Kant’s theory of ethics is one of the deontological moral theories. Such theories assert that the rightness or wrongness of human actions is independent of their consequences but dependent on whether they help people fulfil their duties. In this theory, Kant encourages people to do what is good because it is the right thing and refrain from wrong actions because they are wrong. According to Kant, there are universal moral principles, which he refers to as categorical imperative that apply to all people regardless of the situation in which they are. Kant claims that morality and freedom define categorical imperative, which determines the moral duty of humans (Gary 119).
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The word imperative is meant to imply a command and by categorical imperatives, Kant means unconditional commands. According to Kant, a categorical imperative is the basis of human morality as it commands human behavior and no one can opt-out of it or claim that it is inapplicable to them.
The philosopher claims that laws of freedom, which are self-imposed, govern a moral world. He argues that morality exists because freedom exists and that there is no morality without freedom. Rationality is the source of human freedom, without which there would be no freedom and thus no morality. On this, he claims that humans would be slaves to their passions without reason, that is, they would not be free without it. It, therefore, implies that, if there is no reason there is no freedom, and consequently no morality. According to him, the moral obligation of human beings is derived from their free rational nature.
On page 116 Kant says, “nothing in the world …, can be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.” Kant implies that good will and its desires are freely conformed to the moral law. However, humans are at liberty to obey this law. According to him, moral law differentiates right actions from wrong ones. Morally right action is done out of a sense of moral duty, not the one whose consequences are good. He says, “… the purposes which we may have in view in our actions, or their effects …, cannot give to actions any unconditional or moral worth” (118). According to Kant, people need to act rightfully because it is their duty but not because the actions would benefit them.
Kant believes that reason should be the basis of ethics if it has to be absolute and precisely objective. However, such reasons should not be based on self-desires and interests but absolute. He argues that moral law is only effective when universalized. To universalize this law, the philosopher formulated it as a categorical imperative. One of the formulations of this imperative is on page 120 where he requires people to ask themselves, “…can I also will that my maxim should be a universal law? If not, then it must be rejected.” A maxim can be thought of as an intention revealing principle. By this statement, Kant implies that an action is morally right if it can be universalized and wrong if it cannot. Therefore, moral people are those who can universalize their actions, otherwise, they are immoral.
The strength of the Kantian theory of ethics is found in its universality and rationality. Kant’s theory provides universally acceptable laws, which do not allow favoritism. As well, the theory lays a foundation for human rights with a revolutionized perception of equality and justice. However, Kant’s theory poses a conflict on the concept of duty. For instance, if a person was to choose between caring for their mother or their father, Kant’s theory fails to state the morally right choice. As well, Kant fails to appreciate the dynamics of life situations as some conditions may warrant law-breaking.
Mill’s Perception of ethics
Mill contributed to the development of utilitarianism, a moral theory whose principle, is based on happiness. The theory was introduced by Bentham and differentiates right from wrong by applying the utility principle of maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Although Bentham felt that the theory applied to all people including individuals, Mill held that it was highly meant for multitudes rather than individuals. According to Mill “good is pleasure” and utilitarianism seeks to take full advantage of the actions “that result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” (121).
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Mill believes that molarity is rooted solely in happiness and that actions are good if they cause pleasure, and wrong if they result in pain. According to Mill, the quality and quantity of the pleasures vary. Pleasures sourced from people’s higher faculties are of more importance than the baser ones. He argues that achievements should also be valued as they are part of people’s happiness.
Mill claims that utilitarianism is integral to the social nature of humans and that people would easily internalize and abide by its moral standards if society embraced it. On page 124, the philosopher claims that “men often …, make their election for the nearer good …” Mill adds, “whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, … is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so” (129). Through this, the philosopher implies that being happy is the ultimate desire of all human beings and that any other objects they desire are means to happiness. Therefore, utilitarianism is concerned with the consequences of an action as opposed to categorical theory, which requires people to consider their moral duty before acting.
The strength of Mill’s utilitarianism theory is in its practicality and focus on the repercussions of actions. For instance, it is agreeable that many people aim for a happy life and strive to achieve it. It thus makes happiness a crucial element when making decisions. A weakness of utilitarianism is in its inadequacy to protect human rights and account for humanity. The desire to maximize pleasure can lead to the escalation of immorality. For instance, since happiness is subjective, while some people may find pleasure in watching movies, stealing may be pleasurable to others.
Considering these two theories on ethics, Kant’s seems the most convincing. A situation where students falsely accuse their classmate of theft, because they dislike them and demand their expulsion from the school can result in injustice if Mill’s theory is applied. Since utilitarianism is about making the majority happy, the school principal may decide to expel the innocent student to make the class happy, a decision considered unfair. However, if the categorical imperative was to be applied, the innocent student would be protected despite the reaction from the class. The fairness associated with the categorical imperative makes it more applicable than utilitarianism, which ignores the feelings of the minorities.
Gary, Kessler. Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. 1992.