John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant were notable philosophers of the Enlightenment era. Their contributions to Utilitarianism and Morality are seminal and form the basis of our political and social structures in the western world. In this paper, we examine some of the concepts put forward by Mill and how they relate to Kantian notions of good and duty.
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Mill defined Utilitarianism as the principle that holds our actions as producing the maximum amount of pleasure. Thus, he is a consequentialist when he describes that we should act in such a way to promote happiness for ourselves provided we do not harm others in the process.
In the Kantian scheme of things, we should act in such a way to do the “right thing”. Goodwill is the desire to do the right thing and we should exercise our reason irrespective of the consequences. According to Kant, “is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself”. Thus, it is independent of the circumstances and “what affects or accomplishes”.
Mill’s response is “to do good” than “it is better to be good”. This is because Mill’s Utility can be described as “the most pleasure and least pain for the largest possible number of people”. Thus, being a consequentialist Mill would answer Kant’s claim on doing our duty as that we should do our duty only if it provides us with happiness. For Mill, Kant’s ideology is a flat world where reason and rationality reign supreme and pleasure is relegated to the corner. Mill considers our actions as either promoting happiness or sadness. Kant, on the other hand insists on doing things just because they promote “goodwill”.
There is definitely an element of hedonism in Mill’s line of thought as much as they promote happiness above everything else. However, as I argue throughout this paper, Mill did not intend the modern conception of hedonism and he categorically stated that we should pursue happiness without harming others.
Kant gives four examples as part of the categorical imperative that include duties towards self, duties towards others, duty towards god and perfect duties. These are summed up stating that “act in accordance as that will become universal law”. Thus, Kant exhorts us to act for the good and morality. In my opinion, Mill would not subscribe to this view. Mill states that we should act in such a way as to promote happiness for self and others. There is no place for demanding duties.
Shades of Kantian metaphysics can be seen in Protestantism. However, Mill stands squarely in the libertarian scheme of things in the modern world. The pursuit of happiness is the ultimate end for Mill and Kantian notions of goodwill as the absolute is anathema to Mill.
In analyzing whether Kant is right or Mill is right, I take the position that each tries to justify their ideology in an elaborate way. While Mill does not use the complicated jargon that is put forth by Kant, nonetheless the notion of good and actions to which we should subscribe are relative points in this complex world. In conclusion, the point I’m trying to make is that we have moved away from the era in which Kant and Mill lived and we are in a world where moral absolutes have given way to a relativistic thinking about ourselves and the world we live in.