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Kant vs Mill

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The following will describe in detail the many ways the assigned passages reflect or imply the moral philosophies of their authors.  The differences Kant and Mill will be contrasted, and ultimately, one moral philosophy will be determined as the better of the two.

 “To be beneficent when we can is a duty [...]”

–Immanuel Kant                              


The purpose of the above passage is to demonstrate clearly that our motivations have moral worth if and only if they are done because duty requires it.  This point is key to Kant’s moral philosophy.  Kant utilizes a great deal of space throughout his moral philosophy (at least, as presented in the assigned text) to argue that the Good Will and only the Good Will is good in itself.  The qualities that previous thinkers have thought to be good, like moderation (Aristotle), are good if and only if they are done by an individual who has a Good Will.  The courageous thief, the cunning and ever-thoughtful child molester, the cool-headed manipulator (of people)–their potentially praiseworthy qualities make them worse that they would be without them, because these individuals lack a good will.


Of course, to say the Good Will is good in itself is to say that it is good regardless of its results.  To clarify, if Tom is wounded, and I, because it is my duty to treat his wounds, treat his wounds, and by doing so accidently contaminate his wound, my action is still morally good.  Contrastingly, if I show Sue generosity, warmth, and kindness because I am attracted to Sue and so I want her to think well of me, or because I receive pleasure in treating others in this way, or for any other reason other than because it is my duty, then my actions are not morally good–at best, they are praiseworthy.  This is the point that Kant, in the above passage, is trying to stress.


This point (and this passage) is an important foundation for the further points of Kant’s moral philosophy.  Actions done because of duty are morally good in relation to their maxims, the subjective principles of volition Duty, as reasoned by Kant, “is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.[[1]]”  The law is and objective principle of volition.  For Kant, for a maxim to be morally good it must comply to a universal law–it must be a maxim that can be applied to all rational beings at all times.  Namely, Kant reasons, this is the categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.[[2]]” 


To understand if an action is right or not, all we need to do is test is universalizablity.  By univeralizing the maxim we mean to apply it to all people at all times, necessarily, like the inescapable laws of physics.  A maxim cannot be universalized if it (1) proves a logical contradiction (willing two contradictory wills at once: like wanting to help all others and destroy others) or (2) if the maxim is one such that the willer would will it for himself (or herself), yet would never require all people to necessarily will this maxim always at all times.


A re-interpretation of the categorical imperative, according to Kant, is the practical imperative.  The practical imperative commands the following: “So act as to treat humanity,, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as mans only.[3]” To clarify, let us apply this imperative to my occupation as a residential counselor at a mental rehabilitation center.  If I treat my residents as objects I need to control in order to get the cash to pay for college, I treat them as a means.  I would be treating these people as things that are just around to help me get other things.  If, however, I treat each resident as an intelligent and valuable individual worthy of respect, I then treat him or her as ends in themselves.  Although the residents are a means for me to get my paycheck, I must remember that as they are rational beings, they are also ends in themselves and deserve to be treated as such.


“It is in this way, undoubtedly, that we should understand those passages of the Scripture [...]

–Immanuel Kant


Kant’s moral philosophy carries with it religious meaning as well.  From a Christian perspective, the Holy Bible commands us to “love thy neighbor” and thy enemy.  Emotions, however, cannot be commanded.  If I hate mushrooms, I cannot like or love mushroom soup simply because I am commanded to do so.  So it is with people hating people as well.  I cannot feel (emotional) love with someone I hate simply because I am commanded; however, I can be commanded to show functional and serviceable “love,” and I can demonstrate this love as a matter of duty.  The love commanded in the Scripture is not of the heart but of the will.

“I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism[...]”

–John Stuart Mill     


The purpose of this passage is to refute the claim that Utilitarianism is contradictory to Christianity.  Rather, Mill argues that Utilitarianism not only complementary to Christianity, it is the only correct way to interpret the New Testament.  Before his point can be stated, however, the foundations of his point must first be explored.


John Stuart Mill was a hedonism;–both a psychological hedonist (all people always act as to seek pleasure or avoid pain) and an ethical hedonist (all people should act as to seek pleasure or avoid pain).  Mill accepted the principle of utility, and thus was a Utilitarian, which is stated thus: Act always to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.[[4]]  An act is right if and only if it produces pleasure or avoids pain; an act is wrong if it produces pain or refuses pleasure. 


In contrast to his predecessor, Jeremy Bentham, Mill made a distinction not only between the quantity of pleasures, but also of the quality of pleasures.  Mill separates pleasures into two different “kinds:” higher pleasures (pleasures of the mind) and lower pleasures (pleasures of the body).


 Higher pleasures result in happiness.  I am experiencing a higher pleasure whenever I listen to my favorite CD, read a good book, write poetry, or chat with my best friend on the phone.  The lower pleasures are more obvious.  Lower pleasures result in contentment.  I experience lower pleasures whenever I receive a massage, eat my favorite food, or kiss my girlfriend.


All higher pleasures, according to Mill, are better (of higher quality) than any lower pleasure–regardless of the intensity.  Let us compare, for instance, myself to my ferret.  I hold higher faculties (Mill’s term for the ability of the human mind to contain, to comprehend higher pleasures), but the ferret does not.  My ferret is easily pleased.  Running around the house and sniffing the garbage can provide my ferret with a significant amount of pleasure and a high degree of contentment (not happiness).  I, on the other hand, require a great deal more to be content or happy.  It is more difficult to satisfy myself than it is for my ferret to satisfy himself.  In addition, my ferret is ignorant of and therefore immune to such sufferings (pains) as world hunger, racial discrimination, and global warming.

