Aristotle, Mill, and Kant

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            Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and Samoas; the mere mention of those words makes most mouths water, conjuring images of cute little girls sitting at a worn and wobbly card table outside local supermarkets.  While most would jump at the opportunity to purchase cookies to support these girls, concurrently supporting our taste buds’ indulgence, on January 30, 2008 two teenage girls had a very different objective in mind.  While one of the teenagers distracted a nine-year-old Girl Scout, her accomplice grabbed an envelope containing $167 earned from the sale of cookies.  Many would never even consider such actions; in fact, the mere thought would disgust most.  Something deep inside tells most that certain actions are inherently wrong; something most cannot explain other than the fact that “it just is.”  However, the ponderings of philosophers such as Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant present a clear reasoning on why actions such as stealing money from Girl Scouts is morally wrong.

Aristotle’s philosophy comes from a theory called Virtue Ethics.  In Virtue Ethics the specific actions of a person are not the focal point, but instead the spotlight turns to question the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character of the person.  Aristotle would argue that the teenage girls who stole from the Girl Scouts would be immoral because a person with good character would never give into a vice like the passion of temptation to steal.  He believes that one would evolve and demonstrate a ‘good’ character by doing morally good actions.  Everyone desires more wealth, but according to Aristotle, one can only pursue this desire under the morally right circumstances at the morally right time.  Stealing money from little girls would definitely not be considered a morally right circumstance to expand one’s wealth.  Laws exist to govern against stealing and similar actions and the purpose of these laws, according to Aristotle, is to help maintain the “good” habits of people and keep them in balance.  One of the teenage girls stated, “We went through all that effort to get it, we got all these charges and we had to give the money back.  I’m kind of pissed… I’m not sorry, I’m just pissed that I got caught.” Aristotle would say that these girls did not have good character because they were only thinking of themselves and still did not see their actions as wrong even after getting caught.

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            John Stuart Mill promoted the practice of Utilitarianism to determine whether an action was right or wrong based upon the total amount of happiness it produced.  Mill says, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”  Mill’s philosophy leans more to the opinion of Act-Utilitarianism in which an act is right if it maximizes the greater good of society.  Mill believes that the only time one can restrict the liberties of people is when a person’s act harms others, causing more harm than the overall good of the action.  In this situation, when the teenage girls stole the money from the Girl Scouts, they were causing harm to the Girl Scouts and taking away their liberties.  Mill would now argue that under the Harm Principle, the teenage girls are immoral for taking away the rights and happiness of the Girl Scouts without generating a greater amount of happiness to compensate for the harm to liberties and rights.

Immanuel Kant believed that being a morally good person came down to the issue of being rational.  Acts that are fair and just are considered rational while bad acts are considered irrational.  When asked, “Why should we be moral?” Kant answered this simply with, “because it is the rational thing to do.”  Stealing is wrong for Kant under any circumstance, even if stealing would give more people money and in turn grant more people in the world happiness.  But why would something that would grant so many people happiness be a bad thing?  Because, according to Kant’s philosophy, stealing is irrational. So, in the case of the teenage girls stealing money from the Girl Scouts we can see why Kant would find this immoral by following the steps he laid out in his Universal Law Theory.  We first must identify the maxim.  In this case the maxim is stealing and we would define it as taking something from someone else without his or her permission.  Then we must ask, could we make stealing a universal law?  This means that we would deem it acceptable to go around whenever we so pleased and take anyone’s private property.  Under Kant’s theory we would immediately conclude that this could not be a universal law because private property, by definition, is something that only one person has exclusive rights to.  In a society where stealing was the universal law, private property would not exist because everyone in the society would have the same rights to everything and could go around taking it as they pleased.  Since we previously defined stealing as taking somebody else’s property without their permission, in a society without private property, it would also be impossible to steal because private property would cease to exist; therefore taking something would not be considered stealing by definition.  Therefore, making stealing a universal law would mean that stealing didn’t exist, which is contradictory to itself and therefore also irrational.

If we agreed with Kant’s Universal Law Theory we would have to conclude that there would never be a situation in which stealing money from Girl Scouts selling cookies would be morally acceptable, even if the greater amount of society would benefit and be happier.  According to Kant, if we allowed the stealing of money from Girl Scouts to be okay, we would have to say it was acceptable to steal any piece of private property from any person.  If all the possessions in our society were up for grabs in a free for all then there would be no such thing as stealing anymore because theoretically everything belongs to everybody and anybody can take anything whenever they so please.  Kant would say that there is never a situation in which stealing would be okay because we could not make stealing a universal law and therefore if we were to give a circumstance in which we implied that stealing was morally acceptable would be irrational.

So, why is stealing money from Girl Scouts wrong?  The answer of “it just is” just does not suffice any longer.  To Aristotle, snatching money off the table of Girl Scouts cannot be moral because a good person with good character would never do such a thing.  John Stuart Mill condemns stealing from Girl Scouts because it violates their rights and liberties and also does not provide the greatest amount of people with the greatest amount of happiness.  Immanuel Kant told us that stealing could never be considered morally acceptable, under any circumstances, because to say that stealing could be a universal law because that would mean that both private property and stealing would cease to exists which would be contradictory and irrational.  But out of these three philosophers with three different reasons for why stealing money from Girl Scouts is immoral and wrong, which one is correct?  Maybe, not just ‘one’ is correct.  In fact, just maybe, our everyday, normal answer of “it just is” is our way of combining all three theories into one.  Or maybe not, but hey, we all cannot be philosophers and it sounds a heck of a lot better than “it just is.”

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