Andrea Meibos
Phil 202H Section 200
December 10, 1998
Prof. Arts

Kant and Mill on Morality

What is “right” and what is “wrong” is a question that has sparked countless debates for philosophers and theologians alike. Should the morality of a civilization be based on what actions would be best for the greatest number of citizens, or should it be based on abstract principles either derived through logic or proposed by religion? Although both Kant and Mill have convincing answers to these questions, their ideas, due to lack of clarity and universality, can be easily misused to justify immoral actions. However, the holes in each philosophy are complemented by the strengths of the other, and thus a synthesis of the two ideas would provide a clearer, more complete method for determining morality.

Kant uses his proof of the existence of metaphysics as a science in his proposed moral philosophy. “If a law is to have moral force . . . it must carry with it absolute necessity” (Kolak, 700). Because this maxim is the basis for Kant’s ethics, metaphysics as a science or a set of necessary truths is required for morality to exist. It is the fulfillment of one’s duty to these necessary truths that makes an act have moral worth, regardless of its consequences. The will is what makes us decide to perform certain actions, and this agent can only be moral if it chooses to act because of, and not merely in accordance with, duty. This will is the only thing which can be called good or bad, because, with a bad will, all other valuable aspects of a person may be used for immoral purposes.

What, then are these “necessary truths” which we are obligated to follow? Kant states it as “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (705). It is to this, the Categorical Imperative, that we owe our obedience through duty. This statement must be the basis of morality because, if one attempts to will that an immoral principle become universal, a contradiction will result. For example, if one wants to have an abortion, applying the Categorical Imperative we see that if everyone committed abortion, the human race would soon cease to exist, which is a contradiction and is impossible to will. Therefore, the Categorical Imperative is logically necessary. This elimination of a “double- standard” between our actions and the actions of others is central to Kant’s theory (Sullivan, 51).

As with all moral laws, however, the Categorical Imperative has the potential to be abused. When one attempts to apply this standard to specific situations, the results are invalid. For example, suppose that I am trying to decide whether to be a philosophy teacher or not. If everyone became a philosophy teacher, there would be no one to produce the necessities of daily life, and the human race would cease to exist (41-42). Applying the Categorical Imperative to this decision would seem to dictate that becoming a philosophy teacher is immoral, which is absurd. This decision process, then, can only be used to generate general principles, which then must be applied to everyday situations (45).

The general principles generated by the Categorical Imperative then become the laws to which we owe our duty without exception. According to Kant, any exception to the general generated laws will result in the nullifying of the meaning of all the moral laws, which is a contradiction (58). However, the positive of a law may or may not be true; in the case of the general law “I may not lie,” the statement “I must always tell the truth” is not a necessary moral law (59). It does not result in a contradiction if one tells only partial truths when necessary. There is breathing room, then, but no exceptions, within the constraints of the necessary moral laws. Despite its simplicity, there are several areas where the necessity of Kant’s theory is unclear. For example, Kant’s hypothesis that duty to the Categorical Imperative is the only moral motive of the will excludes all positive acts as moral. Kant’s ethics only supply a list of immoral actions, without replacing them by moral actions. No action can be proved good by using the Categorical Imperative; we can only prove an action is immoral. For example, helping others is by no means a mandate of the Categorical Imperative, yet it is by most society’s standards considered moral. Under Kant’s policy, one could lead an entire selfish life and still be a moral being. Kant claims that it is a contradiction by the Categorical Imperative to not help others, for then one would not have the aid of others when one needs it. Should one never have need of others, then it would not be a contradiction to will that all humans neglect each other. Perhaps Kant did not intend his philosophy to prescribe moral actions; however, surely any ethical philosophy must contain both prohibitions and admonitions.

The basis of the necessity of the Categorical Imperative rests on the fact that, for rational beings, a statement leading to a contradiction in logic is false. Kant here assumes that humans, rational beings, always think non-contradictorily (34). Although humans are often rational, they are also imperfect, and thus may irrationally will contradicting things. The Categorical Imperative may be necessary for a perfectly logical being, but not always for humans unless the will operates independent of human rationality.

One may object to Kant’s moral philosophy on the grounds that it ignores human desire. Many philosophers, including Hume and Hobbes, stipulated that human actions are driven mainly, if not solely, by their desires. Kant’s morality, however, requires that humans be able to follow duty independent of desire, or else no one could be moral (164). Kant states that it is impossible to prove we are free, because freedom does not belong to the world of experience. Although we cannot prove that we are actually free, humans must believe that they are free in order for them to act at all. This belief in freedom and responsibility causes one to act according to duty, and not according to desires.

