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Immanuel Kant’s and John Stuart Mill’s Moral Philosophies Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

There exist multiple moral philosophies, but some of the most well-known ones are Kant’s deontological moral philosophy and Mill’s utilitarianism. In this paper, both theories are explained. After that, it is argued that although Kant’s philosophy is “better” in some respects, Mill’s moral theory is preferable due to being practically applicable.

Kant’s ethical philosophy is a deontological one, meaning that it is based on absolute principles rather than on conditional rules. Kant’s categorical imperative is a principle that, according to his philosophy, applies to any rational being purely because of their being rational (Johnson and Cureton). In fact, any actions that are immoral are also irrational, for they contravene the categorical imperative (Johnson and Cureton).

One of the three (supposedly) equivalent formulations of the categorical imperative is that one must act only according to a maxim that can be simultaneously willed by one to become a universal law (qtd. in Johnson and Cureton). The categorical imperative should be distinguished from hypothetical imperatives, which exist because apart from rationality, other factors may motivate people; in this case, “willing” should be distinguishing from simply “wanting”, because the former means consciously committing to a goal, not only desiring it (Johnson and Cureton).

Another important notion in Kant’s philosophy is that of duty. Roughly speaking, duty is a motivation to act in a certain way out of respect for the code requiring one to act so (Johnson and Cureton). Nevertheless, actual adopted codes or laws may also be morally wrong, as in the case with Nazi German laws; thus, duty should be understood as complying with moral laws (which are dependent upon rationality) rather simply with some legislation (Johnson and Cureton).

In contrast, Mill’s moral philosophy is utilitarian: it primarily assesses actions as moral or immoral based on their consequences. The philosopher states that the main principle of morals is the principle of greatest happiness, according to which actions are moral or right in proportion to the degree of happiness they lead to and are wrong or immoral in proportion to the degree of unhappiness they cause (Mill).

Here, happiness should be comprehended as pleasure and the lack of pain, whereas unhappiness means deprivation of pleasure and the presence of pain (Mill). This understanding of happiness may appear simplistic; nevertheless, it is argued that this is not so, for Mill qualitatively differentiates types of pleasure, stating that there are higher and lower pleasures (Brink). For instance, intellectual pleasures are stated to be higher than bodily ones (Brink). Thus, although it is difficult to define in general which pleasures are higher and which are lower (Mill does so by using a notion of the “preferences of a competent judge”; Brink par. 38), this moral philosophy is more complicated than simple hedonism.

When choosing a moral philosophy, one may be tempted to choose Kant’s system. His moral theory is more general and more sophisticated than Mill’s; it is easy to see how one could simplify Mill’s understanding of pleasure and simply turn his philosophy into pure hedonism, which could be harmful. Simultaneously, Kant’s categorical imperative appears to be more difficult to misinterpret, given that one is sufficiently rational.

Nevertheless, Kant’s theory may often not work in practice, for it often faces at least one major restriction: humans are not omnipotent. Given several bad choices and no good ones, one cannot decide between them based on Kant’s philosophy because one cannot make a good choice. To give an extreme but simple example, one may have to press a button and kill a thousand people today, or not press a button, and a million will absolutely certainly die three days later. In this case, Kant’s moral philosophy does not provide a solution, whereas Mill’s theory does. Thus, Mill’s theory is preferable because it is more applicable in practice.

Thus, Kant’s moral philosophy is rooted in the categorical imperative and on (Kant’s understanding of) rationality itself. In contrast, Mill’s moral theory is based on the principle of greatest happiness. While Kant’s theory is more elegant and sophisticated, Mill’s theory is preferable due to being much more practically applicable.

Works Cited

Brink, David. “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web.

Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2016. Web.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism Resources, 1863. Web.

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