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This paper is based on the two philosophical perspectives of Kantianism and utilitarianism. It seeks to provide a critique of Kantianism from the perspective of utilitarianism. The two ethical models are always antagonistic of each other, meaning that they have opposing views regarding many ethical issues.
What Kantianism may consider as ethical, utilitarianism may consider it as completely unethical? The differences in the two perspectives are based on the sharp differences between Immanuel Kant (founder of Kantianism) and Jeremy Bentham (founder of utilitarianism).
Utilitarianism is an ethical model of reasoning which emphasizes on the maximization of good and happiness and minimization of distress and suffering. One of the key proponents of utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham, who belongs to the 19th-century philosophy. According to him, the principles of human interactions are based on the overall good. In this sense, therefore, good is looked from an objective sense in that what is good is seen as what produces good outcomes for many people (Sher 23).
Utilitarianism can be explained using the principle of ‘the end justifies the means’, meaning if the end of a processor action is good, then the means of arriving at that end are also good and justifiable. According to the model, therefore, for an action to be considered as ethically or morally correct, it should have an outcome which benefits the many people. What it means is that people should focus on the end of a process but not the means of arriving at that end.
It is for this reason that utilitarianism is considered a consequentialist theory because it focuses on the consequences of an action. An action may, therefore, be correct and incorrect or moral and immoral at the same time. Utilitarianism relates to the concept of value in that the quality of something which is good is measured by the value attached to it.
If something is of high value, then it is considered as better than something of low value. In regard to how morality relates to utilitarianism, all actions which have good outcomes for many people are moral and ethical. Consequently, it means that there are actions which have a higher degree of morality than others depending on the number of people who benefit from the actions (Sher 35).
Critique of Kantianism from a Utilitarian Perspective
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher. He is considered by many philosophers as a controversial and complicated philosopher of his time. It is good to mention that both ancient and modern philosophers can be classified into two categories, namely rationalists and empiricists. Rationalists are those philosophers who argued that pure reason was capable of explaining nature.
They were of the view that the human intellect alone was capable of discovering metaphysically objective truth regarding the nature of the universe and life in general. Examples of rationalists include Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes. Empiricists, on the other hand, had the view that the best knowledge was that which was obtained through experience. They confined human intellect to the peripheral role of making sense of the experience. Examples of empiricists include David Hume, Berkeley, and John Locke.
Due to his controversial nature, Kant takes a neutral position regarding the nature of life and the universe. He is not an empiricist nor is he a rationalist. Instead, he is a critic of both camps and sees their stand as flawed. He is critical of the rationalists for their content that intellect alone can provide some insights into the nature or essence of ‘things in themselves’. He attacks the empiricists on the grounds that experience does not consist only of sensations but includes impressions made by neutral observers on a daily basis.
These two categories of philosophers (empiricists and rationalists) appear to shape the debate on the nature of the universe thereby raising the very pertinent question of which among the body and the mind has a greater influence over the other. The debate is further characterized by other approaches which are based on whether reality exists or it is our minds which construct reality through perceptions. These two approaches include idealism and materialism.
Idealism can be attributed to Immanuel Kant, who argued that what comprises knowledge is nothing else other than ideas. The ideas about the world constitute reality and therefore according to realists like Immanuel Kant, everything we see and experience is based on our mental processes. Kant believes that the mind, which is partly independent and partly part of the body has a great influence on the physiological processes or functions of the body.
Psychologists bring the dimension of consciousness in the relationship between the mind and the body. According to psychologists, consciousness works together with the partly independent mind to influence the physiological processes of the body. The point here, according to Kant is that the mind may affect physiological processes or functioning of the body as a whole through consciousness.
On the issue of the relationship between the body and the mind, utilitarianism is of the view that the body and the mind are two independent organs of the same body capable of functioning without mutual dependence on each other. Utilitarians argue that the mind can manipulate various body organs and processes for the benefit of the whole body. For instance, the mind can force a smile on someone to attract people, especially in business.
For instance, customer care desks are manned by people who always smile even if they are not amused by the clients. The same applies to news anchors who smile throughout their presentations on televisions. However, the body may not be able to influence the mind to think in a particular manner. On the issue of what constitutes idealism, utilitarianism is of the view that idealism comprises many things, not just knowledge as argued by Kantianism. For utilitarians, idealism has to do with systems, people, knowledge, and perception.
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Kant has also associated with the formalist theory; an ethical model of reasoning which is based on rules or duties of a person. He argues that it is not possible to quantify good and therefore, the only moral and ethical actions are those who are both good and right. Right in this sense is taken to mean a person’s duty. He emphasizes on the motive of an action rather than the consequences of the action. In this regard, therefore, a good action may be done with the wrong motive either by omission or commission.
Similarly, an action may be done with a bad motive and produce good or desirable results. The theory is the opposite of utilitarianism in the sense that it considers both the means and the end of a process, as opposed to utilitarianism, which focuses only on end. The theory, therefore, reinforces the argument that the means must justify the end, meaning that the end should only be considered as good; only of it is arrived at using morally correct actions or deeds.
The theory has been explained as an absolutist perspective in the sense that it considers something either as good or bad and does not allow for conditions under which a good thing may be considered as bad or a bad thing to be regarded as good. For example, if killing one person is morally wrong, the saving of a hundred lives does not have any intrinsic value because it would result in the violation of the moral code of not to kill.
In the example of killing one person to save the lives of a hundred people presented above, therefore, a formalist would argue that since killing is morally wrong, it should not be permitted under any conditions because the life of one person is equally important as the lives of a hundred people, the argument being that life is not a quantifiable element but can only be qualified as good or bad.
However, from a utilitarian perspective, the killing of one person to save the lives of a hundred people would be considered not only as moral but also as ethical. The reason is that the guiding principle of utilitarianism is the quantification of good outcomes of actions. As a result, the life of one person cannot be compared to the lives of one hundred people.
Sher, George. Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory, New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.