Kant’s strict exclusivity of exceptions and dependence on rules makes his theory incomplete. “Any theory like Kant’s must claim that moral problems generally can be solved by means of a system of rules. . . . it has become increasingly obvious that no system of rules will be adequate to the task” (Kupperman, 69). It may always be immoral to do the things the Categorical Imperative proscribes; however, specific situations that involve more than one issue make it impossible to decide the morality of various cases. For example, suppose that one has to make a choice between lying to someone or being killed. The Categorical Imperative requires that one attempt to preserve one’s own life, and yet it also prohibits lying. Kant’s theory is useful as an atlas of immoral versus moral actions, but to decide most morality issues one needs a local road map.

Mill’s moral philosophy provides such a road map. With his general rule clearly defined to at least give an answer, if not necessarily the correct answer, for every situation, it is a more complete moral philosophy than Kant’s is. The basis of Mill’s ethics is the greatest happiness principle, which stipulates that the ultimate end of human action is the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. Mill explains that the general happiness is desirable because “each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness” (Mill qtd. in McCloskey, 61). Thus the greatest happiness total is the greatest happiness of each individual. What is this happiness, the ultimate goal of all human action? According to Mill, happiness is derived from the absence of pain and the presence, quantity, and quality of pleasure. Because this pleasure is the goal of all human action, it is also the principle on which morality, “the rules and precepts for human conduct” (Kolak, 834), is based. In order to distinguish between what will cause more or less happiness, Mill must explain how the quality of a pleasure is determined. A person who has had experience with two different pleasures will value the higher pleasure more (832). Higher pleasures generally have to do with the intellect, while lower pleasures have a physical basis. However, if people who have experience will always value the higher pleasure more, why is it that humans sometimes choose to eat good food or take a shower instead of reading a good book or listening to music? While one may choose a lower pleasure over a higher at times, the higher pleasure will still be valued more. It is merely too strenuous for humans to always be engaged in these intellectual pursuits (Kupperman, 81).

Our will is that which determines our actions, and according to Mill our actions are always geared towards attaining that which we desire. Thus, our will is subject to our desires. However, desire can also be subject to the will, as in altruism, or to habit, as when we eat whether or not we are hungry (Kolak, 839). Thus Mill’s philosophy accounts for more motives than simple indulgence. Each of these other motives is derived from the basic human desire for happiness and pleasure, for although one might seem to be gaining more pain than pleasure from sacrifice, if such sacrifice is associated with pleasure, then this desire still drives our will. In the case of habit, one’s actions were originally the result of a desire, and this desire carries on to one’s current actions. Thus the greatest happiness principle still holds.

Although so far Mill’s theory seems to cover more cases than Kant’s does, it too has its flaws. One of the first lies in the assumption that because each person desires his or her own happiness, each person also desires the happiness of all others (McCloskey, 62). Even if one should get around this assumption by saying that the greatest happiness is the composite of each person’s happiness, there is then the question of why it should make person A happy if he should increase B’s happiness. Although B’s happiness might increase the emotional well being of the community as a whole, it could decrease A’s joy, which is certainly not something A would will. This would only be true in an idealistic, highly unified society (63).

Mill also makes an appeal to the unproven doctrine of empiricism when he claims that pleasure is the only thing humans desire. He admits that this question is “dependent, like all similar questions, upon evidence” (Kolak, 838), and because we cannot prove that our experience dictates future events, we cannot prove that humans desire only pleasure simply because in our experience that is usually the case. We also cannot prove that pleasures always lead to happiness, for, although Mill explains at length how all components of happiness are desirable, this does not imply that all things that are desirable lead to happiness. It may be true that pleasure leads to happiness, and happiness is the ultimate goal of each individual. However, morality is “the rules and precepts for human conduct” (834), and not simply the causes of human behavior. Desire may drive human actions, but that doesn’t mean that desire should propel human actions. Morality is the ideal, not the reality. Although Mill partially solves this via Rule Utilitarianism, in which the greatest happiness principle is used to create a set of general rules, he still does not explain how individual desire leads to general happiness. Humans do not always act solely for pleasure. “Mill here failed to grasp that rational beings often deem it important to act on principles irrespective of the ends to be achieved thereby, or in spite of the consequences” (McCloskey, 59). Mill shows that there can be only one standard of morality, because otherwise the different standards would conflict in certain situations. However, even with a single principle, different interpretations could lend to conflicting ethics. Also, the greatest happiness principle does not encompass the whole of human motives. Thus the major flaws in Mill’s theory revolve around shaky proofs of the necessary connections between happiness, desire, and will, and their applications.

