The ethical systems of Kant and Mill: A comparison and contrast Ricardo Renta

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The question of how happiness influences the morality of an action is examined within the ethical perspectives put forth by John Mill and Immanuel Kant. These philosophers have differing views on reason and the importance of happiness in making ethical choices. This essay will delve into the theories of Kant and Mill, identifying weaknesses in their respective frameworks and recognizing potential strengths within each approach.

Before comparing these two systems, understanding the key principles of each ethical theory is important. This will help in better comprehending the subsequent comparison and critique. Let’s begin by analyzing Kant’s ethics, which is centered around duty. According to Kant, this duty should not be driven by personal emotions but instead should be grounded in objective principles and guided by pure intentions. An apt example illustrating this concept can be found in the saying “doing the right thing for the wrong reason,” which aligns with Kant’s theory.

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Kant argued that the intended purpose of our actions is more important than their actual outcomes. He believed that intentions, which should be guided by good will and duty, are more significant because we cannot always control the final results. So, where does this sense of duty come from? As previously mentioned, Kant emphasized the use of reason instead of emotions in determining moral actions. To aid in making ethical choices, he introduced a system called the Categorical Imperative, which is absolute.

Kant’s categorical imperative is universally applicable and should be followed in all situations. It consists of two formulations: the formula of Universal Law (which is discussed first) and the concept of humanity as an end in itself. The test usually includes 3 to 4 steps, depending on the situation at hand. The first step involves formulating the maxim according to Kant’s definition.

The test assesses the morality of a particular action by analyzing its underlying principle. The principle should be stated in isolation, without any supplementary conditions. For instance, “I will take something from someone” instead of “I will take something from someone only if they have harmed me”.

To proceed, the subsequent stage requires generalizing the maxim already proposed and extending it to encompass the entire population. In this particular example, the generalization would be: “Everyone will steal from someone.” Once you have completed the generalization, it is essential to verify if the maxim contains any contradictions.

If a maxim is found to be contradictory, then following that maxim would be considered incorrect. For instance, let’s consider a broad maxim that claims “Every pregnant woman will undergo an abortion.” This statement is contradictory because if all pregnant women were to have abortions, eventually there would be no women left to have abortions. In simpler terms, the generalized maxim must be sustainable.

In order to complete the final step, you need to reverse the maxim you made and imagine a world where it becomes a law for everyone. If you cannot imagine (or do not want) living in such a world, then the maxim does not pass the first formulation of the categorical imperative. The second formulation, known as “Humanity As An End In Itself” by Kant, highlights that true morality comes from our interactions with others. According to Kant, we should always view humanity as an end in itself and never as a means.

Kant’s principle posited that humans, as rational beings, should never be treated merely as a means to an end but rather their treatment should embody an end in itself. According to Kant, the act of objectifying another person or even oneself compromises the potential of rationality and will. Conversely, John Mill subscribed to a distinct ethical framework rooted in utilitarianism, wherein happiness and morality were harmoniously intertwined instead of being at odds.

Mill argues that morality is determined by the extent of happiness or absence of suffering resulting from a decision. Nonetheless, this does not imply that an individual’s happiness holds greater significance than everything else. According to Mill’s theory, the most morally upright option is the one that maximizes happiness for the largest number of individuals. This ensures that selfishness remains in check and fosters empathy towards others’ emotions.

According to Mill, there are two types of pleasure: physical pleasures (or “low” pleasures) and intellectual pleasures (or “high” pleasures). Mill believed that no matter how much low pleasure one experiences, it can never be considered superior to any amount of high pleasure, regardless of the perceived difference between the two. Additionally, Mill’s ethical framework was centered around the consequences of actions. He challenged the idea that intentions should be valued more than outcomes because determining one’s true intentions is difficult.

So, with Mill’s ethical theory, one must thoroughly contemplate their actions and consider the potential consequences, as it is the outcomes that ultimately shape one’s character. In this perspective, society serves as the judge, and the system is not meta-societal. Having gained an understanding of the ethical systems of both Kant and Mill, we can now compare and critique these theories. One similarity between them is their acknowledgment that societal response plays a significant role in determining the morality of an action (societal referring to those outside of oneself). Kant’s system emphasizes the importance of society through the two formulations of the categorical imperative, while Mill focuses on achieving “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.”

