John Stuart Mill (1808-73) believed in an ethical theory known as utilitarianism. There are many formulation of this theory. One such is, “Everyone should act in such a way to bring the largest possibly balance of good over evil for everyone involved.” However, good is a relative term.
What is good? Utilitarians disagreed on this subject. Mill made a distinction between happiness and sheer sensual pleasure. He defines happiness in terms of higher order pleasure (i.e. social enjoyments, intellectual). In his Utilitarianism (1861), Mill described this principle as follows:According to the Greatest Happiness Principle The ultimate end, end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible enjoyments.Therefore, based on this statement, three ideas may be identified: (1) The goodness of an act may be determined by the consequences of that act.
(2) Consequences are determined by the amount of happiness or unhappiness caused. (3) A “good” man is one who considers the other man’s pleasure (or pain) as equally as his own. Each person’s happiness is equally important.Mill believed that a free act is not an undetermined act. It is determined by the unconstrained choice of the person performing the act.
Either external or internal forces compel an unfree act. Mill also determined that every situation depends on how you address the situation and that you are only responsible for your feelings and actions. You decide how you feel about what you think you saw.Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had an interesting ethical system. It is based on a belief that the reason is the final authority for morality.
Actions of any sort, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty dictated by reason, and no action performed for expediency or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral. A moral act is an act done for the “right” reasons. Kant would argue that to make a promise for the wrong reason is not moral – you might as well not make the promise. You must have a duty code inside of you or it will not come through in your actions otherwise.
Our reasoning ability will always allow us to know what our duty is.Kant described two types of common commands given by reason: the hypothetical imperative, which dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end; and the categorical imperative, which dictates a course of action that must be followed because of its rightness and necessity. The categorical imperative is the basis of morality and was stated by Kant in these words: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will and general natural law.” Therefore, before proceeding to act, you must decide what rule you would be following if you were to act, whether you are willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all over. If you are willing to universalize the act, it must be moral; if you are not, then the act is morally impermissible. Kant believed that the welfare of each individual should properly be regarded as an end in itself, as stated in the Formula of the End in Itself: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.Kant believes that moral rules are exceptionless. Therefore, it is wrong to kill in all situations, even those of self-defense. This is belief comes from the Universal Law theory.
Since we would never want murder to become a universal law, then it must be not moral in all situations.So which of the two theories would make a better societal order? That is a difficult question because both theories have “problems.” For Kant it is described above, his rules are absolute. Killing could never be make universal, therefore it is wrong in each and every situation. There are never any extenuating circumstances, such as self-defense. The act is either wrong or right, based on his universality law. Yet, Mill also has problems.
If properly followed, utilitarianism could lead to obviously wrong actions being considered right because the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the net consequences. Therefore, conceivably, it would morally okay for a very large and powerful country that was desperately in need of food or else all of its 3 billion inhabitants would starve, to overpower an island of 1000 people who had an overabundance of food and steal their food. In stealing all their food, the larger nation is condemning all the inhabitants of this island to a very slow and agonizing death. Is this right? Of course not. Yet under Mill’s theory of consequences, since the greater good was served, then the act is morally okay.
Mill’s theories could also bring about unjust rules, if the rules served the greater majority. Suppose handicapped people were not allowed to be seen in public, ever, except in doctor’s offices. Is this benefiting to the small number of hand!icapped? No it is not. However, the greater majority, throws up when they see a handicapped individual, it is beneficial. So, perhaps the right question to as, is, which of the two theories is the lessor of two evils? I would have to argue for Mill (that is, unless I was one of the 1000 on the island or handicapped) – on a limited basis. I if I, a Bill Gates type rich person, gave a small amount of money to a stranger whom desperately needed it, just to get him to leave me alone, Kant would judge it not moral because I did it for the wrong reason.
Mill would examine the consequences of my giving money away. Did it hurt me? No. Did it help the stranger? Yes. Therefore, the net consequence is good.
Whether or not I truly felt the act in my heart does not make it any less “good” than the person that gives all his money away to charity because he feels so deeply about it. I also see cons to taking Mill’s values on as societal ethics – they could conceivably give rise to the next Hitler. But with Kant, people would be prosecuted for EVERYTHING since there are no extenuating circumstances. Think of the court system – innocent men who had to protect their family and home alongside hardened serial rapists, both receiving the same sentence. In my personal opinion, Kant may go as far as to say to the starving nation “Starve equally.” And then, the nation slowly starves equally when they could have killed 1000 people to save themselves.