The flaws in Mill’s argument complement the strengths of Kant’s theory, and vice versa. One of the main differences is what each philosopher believes to be the reason to be moral, or the end of human existence. For Kant, this reason is duty, and any action done through duty to the Categorical Imperative is moral. However, the Categorical Imperative only designates actions moral by exclusion -- if an action does not create a logical contradiction should it be the standard for everyone’s actions, then it is moral. It is just as moral, then, to save someone’s life out of a sense of duty to the preservation of the human species, as it is to simply not commit any immoral actions. Although Kant’s theory is very good at assigning an immoral to wrong actions, it fails to distinguish between more and less moral acts, and thus does not require positive action for morality.

Mill’s theory, on the other hand, has a system of gradation of morality that shows an action to be more or less moral depending on the amount of happiness it generates. One cannot be a moral person under Mill’s theory without increasing the happiness of the human species, whereas under Kant’s philosophy one could be moral and still be utterly selfish. This flaw could be resolved if morality required a duty to more than just the Categorical Imperative; for example, a duty to increase the happiness of oneself and others. When one’s duties conflict, one could determine the total net change in happiness by each action and take the one that increased total happiness the most.

Another defect in Kant’s theory that is resolved in Mill’s moral system is the lack of specificity. Although a set of laws for a civilization could be derived from the Categorical Imperative, it would not be good for handling specific cases. Mill proposes that a system of laws be created from the greatest happiness principle, and morality then will depend on following those laws exactly. Even if in a certain case the action dictated by Mill’s law would be immoral, to be moral and to preserve the integrity of the law one still ought to follow the established laws. Here Kant’s theory also gives little leeway, for he also states that one always ought to follow the rules set down by the Categorical Imperative (Sullivan, 58). I propose that when an action appears to be an exception to specific derived rules, one should appeal to the general maxim from which the rule was derived, either the Categorical Imperative or the general happiness principle. This would allow exceptions to specific rules and yet preserve morality.

The subjectivity of Mill’s ideology is resolved by the objectivity of Kant’s. Whereas it is extremely difficult to decide whether a particular rule would increase or decrease the general happiness, it is easy to objectively create a rule that prohibits actions that cause a contradiction of the Categorical Imperative. Mill’s problem of why an individual would desire the happiness of all others is resolved by the absence of happiness as a factor in Kant’s philosophy. The problem of how pleasure leads to happiness and how happiness equates to morality is also irrelevant if duty to the Categorical Imperative and the happiness of others is the only factor. A good will, evidenced by duty to laws that promote the general happiness and are in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, is what constitutes morality.

Because Mill’s philosophy is based on experience, the moral laws can change over time, should it be necessary. Kant’s a priori theory, however, permits no such change. A true moral code would require its principles to be necessary truths and also its derived laws to be changeable to be valid even through changing circumstances. Combining the a priori principle of the Categorical Imperative with the a posteriori derived standards gives us such a moral code, where the general basis of morality does not change, but the specific laws can adapt to a dynamic world and improve as our knowledge of morality improves.

Neither theory duly credits altruism very well as a moral action. According to Kant, whether we care about others is irrelevant, as long as out motive is duty to the law. Similarly, Mill believes that we desire others’ happiness as a component of our own, but whether we act to help others or whether they are helped simply as a side effect of our self-serving actions, the moral value is the same. One theory that would incorporate charity would stipulate that an act is moral if we act for the sake of others, or in the case that others are unaffected, we may act for ourselves. Why is it moral to desire the happiness of others? This concept is integral to both philosophies; in Kant’s, where the Categorical Imperative is based on doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, and in Mill’s, as we strive to increase not just our own individual happiness, but the happiness of all humans.

Kant and Mill introduce many revolutionary insights into the field of ethics. Though their methods of reasoning of rationalism and empiricism at first seem to be contradictory, when their philosophies are combined into one, it results in a complete, more perfect view than each taken by itself. In such a combined philosophy, the Golden Rule or Categorical Imperative combined with the greatest happiness principle is the theoretical basis for all rules, for, if we act so that we cannot will that everyone else act the same way, our actions will not decrease the general happiness. In deciding the morality of specific cases, one can apply both rules and determine the best course of action. A set of laws could also be derived from these two maxims which could include both proscriptions and prescriptions. Not only is this system objective and based on the a priori truths of Kant, but it is also flexible and can adapt to changing truths and apply to every situation as a moral system should.

Works Cited

Kolak, Daniel. The Mayfield Anthology of Western Philosophy. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

Kupperman, Joel J. The Foundations of Morality. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

McCloskey, H.J. John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1971.

Sullivan, Roger J. An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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