The text highlights the distinctions between Kant’s system and Mill’s theory. Kant prioritizes pure reason, devoid of any influence from emotions, and puts forth the categorical imperative as a dependable and universal framework. Conversely, Mill’s approach permits greater adaptability in decision-making.

The choice of pleasure, number of people involved, and types of pleasures can vary depending on the situation, making it a relativistic decision. The systems also differ significantly in terms of the importance given to outcomes and intentions. This core distinction stems from conflicting beliefs about how individuals should prioritize their attention.

Kant argues that the actor should derive their action from good intention, emphasizing the unpredictability of life. On the other hand, Mill proposes using reason to anticipate outcomes when evaluating morality, focusing on the results of an action. In summary, Kant prioritizes intention as the foundation of morality while Mill concentrates on outcome. Both ethical systems are subject to positive or negative criticism. One positive aspect of Kant’s system is its ability to provide a universal and non-relativistic framework for determining moral values.

Despite its benefits, the system has a drawback – it is perceived as cold and indifferent. Some people find its absolute nature heartless and uncaring. According to Kant’s system, lying is strictly prohibited, even if it is for the sake of protecting someone dear. Additionally, Kant’s original statement of the categorical imperative tends to generate contradictions.

When contemplating the phrase “I am going to have a glass of water,” it can be generalized as “Everyone is going to have water.” Nevertheless, it is physically unfeasible for everyone to possess a glass of water.

The next step of the categorical imperative involves determining whether a generalized maxim is ethical based on whether one can imagine a world where it is true. It is universally desired for everyone to have access to water, as it is essential for survival. Thus, we must question if this maxim is considered ethical or falls into an unknown category. Another flaw in Kantian ethics is its focus on intention rather than outcome. It is practically impossible to fully comprehend another person’s intentions due to the nature of humanity.

Attempting to understand and interpret the intentions behind actions is a challenging task. However, society faces the additional challenge of determining the accuracy of these interpretations, as the very metric used to assess morality is itself unquantifiable. Mill’s ethical framework also presents its own advantages and disadvantages. One notable advantage is the intuitive nature of Mill’s theory, which is easy to comprehend and follow. The concepts of pleasure and suffering are universally understood, making it straightforward to make moral judgments based on them. Furthermore, the system is flexible, allowing for adaptations and variations.

Similar to Aristotle’s theory of the mean, Mill’s system offers room for flexibility based on circumstances. However, there are potential drawbacks associated with Mill’s theory. One issue with Mill is his strong emphasis on the outcome as the primary concern. To illustrate, picture yourself walking down the street when a car abruptly turns the corner.

Although you prevent a man from stealing an elderly woman’s purse, he retaliates by driving towards you in a car. Amazingly, you successfully avoid the car and ensure your own safety. However, does the man’s moral character decline just because his attempt did not lead to your demise? Undoubtedly, the answer is no. Despite no actual harm being inflicted, it is clear that this person harbored intentions of killing you. Furthermore, based on Mill’s philosophy, you bear complete responsibility for the repercussions of your actions, regardless of when those consequences manifest.

Is it reasonable to demand such a thing? As humans, we cannot account for everything before things start to fall apart. The many variables associated with our existence make it impossible to accurately predict the outcome. Another concern is that according to Mill, individuals determine morality based on their emotions. While feelings of happiness can indicate a moral decision, they can also be influenced by a distorted sense of morality. Moreover, what if the happiness of the majority does not seem to outweigh the happiness of a few? If someone gave you the choice between killing your mother or setting fire to a nursing home, how would you decide? Despite its flaws, Mill’s ethical theory aligns more closely with my personal beliefs.

The incorporation of pleasure and pain is crucial in moral decision-making, reflecting an inherent aspect of life. Personally, I perceive Kant’s simplistic and impractical system as outdated, as it underestimates the essence of humanity – our desire to seek happiness.

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The ethical systems of Kant and Mill: A comparison and contrast Ricardo Renta. (2017, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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