 So it would appear that not only is does my ferret experience more pleasure more frequently than I do, but he also experiences less suffering.  Does it then follow that it is better to be a ferret than it is to be me?  Certainly not!  Although my ferret might experience a superior quantity of pleasure, I experience a superior quality of pleasure.  Nobody would ever prefer to experience a pleasure of lower quality if the higher were available (although sometimes people will choose lower pleasures because they are immediate and more easily attainable than the higher.  *It is important here to note again that Mill is a hedonist, so all pleasures are in themselves good—higher pleasures are simply better (of higher quality) than the latter).


Contrasting with Bentham’s egoism, Mill was an altruist.  Altruism is “the capacity to promote the welfare of others; opposed to egoism.[[5]]”   Mill believed it is best to enhance the happiness (not contentment) of other people, while being disinterested in oneself.  In fact, Mill argued that selfishness (egoism) is the main reason that people are unhappy.  This is so because with selfishness (1) there is always the drive for more (constant dissatisfaction), and (2) interest in only oneself means interest in very few (only one) things (constant monotony).  Further, the next major cause of unhappiness is having a mind that holds few interests.  If we hold few interests, then few things entertain us, so we will suffer endless boredom.  The lack of curiosity kills our happiness.


 Utilitarianism supports “one person, one vote.”  This means that every sentient being is equally important, and everybody is equally relevant when considering the pleasures and harms gained or avoided by a particular action.  Moreover, Utilitarianism is consistent with the idea of sacrifice.  Utilitarianism doesn’t state that suffering, a pain, is in itself good; rather, Utilitarianism does state that a sacrifice is good if and only if it adds to the overall pleasure or subtracts from the overall pain of humankind as a whole.  It is in these ways that Utilitarianism is complementary to Christianity, and consistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  For Mill, this is the only correct way to interpret the “golden rule;” further, Mill would likely argue that God is a Utilitarian.




Since both Kant and Mill argue there moral philosophies with strong logic and wonderfully crafted arguments, and am tempted to synthesize the two.  In my efforts, however, I realize that this is logically impossible–these two philosophies are contradictory to each other.  Only one can be correct, although both may be incorrect.  Let us see if we can find the better of the two philosophies.


Kant holds a philosophy in deontological ethics, a philosophy of moral obligation, of duty.  For Kant, a right act is right if and only if it is done because of duty; actions done because of duty are morally good in relation to their maxims; maxims are good if they can be universalized.  Mill, contrastingly, holds a teleological (consequential) view of moral philosophy: “a way of explaining things in terms of their ultimate goals; understanding things functionally in terms of the relationship of the parts to the whole.[6]  For Mill, a right act is right if and only if it produces pleasure or avoids pain–regardless of the will.


I agree with Kant in this difference.  To through a little Stoic spin to this, our will is in our control; however, the outcome of our will is not.  A good person is not someone who acts good; rather, a good person must be someone who wills to be good.  As I see it, this is the only way morality can be within our control–if it be otherwise, methinks, morality would be less important, and it would be possible for even for even the man with the best will ever to be evil if, in spite of himself,  he was somehow forbidden or unable to manipulate desired consequences.


The consequences for Mills philosophy would not be overall beneficial.  I could do whatever I wanted, so long as I increase the pleasures or decrease the pains of society!  Would Jesus command this?  Certainly not, although Mill thinks He would.  Consensual pre-marital sex?  Why not?  Swearing in private to relieve pain?  Sure!  Cheat on your wife?  If you don’t get caught and are without the pains of guilt, then your only increasing the overall pleasure of society–no harm done!


Mill fails to prove his greatest happiness principle.  He tries to jump from what is the case (descriptive claim), to what should be the case (prescriptive); however, he shows no necessary connection between the two.  Moreover, I reject empiricism, and I accept rationalism.  Although studying sensations and experiences can reveal useful information regarding bundles of perceptions that may or may not exist “outside” of ourselves, at best rational beliefs–not knowledge–can come (directly) from experience.  In the spirit of Descartes, doubting everything that can reasonably be doubted, I quickly doubt and reject Mills philosophy.  Although not discussed in class, I agree with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal reality and noumenal reality, and his most of his metaphysics in general, which I believe are key to his moral philosophy.  Finally, I reject the hedonistic claim that happiness depends on accumulating of pleasures and the avoidance of pain.  I think that pleasure can and usually does accompany happiness, however, the terms are certainly not synonyms.


It is for these reasons that I declare the moral philosophy of Kant to be better than the moral philosophy of Mill.  I am not, however, saying that Kant is correct–I do not know this, but I do believe he holds the best moral theory presented in this course.  It is logical, consistent, and the social consequences of his philosophy are wonderful.  Good job, Kant!

[1] Denise, Peterfreund, and White. Great Traditions in Ethics. 9th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. p. 156.

[2] Denise, Peterfreund, and White. Great Traditions in Ethics. 9th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. p. 159.

[3] Denise, Peterfreund, and White. Great Traditions in Ethics. 9th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. p. 162

[4] Soccio, Douglas J.  Archetypes of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998. p. 455.

[5] Soccio, Douglas J.  Archetypes of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998. p. 467.

[6]  Soccio, Douglas J.  Archetypes of Wisdom. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998. p. 174.

Marques Schwartz
December 18, 2000

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