One of the central concepts of Kant’s moral theory is duty. As autonomous beings, humans are deserving of respect, and so each of us is obligated to act in ways that validate the respect we owe to each other. A moral person, for Kant, is someone who possesses a ‘good will,’ a will that is motivated from a sense of duty. A person who is motivated to act from purely self-interested inclinations is not, strictly speaking, acting morally according to Kant. Moral action involves rational deliberation. That is how an individual comes to understand what their duty is.
In order to determine what duty requires of an individual, Kant posited his supreme principle of morality, the Categorical Imperative. The first formulation of the imperative asks us to act only on those maxims that can be universally applied to all human beings. The second formulation asks us to treat every human being not just as a means but also as ends in themselves. By reflecting on the nature of our actions we discover what our duties are. Kant outlines four such applications, designating in each case whether we have a perfect or imperfect duty not to follow a particular maxim. In the end, Kant thinks that morality involves being motivated by a sense of duty, which is rationally determined through the categorical imperative.
Utilitarianism maintains that the consequences of our actions are morally significant. Actions should effect positive ends. The earliest forms of Utilitarianism equate utility with pleasure, since that is seen to be the only intrinsic good. It follows, according to the Principle of Utility, that actions are right insofar as they tend to promote happiness (pleasure and the absence of pain) and wrong insofar as they diminish happiness.
In our reading from John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, he reconsiders and defends the basic elements of the Utilitarian doctrine. Arguing against Bentham’s quantitative calculus, Mill says that the ‘quality’ of pleasures should also be assessed when considering particular actions and how they might contribute to the happiness for the greatest number. For Mill, some pleasures are ‘higher’ than others. The higher pleasures are directly connected to our intellectual faculties. A person who has experienced both ‘low’ and ‘high’ pleasures will come to prefer the latter, he thinks, because they are more in line with our elevated faculties and sense of dignity.
Here are some questions to consider:
Kant’s moral theory maintains that some actions are always either right or wrong? Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the Categorical Imperative and Kant’s four illustrations? Consider the second formulation: does this set out a clear way of understanding why certain actions are right and others wrong? Do you think that Kant’s view of ethics is too extreme or does it accurately capture what it means to act morally?
Mill’s Utilitarianism asks us to focus on the results of actions and to consider the happiness of others. Do you find this theory preferable to Kant’s duty ethics? What are the central differences between the two, and what, in your opinion, makes the one stronger (more preferable) than the other? (You might also contrast both with Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.) Can you think of any major problems that either theory would run into? Consider also Mill’s notion of ‘higher’ pleasures. Do you agree with his qualitative analysis of pleasure?