrics for Kant are the greater good and universality. One statement of his categorical imperative might be, “is the world a better place (greater good) if everybody did this all the time (universality)”. You can see that from these two differences alone we can very easily end up in completely different places. With Mill, we have to think around our actions… since the outcome is what’s important, it is often better not to try if we might fail. With Kant, we have to think about everyone else… since universality is important, no exceptions to the moral code are generally permitted in any circumstance.

Let’s look at an example testing both arguments. The deontologist position is somewhat a little more complicated than the consequentionalist position. Kant believes in a theory of categorical imperatives. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, and is both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant bases his decision making on a universal maxim, something that does not qualify as an end in itself. The act itself must have moral content if it is carried out solely with regard to a sense of moral duty.

Imagine Nazi Germany for a moment. Imagine the Gustapo searching German quarters for violations against the protecting Jews, in a time when they were banished to concentration camps. Imagine the Gustapo coming to a house where Jews were living and questioned the Jews if they were in fact Jews or German citizens. Kant would argue that it is wrong to rob yourself of the moral duty of the universal maxim and pretend that you are in fact German. Basically, the result of the decision, by Kantian logic would be that these people are to be whisked away to concentration camps.

But it is of no dilemma for Kant. You have maintained a sense of moral obligation to adhere to the categorical imperative of truth and reason. Kant concluded that the expected consequences of an act are themselves morally neutral, and therefore irrelevant to moral deliberation. The only objective basis for moral value would be the rationality of the Good Will, expressed in recognition of moral duty. The consequentionalist position is in fact very simple. Its maxim, under the doctrine of utilitarianism, is to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.

To Mill, no matter how cruel of the actual act that is involved, no matter what extent of grotesque and dirty nature of the act, that as long as the end result is better for more people than the act is inherently justified. To Mill, the universal maxim was happiness. He believed the intrinsic moral value of life was for everyone to attain happiness and pleasure. In the same exact situation described above, Mill would have no problem lying to the Gustapo for a greater amount of happiness for humankind (i. e the Jews).

It doesn’t matter that they abandoned a sense of “moral duty”, the bottom line to Mill is that they achieved what human nature should always be in search of: the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. By using this example, many people see that they would never adhere to Kantian logic; it seems ridiculous and in fact morally obtrusive itself. However let’s take another example where one may completely agree with Kant, based on the same principles. Imagine the entire city of Chicago has received word that the water system is completely diluted with bacteria and soon a plague develops amongst the entire city…as it spreads through airborne.

Now imagine if you will, for sake of the hypothetical point, that the government was able to contain Chicago in a large dome so to stop the spread of the immediate effects of the epidemic to other parts of the world. Yet, many people are talking about revolting against the government dome and roaming outside, because they are in fact not “infected” yet. Let’s also pretend that the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to eliminate all citizens in Chicago by means of smart missiles. The question then becomes…

Is it morally right to kill every citizen in Chicago for the benefit of the world? In Mill’s eyes, yes, more happiness for the entire world is better than more suffering for the entire world. Hence, he would bomb Chicago so the world is “saved. ” Yet in Kant’s eyes, the act itself is so repulsive that it goes against the moral duty and maxim of society to actually destroy massive amounts of human life to save more people. The ends to Kant are of no regard. It is the act in which is against his categorical imperatives. Comparing these two philosophers, it is hard to choose who I agree with more.

When it comes down to it, it becomes a question of the ends or the means. A Utilitarian aspect could be more appropriate for one situation; while a Kantian perspective might be better for another. In the system of Utilitarianism, the ends justify the means, and actions are judged on the results, not on the intentions or motives. For Kant, the end results were not important in determining whether an action was just or not. Motive was everything to him, and he had very strict views on how to judge the morality of an action. In society these days, Utilitarianism is the name of the game.

The basic philosophy of Utilitarianism, the idea of the greatest good for the greatest amount, is one of the basic building blocks of the democratic system. If a person lives on the principles of Utilitarianism, they disregard the motives involved in an action. Utilitarian’s try to separate the action from the actor, and look at the bigger picture over the individual. Followers of Kant (among others) disagree with this approach, and claim that in this system, minorities and individuals are often overlooked and brushed aside. Kant argues that any action cannot be moral unless the motives are moral.

For each of these philosophies, the question of living the “good life” is an intricate part of the belief system. For the Utilitarian’s, living a life that benefited as many people as possible, in essence, a life that caused the greatest widespread good results would be considered a life of virtue. For Kant, the only moral action is one that is done entirely because of obligation. After researching both of these views, I would have to say I agree more with the Mill’s utilitarianism theory. I am a people pleaser, I like to see the happiness in people. I like doing things that will result in the greatest happiness.

Here are a couple reasons why I agree. First, it links happiness with morality, instead of possibly pitting happiness against morality (such as Kant’s view). We think it makes sense with common beliefs about morality. For instance, in general, it backs up murder’s being wrong, lying, rights. So Utilitarianism gives us a system to our intuitions. Second, everyone agrees that pain is bad and pleasure is good. Everything being equal, though people have many different and conflicting moral beliefs, people agree that pain is bad, and pleasure is good. Third, Utilitarianism requires us to balance our interests with those of others.

Fourth, Utilitarianism doesn’t rely on vague intuitions or abstract principles. It allows psychologists and sociologists to determine what makes people happy and which policies promote the social good. And lastly, utilitarianism does not rigidly label actions as absolutely right or wrong and it allows flexibility and sensitivity to the circumstances surrounding an action. This makes it practical. Act Utilitarianism is sensitive to the situation, but Rule Utilitarianism can be as well, as long as one can provide a rule that maximizes happiness in general, which also applies to this situation.


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