Kant and Mill’s Theories on Jean Valjean
Dictionaries can have similar thousands of meanings for the word “good.” Those definitions given are in part, true. But what really determines the goodness of a person, thing, situation, or action? What determines bad or “evil” too? Morality, then, is the next thing that comes to mind. It is like that verdict of a court which concludes if a thing or action is “just” or not. If it served for the benefit of humanity, then it is considered good, but otherwise, it’s not. The topics on morality had been studied since time immemorial, but let us focus on theories by two of the most recognized philosophers on this subject: Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), was born in “Konigsberg, East Prussia.” He attended schools that taught “classicism, philosophy, mathematics and physics.” When his father died, he worked as a “private tutor.” Eventually, he was able to pursue a “doctorate” degree and taught at a university for 15 years, focusing on rationalism. (European Graduate School 2008). His book, “The Groundwork of the Metaphysicis of Morals,” showed his rationales about morality. As Immanuel Kant quoted:
Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. (Kant, I.).
Kant defined what a good will is. If an action done is “good,” it should have been done out of pure intentions of the good in itself. This is where right actions originated from. So if the action was done because the intended result was for another reason or for the benefit of the doer of the action, then the action did not originate from good will. So when a storeowner sold an item to a child at a reasonable price like what he offered other customers too; if he did it because it is the right thing to do, then he is acting on good will. If he sold the item to the child at a reasonable price because he doesn’t want to lose a customer, then he is acting for his benefit; this action is not good. Kant developed two imperatives that derive an act. The first one is categorical imperative. He said that “it is the one moral rule or principle. Moral actions always issue from reason and never from desire. They are the products of a good will. They can be universalized. They are done with right intentions. They are done from a sense of duty and are not merely according to duty, or contrary to duty. Also, an action is necessary of itself, and not for some other end.” (Kant, I.). For example, you do not lie because you shouldn’t. You do not cheat, because you shouldn’t. There’s no condition for you to do something. There is integrity and pure honesty. One should act based on the “maxim” (rule of conduct). (Kant, I.). On the other hand, there is hypothetical imperative. Unlike categorical imperative, this one is conditional. It “represents the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to something else that is willed.” This means that an action has the “desire” to achieve some end. Since this is conditional, it always follow an “if…then” form. For example, “If I am thirsty (goal), then I should drink some water (means).” Kant’s universal principle of ethics justifies the action is ethical if: it “accords with the categorical imperative, if the action can be universalized, if it is the right thing to do, and if it issues from reason and not desire.” (Kant, I.).
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), was born in “north London,” and one of the sons of economist, James Mill. James Mill was a student of “Jeremy Bentham, a radical utilitarian.” Since Mill’s father is very strict, he grew up with his father’s friends, and thus got great influence from their philosophies. Eventually, he “followed his father into a job at the East India Company where he remained in leadership positions until the company’s demise in 1858.” (Gradesaver.). Mill is very famous for his Moral Theory, “Utilitarianism.” His universal principle of ethics as he quoted:
The Greatest Happiness Principle: Actions are right insofar as they tend to promote
happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness, or Act so as to produce the greatest happiness, or utility. (Mill, J. S.).
Happiness, he also quoted, is “pleasure and the absence of pain. Pleasures of the intellect, feelings, imagination, and moral sentiments have a higher value than the pleasures of sensation. The goal is not merely personal happiness, but the happiness of humanity, in other words, everyone affected by an action must be taken into account.” This justifies the ethics on an action. So if one of the conditions of happiness is not present, then the act itself is not good. Utilitarianism is focused on the consequence of an action. This doesn’t mean, however, that one must do an action just because of the end result. This is entirely different from the Hypothetical Imperative of Kant. Mill focuses on the “happiness” as the good or the basis of ethics of an action. Mill doesn’t use the “if…then” statement. Utilitarianism justifies the ethics of an action based on the end result if an action produced “happiness” not just for the doer, but for all the people involved in the effects of that action. Pleasure is also defined by Mill. Pleasure is valid in this principle of happiness if the one who receives pleasure has experienced both the “high” and the “low” levels of pleasure. This is the “Epicurean” standard of pleasure. One has “sensual” and “intellectual” pleasures at the same time. He even gave an example of the difference of man and pig based on their pleasures. A pig’s pleasure is one-sided and low-level because it just satisfies its hunger. Man’s pleasure is higher than the pig’s pleasure. It does not mean that a man is happy already just because he was able to eat. Man’s pleasure should also be experienced in the mind. Some objections to his theory stated that sometimes man, even though he has experienced high and low pleasures, opt to “choose the lower pleasure.” Mill dismissed it as just the “weakness of the will” of man that makes him choose the lower pleasure. If people sacrifice happiness, this doesn’t mean that “happiness is undesirable,” it’s just because “people can do without it.” (Mill. J. S.).
