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Ethics: How Should I Live My Life

Categories: Ethics

April 15, 2011 How Should I Live? Immanual Kant vs. Jon Stuart Mill In their works “Principle of Utility” and the “Categorically Imperative” the philosophers Kant and Mill have addressed one of the most prominent questions humans have asked ourselves since the beginning of time; what are the fundamental moral principles that we should base our lives on? My intent is to show how each of these philosophers in their approach this subject yielding totally different results. I will compare and contrast and ultimately determine which of their philosophies I personally find better suited to my own way of life.

I will also point out when sometimes you can have circumstances when they do not contradict each other. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 3rd edition p.

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398). The purpose of the above passage is to define that the moral choice according to Mill.

According to him when presented with a choice of actions to take, the correct and moral action is to choose the one which will produce in its consequences the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain in the world. To help understand his concept I present the following scenarios in which we would need to make a moral choice according to the above framework. Let’s suppose that while driving we are stopped at a traffic light and a couple of young kids ask you for a donation to help them make a trip to another state for their National Little League Championship.

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The outcome seems to depend on how much you need the money. If you were out of a job, struggling to make payments on the rent or food for example giving away your money will definitely decrease your own happiness more than it would increase the happiness of others. However if you have some disposable income giving it away to the little league of baseball players would who need it more it would definitely increase their happiness, therefor increasing the total amount of happiness in the world as the Principle of Utility demands. Another scenario would be as follows.

Imagine that you are harboring a fugitive that committed a petty crime but that you know without any doubt that he has the cure of a disease that currently kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. If this person gets caught by the police he would never have the chance to develop the cure. The police go to your house and ask you if you have seen the person in question. Now if you are following the Principle of Utility you have to consider the impact on the total amount of happiness each of the two possibilities, telling the police the truth or you telling them something else will bring about.

If we examine what could happen if you tell the police the truth, we can see that the police’s happiness will be increased as the lack of pain from future victims of the fugitive’s crimes. But when we compare this against the happiness of the people whose lives will be saved by cure that the fugitive will be helping create we can see that in this case the greatest good will be done by telling the police that you have not seen the petty thief.

In this case the long term effect of the decision helps make it a clear choice according to Mills. Long term consequences are also evident in the third scenario. In this scenario you find yourself witness of a horrible crime being committed, let’s say a rape. At first considering the demands of the Principle of Utility the choices are a little difficult to discern for if you choose to end the life of the rapist you are denying him much pleasure of the long term and causing him a lot of pain in the short term.

Not doing so will also bring overall loss of pleasure by the victim and increase of pain would occur. Nevertheless if we consider the consequences of not only the short term but also the long term the death of the rapist would most likely spare many in the future from pain and trauma and preserving their opportunity for pleasure, and thus the Principle of Utility would demand that you take the rapist’s life to spare the lives of his victim and his other future ones as well.

Let’s continue now to examine Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The first formulation of which is something that reminds me somewhat to the Golden Rule, “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You. ” (except the Golden Rule does not make for example a duty to be benevolent to others) “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law. ” (p. 851) Kant explains this by a series of example one of which goes something like this.

If I run out of money I might be tempted to borrow some, even though I know I would be unable to repay it. I am acting on the maxim “Whenever I believe myself short of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back although I know that this will never be done” I cannot will that everyone should act on this maxim because if everyone asked for money but then would never pay it back nobody would believe the promise of the borrowers. A promise would lose its meaning.

Therefore we could not borrow money under this circumstance as doing it would violate the categorical imperative Kant defines perfect duty as those which must be fulfilled under any circumstances and dictate a specific course of action; he defines imperfect duties as those which are more subject to circumstances and allow a certain degree of freedom in deciding how to comply with it. I see the difference between these duties as the one where are required by a society to function and those required by a society to be good and civil. Some actions are so constituted that their maxims cannot without contradiction even be thought as a universal law of nature, much less willed as what should become one. In the case of others this internal impossibility is indeed not found, but there is still no possibility of willing that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature because such a will would contradict itself. ” He is trying to say that if it would be against one’s own interest for everyone to act on a particular maxim one cannot will the maxim to be universal as to make it universal it would go against one’s own interest.

Let’s revisit the examples I gave earlier to see how our behavior would change if we let our actions be dictated by the Categorical Imperative. In the first scenario, whether to donate to the little league baseball team, it would seem that the fate of the team would be to never be able to travel as (assuming most of their finances come from donations) if people were never to donate to them any money, but none of that would prevent anyone who does have money from not donating to this club.

This seems to indicate that donating to the little league baseball club is not a perfect duty. However it would be against one’s own interest for the whole world to be so stingy towards all little league baseball clubs or any other amateur sports clubs for that matter, so one could not will that to be the case and so donating to this club would be an imperfect duty. In the second scenario, whether to lie to the police about the hidden fugitive, following Kant’s Categorical Imperative is that one has a perfect duty to never lie, even in such situation. Let’s analyze that.

According to Kant if everyone were to lie in an attempt to achieve some desirable result, even one as benefitting as saving hundreds of thousands of lives, the meaning of language would cease to be as people would start lying for anything they can think would be for the greater good at the end. The maxim in that case would be that you could lie as long as it was to save someone’s life (in this case the large number of sick people that would have been cured). If that maxim would become universal then we could no longer tell if anyone was telling the truth.