Therefore, in my humble and limited opinion, which is merely based on the limited scope of my perception and that which I draw out of that limited scope, Mill’s theories would make a better societal order.Discuss the possibility of using concepts, either from Aristotle or Kant, to create universal ethics. (I went a bit over the top on this one)Universal ethics is a system of beliefs that all persons throughout the community (however large that may be) readily accept and use to govern their lives. In modern society this seems to be an oxymoron. Therefore, in the following essay, I will attempt to prove through logical argument that universal ethics are not achievable using the doctrines of either Immanuel Kant or Aristotle.Kant’s categorical imperative is a tri-dynamic statement of philosophical thought:(1) “So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law.”(2) “Act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person in in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.'(3) “Act according to the maxims if a universally legislative member of a merely potential kingdom of ends.”In other words, Kant argues that particular action requires conscious thought or the rule governing the action, whether that rule should be followed by everyone, and if the rule is acceptable for universal action it should be adopted — if not, then rejected. Kant makes these statements of theory in myriad books, articles, and lectures – each very convincing as to the possibility of universalizability of the stated “categorical imperative.” In order to understand whether or not an action follows Kant’s “categorical imperative,” we must prescribe those norms that we wish to be universal laws.
These norms are created through value judgements based on issues of justice between persons or groups (nations, etc.) of persons. Kant’s theories discuss the ethical questions that determine impartial consideration of conflicting interest in issues of justice. Kant’s theories rest entirely, however, on the ability of competent social actors with an intuitive grasp of normative social interaction – apparently he chooses to ignore the crazies or supposes that the will be controlled by the more competent of social actors! This statement obviously relates to domination of one person over another, to which Kant suggests that “the faculty of cognition yields knowledge about how this conflict can be avoided.” He further states that through this cognitive development of peaceful interaction and building of republics; we create a “community as a natural result of the unimpeded development of human facilities.” Kant further states that because we must believe that all things develop to their fullest capacity, then we can theorize that, in summary, through cognitive processes we can create communities, based on moral (ethical) action towards every person, thereby creating universal ethics throughout the community or “republic” (depending on! scale).With that in mind, it appears that Kant makes statements that assume all people within like “republics” can achieve a level of cognition equal to one another, for without that equanimity of cognition and judgement, then the conflict issues cannot be rationalized through creation of universal law.That all people can achieve a similar level of cognition seems preposterous in our modern world cognition in the sense of like thought. Because we need the principles of Kant’s categorically designed thought and action to have universal acceptance, we must be willing to accept the undesirable psychological deviants within the “republic.” I can think of no person that would (Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dahmer, Zodiac Killer) a universal law. Yet, if we can’t accept that Dahmer’s cognition is capable of universability, then we must dominate that person by removing them from the republic.
This goes against Kant’s theory because in order to end domination, we must yield to and follow our cognitive thought and this cannot be done because the deviant (Dahmer, Bundy, Zodiac Killer) doesn’t achieve the same level of cognition as the rest of the republic. This example seems to point out a flaw in the universability of achieving similar or same ethical norms to follow.Furthermore, we can look at the utilitarianism doctrine (of which Kant generally is not included within) for some example of the impossibility of universal ethics. Kant, for many reasons to lengthy to describe here, can be said to have some theory and thought completely relevant to utilitarianism. As such we can look at universalistic utilitarianism from the egotistic standpoint (Kant, I might point out argued that actions must be done based on a maxim of what is good – good begets an understanding of benevolence – thus egoistic tendencies to act toward others in a way that ultimately benefits the original actor). In this light, we can state that “what is best for me, is unlikely to be best for everyone.” Therefore, we can negate Kant’s argument that universal ethics is possible, because we know that there is a proverbial incompatibility between the theory and what people actually think and do.Finally, we must make the judgement on whether or not universal ethics is possible.
I suggest that a bit of universability exists i n certain social mores and norms throughout the world – don’t kill your neighbor, be kind to animals, incest is wrong, etc. – yet, individual perception of the world by people precludes the possibility of an all-encompassing universal code of ethics. As has been argued by J.L. Mackie, we “project ethical properties onto the world.” In other words, we see things as having ethical properties when in fact (empirically proven) they do not. Based on this, we can say that a conscious person will project what he interprets based on what he thinks he “saw;” because each person will manifest a different perception, then will necessarily project differing ethical properties.