With Kant’s and Mill’s theories in mind, it will be interesting to study the conscience of the main character of Les Miserables: Jean Valjean. First, a brief synopsis of the story will make us familiar with the conflicts Jean Valjean encountered. He was incarcerated for nineteen years due to petty theft and attempted escapes from prison. He “managed to escape” though, and he was protected by a bishop. He tried to hide by changing his identity, and then he became rich and owned a business. While doing so, he hired a single mother, who left her daughter, Cosette, under the care of a couple. When the mother got ill, Jean took care of her until she died. A poor “vagabond” was arrested and thought to be Jean Valjean, and this tormented Jean so much. It ripped him in half deciding “whether to admit the truth about his identity to save the poor fellow, or just remain numb and silent and continue to help other people.” He decided to admit the truth, got arrested, and was put to prison but managed to escape again. He took Cosette from the couple and they lived happily in a convent. Cosette eventually got married to a man named Marius and even though Jean got so attached to Cosette, he let them go and he became depressed. In the end, before Jean’s death, the couple visited him to pay respect for his wonderful deeds. (From Jean Valjean’s Conscience).
To make an analysis based on the two theories of morality, the major question here for ethical study should be posed: should Jean reveal his true identity to save the vagabond or just simply keep his post as a philanthropist to help other people?
On the deontological point of view of Kant, an action is good if it was done “for their rightness,” for their “reason,” not for self gain. Jean is already a philanthropist, a very rich man, helping a lot of poor people when the vagabond was captured. Did Jean choose to be a philanthropist to hide his true identity? Was he very generous of his wealth to compensate for his sins? He did have a past and started as a petty thief. He might have gotten his money too from the silver ornament he stole from the bishop. He was tormented by his conscience though, to save the poor man or not. He knows he will be imprisoned again if he reveals his true identity. Applying Kant’s theory, let us divide it to categorical and hypothetical perspectives. The categorical imperative tells Jean to admit to the truth because it is the “right thing to do.” No conditions. Just do it. Whether the vagabond is a righteous or an evil person, he is still not Jean Valjean. On the hypothetical perspective, Jean will think these statements: “If I kept silent about my identity, then I wouldn’t go to prison;” “If I don’t go to prison, then I could continue helping other people with my wealth;” “If I kept silent, then somebody will go to prison for me;” “If I want to stay rich, then I should keep silent;” “If I reveal myself, then somebody won’t go wrongly accused.” Kant would’ve favored the categorical perspective because of the “good” based on the maxim. So, if Jean will follow Kant’s categorical reasoning, Jean will bravely admit he is the real “Jean” whatever the consequences are. If Jean followed the hypothetical perspective, he will admit to his true identity because he doesn’t want an innocent man to serve the penalty for him. Hypothetical perspective is not suggested by Kant due to the fact the intention of Jean will be vague. It could be an evil intention, or good intention with conditions that are vague too. (Kant, I.).
On the teleological point of view of Utilitarianism, the “end” or “purpose” of the situation should guide Jean on what to do. What was he aiming to accomplish? Does he want the vagabond to suffer for him? Will he be “happy” to see another person was accused for him? He’s a philanthropist helping the poor, oppressed and weak, yet it is ironic that one, poor man was suffering for him. As a philanthropist, he wants everybody to be “happy,” and upon doing so, he is “happy” and content too. If Jean were to follow Mill’s theory of morality, he will admit his true identity because of the Greatest Happiness Principle. Remember under this principle, the pleasure is not just “sensual.” The meaning of pleasure here is “Epicurean.” Jean will have pleasure even though he will be incarcerated again since his “intellect” was satisfied. It went beyond the pleasures of the body. If Jean will admit his true identity, everybody else around him will be happy. The vagabond will be happy along with his loved ones; the police will be happy too because it made their lives easier; the people he helped will be happy because they know that as a philanthropist, his integrity is good; and Jean himself, will have peace of mind. (Mill, J. S.).
My own analysis makes me believe in the “consequentialist” theory more. Making other people happy makes me happy too. It does “not mean” that if people are happy in the expense of somebody else’s reputation, it’s morally right. This is not the case. Still, somebody will not be happy because it is at his expense that other people are happy. I still believe in the “Greatest Happiness Principle,” because it accounts for other people too, not just one’s self. Everybody is “dependent” on each other, so if you do “good” to others, then it follows others will spread the good to everybody else. We live belonging to a society, where interaction is necessary to survive. Our actions reflect back on us, and in order to make the cycle of happiness work, we should start taking into consideration the consequences of our actions to our neighbor. (Mill, J. S.).
Kant, I. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Moral. pp 1-27. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett
Publishing Co. 1993.
Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism and the 1868 Speech on Capital Punishment. pp. 1-26. Indianapolis,
IN: Hackett Publishing Co. 2001.
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