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Kant vs. Mill: An Exploration of Intentions and Consequences in Ethics

What gives an action moral worth? Is it the intention or the consequence of the action? The philosopher Immannuel Kant would argue that the intention, or the will of the action, is the only thing that could have moral worth. Kant’s ethics of the will has its roots in the idea of duty; that our duty is to act in such a way that our actions can be universalized to all situations. This is what Kant calls the categorical imperative. If the will of our action can be universally appreciated, then we would be acting with moral worth. Conversely, John Stuart Mill would argue that an action has moral worth only if the consequences of that action yield the maximum amount of happiness and pleasure for all sentient beings, disregarding the intention and the will. For Mill, what we intend to occur has no moral worth whatsoever. We could, for example, will that our actions yield nothing but negative consequences, in hopes to ruin or destroy another individual. If, by chance, this action ends up being beneficial to that individual, Mill would consider that action to have moral worth. How can these two drastically different views of morality be reconciled? Well, one way is to consider the faults of each of these different systems of ethics, and determine which system seems to be less problematic. When doing so, one might conclude that one system seems to work better than the other. I will argue that Mill’s view is less problematic than Kant’s ethics of the will, and that Mill’s system offers more realistic alternatives to the problems in Kant’s ethics; those problems being that our intentions are difficult to identify, that the idea of morality is not universalizable, and that consequences must be considered when designing a system of ethics.

Kant’s ethics of the will suggest that the only thing that is certain in our lives is what is inside of us, our will, our desire to do the right thing. The only thing that matters is our subjective inner moral consciousness. Kant built an entire system of ethics around this assumption that all humans inherently have the ability to reason and to discern right from wrong, and based the idea of morality on our will and our intention. But how can our true intention ever really be identified? Can we ever be entirely sure of our intentions? There are endless variables and factors that go into the decisions we make, such as our experience up to that point and the influence that other people have had on us. When faced with a situation that requires a quick decision, it seems absurd to assume that one could take all of these factors into account and be completely aware of all of the things that are shaping the decision in that moment. It seems, then, that our intention may be too difficult to identify before making a decision. Yet, for Kant, it is the touchstone by which all moral worth is granted. Wouldn’t one want something more concrete, something more identifiable when considering if an action has moral worth? This is where Mill’s Utilitarianism offers a more useful alternative. Mill acknowledges that intention is a weak foundation for building a system of ethics, and turns toward something more useful; the consequences of that intention. For Mill, we must gauge moral worth by the result of the action taken. For example, a chemist who works for a pharmaceutical company could tell himself that his intention behind making a certain new drug was to improve the well-being of society (though, of course, the intention could be to gain wealth, fame, acknowledgement, etc). In designing this new drug, this person took all necessary precautions. Yet, upon the release of the new drug, it was discovered to have a fatal reaction with many of those who took it. Kant would, of course, say that this individual had the right intention and a good will, and therefore the action had moral worth. It seems to violate common sense that the fatalities of many innocent people could have moral worth. Mill would disagree, saying that the action did not have moral worth because the consequence of the action was that many people died. This view is much more realistic and does not violate our common sense.

Another large aspect of Kant’s system of ethics is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asks us to act upon only those principles that we would choose to become universal laws for all rational beings, unconditionally. An example of a principle of the categorical imperative would be telling the truth. For Kant, telling the truth is a principle that has moral worth, that should be universalized to all situations. One could easily see the problems that arise from this generalization of the usefulness of a principle. One could agree rather easily, that telling the truth does have moral worth, that we would want people to tell us the truth, and that it is, in a sense, good to tell the truth. But, the universalization seems to be where Kant runs into trouble. For example, let’s consider an instance in which telling the truth becomes a different situation entirely. A mentally ill man is in prison because he has gone on a shooting rampage in the middle of the city and killed many people. He has just escaped from the prison and is running from house to house, asking people if they own a gun. He approaches a house of a licensed gun-owner and asks the man if he owns a gun. Now, surely, if the man tells the truth, as Kant would have him do, the mentally ill man would take the gun by force and go on another shooting rampage and kill many people. If the man lies, and tells the mentally ill man that he does not own a gun, he will likely save the lives of many innocent people. Here we see the weakness of the categorical imperative. For Kant, this man’s actions would have moral worth had he told the escaped prisoner that he owned a gun, which would, in turn, kill many innocent people. Once again, we see a situation in which a morally worthwhile action results in terrible consequences. This seems hard to reconcile. But again, we turn to Mill for an alternative. Utilitarianism, with the focus on the consequence, and on the maximization of happiness and pleasure, would surely say that the saving of many innocent people would be the action that would contain the moral worth. This seems to make much more logical sense. In Mill’s ethics, we can focus on what yields the best consequences in each unique situation.

The two examples that we have examined thus far clearly show the importance of consequences when discerning if an action has moral worth. Yet, as stated earlier, Kant’s ethics of the will ignore the consequences of the action, as long as it is done from a sense of duty, so that it may be universally applied. We have also seen how a good will or good intention can lead to an action and a consequence that is bad; or in the examples above, fatal. A system that, theoretically, could do nothing but harm others, is not one that should be given much weight. Mill’s ethics of Utilitarianism, conversely, is grounded in the concepts of maximizing pleasure, happiness, and utility. We can gauge those three ideas by looking at the consequences of our actions.

Critics of Utilitarianism may argue that happiness and pleasure are immeasurable. And this may be true; there is no way to measure how much happiness or pleasure is achieved through a certain action. But this idea does not take away from the substance of the system, only from how we measure how effective the system is; or how much pleasure and happiness is being yielded from an action. Nonetheless, happiness and pleasure are still the consequences of the action in order for there to be moral worth, regardless of the ambiguity of the measured amount. And this seems to be a rather small criticism compared to the several areas of Kant’s ethics I have discussed above.

Another objection some may have to Utilitarianism is the ambiguity of determining if an action will yield good consequences in the immediate or in the long term, and which should be given more weight. For example, should an individual trade what will yield pleasure and happiness in the immediate for what will yield pleasure and happiness in the long run? Critics of Utilitarianism say that this question presents a problem for Mill. Is one type of happiness better than the other? How do we choose between them? And which has more moral worth? Again, this objection pertains to a measurement rather than the actual substance of the system.

Kant and Mill both formulate complex systems of ethics in hopes of understanding human morality. When discussing moral systems, it is difficult, if not impossible, to champion one view as a whole.  No system is flawless.  Morality seems too big of a concept to be understood, even within a complex framework.  So we’re left to consider these systems, and determine for ourselves what resonates.  Often, what we find is that certain systems are less problematic than others.  Kant’s ethics are very problematic because intentions can be difficult or impossible to evaluate and morality is often not universal. Mill offers a less problematic alternative, an ethics based on consequences, which can be more objectively evaluated or realized. The benefit of a system of morality and ethics is that it presents a groundwork in which we as humans can understand ourselves and the world around us. Mill’s Utilitarianism is a good example of a system that points us in the right direction, towards the effect that our actions have on the world around us, rather than a system that pays no attention to the effect we produce on others.


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