Everyone would become untrustworthy communication between people would cease and therefore we would be unable to lie; in this case the categorical Imperative demands that we refrain from lying, even if doing so prevents from bringing about undesirable results. At the same time this still does not required us to always tell the truth; we can simply refrain from saying anything if telling the truth would violate another imperfect duty, and in my example it most definitely would since not speaking in this case (even though it may raise suspicion from the police) would be curing people of a disease all over the world a most noble imperfect duty.

We can also apply the same line of reasoning to my third scenario, whether to kill a criminal to stop him from committing a horrible crime, in this case a rape. To allow killing to achieve a greater good would result in much killing all around, possibly resulting in oneself getting killed in the process and thus making impossibly for one to act at all. It seems that no one could will such anarchy to take place. We could modify the maxim here to say that killing is allowed if only to prevent another death, but what we are talking about ere is about the preservation of life, and as with the case of lying to the police, many people could by such a maxim feel themselves justified in killing others to achieve other ends that have nothing to do with stopping a crime. This would result in the anarchy described above so we cannot make it according to Kant a perfect duty but instead at least an imperfect one to not kill even when faced with the opportunity of preventing a crime. Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative is: 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. ” (p. 855). Here Kant states that if a maxim diminishes the freedom of choice of others, which he proclaims is one of the unconditional values of humanity, as a means to obtain other goods then that makes it an immoral maxim violating the definition of perfect duty. Anyone who uses deceptive or coercive methods to undermine the freedom of choice and action exercised by others also violates perfect duty.

Looking at the first scenario again, whether to donate to the baseball club. If nobody donated any money it would not mean that you are using other people as a means to an end, you would be just ignoring them not using them at all, so donating is not a prefect duty as the failure of not doing so does not involve misusing other people. However refusing to donate to the little league is a failure to account for other people as ends themselves.

People need to have means in order to exercise their will, so limited means makes it much harder for people to exercise their free will. Therefore if not donating would deprive them of resources, it would be a failure to account for the club’s members ability to freely act as an end of one’s own actions and so it makes it an imperfect duty to donate money to the little league baseball club. In the second scenario whether to lie to the police about the location of the fugitive, resource here is information.

For an individual to act freely, he must have accurate information which means that if you lie to someone you are giving them information that is not valid thus not only depriving them of the resource they need to act freely but you are taking away the power they have to exercise their will. In this scenario lying to the police even with such good motive as getting a cure to a disease that will save hundreds and thousands of lives is to treat the police as a means to an end disregarding the right to exercise their free will.

This make in this example a a perfect duty not to lie. However we can also see how there would be an imperfect duty not to tell the police where the fugitive is, for doing so would be a failure to take into account the fugitive as an end in themselves, getting caught and sent to jail would impede his ability to exercise his free will so according to Kant the correct choice in this case would be to refuse to talk to the police even when this would bring about suspicion and possibly further actions from the police.

If we apply the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative to the third example it seems clear that killing another person, even a rapist, would certainly limit his ability to exercise their own will, so the Kant’s second formulation would require as a perfect duty not to kill the criminal even to save another person from being raped. So as we can see when we apply the principles from Kent and Mills we find ourselves following different path of actions.

In my first example donating to the Little League Baseball Club both Kent and Mills proclaim that donating is the correct choice to make. But when analyzing the second and third example their philosophies start to disagree as what is the right thing to do. The Categorical Imperative is more rigid insisting that we must not lie to the police and we must not kill the rapist as it is a perfect duty in all cases. The Principle of Utility in contrast allows more room to apply our rational to consider the consequences.

It allows certain actions such as lying and killing if it is for the greater good. What is the correct moral framework on which we should base our lives on? Even though I find aspects of each these systems commendable I believe that neither system has been perfectly created. The Principles of Utility relies heavily on the consequences of one’s actions to flag a course of action as correct or incorrect. Only by looking our action and their consequences in retrospect we can truly determine if the course of action taken was the correct one.

If we had the luxury of foreseeing all consequences then it would be a perfect system but since we always have to make decisions without knowing the ramifications of our actions and most times we only have partial information it does not seem that one should base one’s life solely on the principles that Mills dictates. What is needed is a set of rules we can use to adapt our actions to that will always produce the biggest benefit or the least amount of harm in the long run even if in the short term produces consequences that are not as good as other course of action.

The Categorical Imperative at first seems to be a good standard for behavior but at the end of my analysis I do not feel comfortable with the absolute rules where by following them we can find ourselves in a scenario where one cannot even lie to save a life let alone kill to prevent it. It just seems too open for abuse with great benefits by those who did not obeyed the laws akin to what I think would happen if our right to carry arms was taken away so law abiding citizens would not possess any arms but the criminals would, putting the rest of us in a very precarious situation unable to defend ourselves.

At the end I align myself a little more with Mills, I would like to think that if I ever in the situation of the last example I gave I would have enough courage to try stop a rape from happening and any action up to an including killing the rapist would be defensible in court, of course I would prefer to be able to stop it from happening without to resorting to such extreme measures.

If the basis of a free society is the right to liberty and property then our duty should be not just to not impede others to have it but to also defend others when their rights to either are being taken away. I have a have a personal duty to defend those in danger and to give those in need and even if not everyone adheres to these moral guidelines we will all be as a society better off as the general happiness will certainly reach a higher level.

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Ethics: How Should I Live My Life. (2018, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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