This brings me to the possibility of the rational application these perceptions.We have no way, empirically or otherwise, to prove that our principles based on perception can be rationally applied. Because of this inability to prove rational application of perception and thus moral principle based on that perception, we are unable to demonstrate the rational justification of any universal principle or ethic. Application of the principles is central to creating universal ethics, yet it seems that we cannot prove rational application of the principles and thus fall short of gaining universal consensus on what those should be.To Kant, these principles can be made applicable through his transcendental arguments, but there remains the fact that he agreed sensory (and thus transcendental) experience cannot be accepted as empirical givens. This leaves the sensory or transcendental experience open to interpretation.Empirical evidence creates responses that can be repealed time and again with identical or nearly identical results. Should sensation become open to interpretation by accepting that they cannot be empirical observations then we can say that the results cannot be universal even if all persons at once, observed the same even. Kant’s thoughts in Prolegomena to Every Future Metaphysics on the “transcendental aesthetics” that ultimate principles can only be established by transcendental argument loses its effect and basis in the application of the theories; unless, as has been argued by man philosophers since Kant the problem of rational application fo Kant’s categorical imperative can be overcome, then the idea of universal morality or ethics is impossible.
Rational application depends entirely on the ability of a person to observe non-empirical action in the transcendental noumena exactly the same as his neighbor, yet, as was stated earlier, that because the action or the even! was seen in an non-empirical light then interpretation muddles the rational application of what is seen by each observer. To put it simply, because each person can see or perceive an event or situation differently, then the responses to the event or situation will vary, thereby reducing the ability for a “universal” response or ethic to the event.Kant does make arguments for empirical thought in his, “The Postulates of Empirical Thought” Section of the book Critique of Pure Reason, but his questions of an event – “what became of that?” and “What brought that about?” – fail to argue concisely about real and logical possibilities. Because of his lack of definite statement, Kant fails to prove through his empirical thought arguments that empirical thought or action can be universal. Theoretically, he suggests it is, but without empirical observation to prove universality in any action or ethic, or combination of ethics, then we can not say the universal ethic exists.Kant followed his book, Critique of Pure Reason, with Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he argues at length on moral judgement, practical reason and the like. Without having read the book in its entirety, it seems that Kant provides example upon example on the possibility of universal ethics.
Yet, in reading several critiques of the book, I found that Kant could not disprove empirically my earlier statement on the universal response to an event or situation. And without the empirical evident that he himself relies on so heavily in other arguments, then he cannot prove the universality of ethics.In modest contrast, or as an alternative to Kant, Aristotle’s classical humanism requires that all persons can achieve moral perfectibility by teaching and learning proper ethics to and from one another. He explains this theory by stating that all persons have an ability to reach a certain level or natural ability, equal opportunity, etc. Reaching these states is possible through what may be called “the habituation process:” teaching by example, teach/reteach, monitor through rewards and punishment.
Based on the most basic of premises, Aristotle further states that ethics and morality need to be a prescriptive element for society: rules of conduct that must be followed by all persons within that society if the humanistic properties are to be achieved. Aristotle presents multiple arguments as to appropriate moral action (see his son’s book of notes, entitled Nicomachean Ethics) on ways to achieve them. I believe however that he falls short when he uses and describes the term, “good.” Aristotle maintains that proper moral motivation involves “appropriate desires and emotions in addition to correct judgement.” The appropriate desires are based on the aim of all thought achieving “good.” According to Nicomachean Ethics therefore, “Good is well defined as that which all things aim.” The circular reasoning here is similar to the definition of ethics and morality – one describes the other and no clear picture of each is forthcoming. So, we attempt to describe good based on virtuous thought.
Virtuous thought supposes that a virtuous persons has a fairly explicit conception of what Aristotle calls, “eudaimonia” or happiness. Therefore, he argues that a person (we suppose by the habituation process) understands eudaimonia and can use that to create virtuous thought and thus virtuous action to produce a “good.”The problem here, however, is pointed out in the above discussion on Kant: perception skews the person’s thought because each person perceives and event (whatever an event can be) differently. It is this difference in what people perceive that creates opposing viewpoints on “good” whether virtuous or not. The obstacles to overcome in Aristotelian thought emerge like icebergs on the horizon – as we draw closer, the berg grows until we are halted in front of it, attempts to understand and get beyond it can only be made by passing beneath it. There, when diving below the surface of the water, we find an immense volume of surface to chip away at.Aristotle had his basis on humanism in that all people can learn or teach virtuous thought, but as I have shown in the Kantian argument above and here in this essay, we cannot expect all persons to do so.
Therefore, any attempt to provide a universal ethic to the community is thwarted by the community itself. The two philosophers discussed above both attempt to relate possible ways to achieve some sort of universal ethical thought throughout the community, “republic” and world. Hopefully, my arguments prove that not only was it an impossible task in Aristotle’s time, and in Kant’s time, but it is still impossible today. If I had to choose one doctrine over another in a vain attempt to impose a universal system of ethical thought, I would choose Kant, but in the end, I really think nihilism is the best way to go.