Ethics can be defined as “the conscious reflection on our moral beliefs with the aim of improving, extending or refining those beliefs in some way.” (Dodds, Lecture 2) Kantian moral theory and Utilitarianism are two theories that attempt to answer the ethical nature of human beings. This paper will attempt to explain how and why Kantian moral theory and Utilitarianism differ as well as discuss why I believe Kant’s theory provides a more plausible account of ethics.
Immanuel Kant’s deonotological ethical theory assesses if actions are moral based on the person’s will or intention of acting. Kant’s theory can be categorized as a deonotological because “actions are not assessed to be morally permissible on the basis of consequences they produce, but rather on the form of the agent’s will in acting,” (Dodds, Lecture 7) therefore his actions are based on duty and not consequential. Kantianism is based on three principles: maxims, willing, and the categorical imperative. Kant states that a maxim is a ”general rule or principle which will explain what a person takes himself to be doing and the circumstances in which he takes himself to be doing it” (Feldman, 1999, 201). It is important that this principle be universalisable and that the maxim can be applied consistently to everyone that encounters similar situations, therefore willed as a universal law. The second aspect of Kant’s theory is willing. This involves the agent consistently committing oneself to make an action occur. He states that, “In general, we can say that a person wills inconsistently if he wills that p be the case and he wills that q be the case and its impossible for p and q to be the case together” (Feldman, 1999, 203). The last aspect of Kant’s theory is the categorical imperative. The importance of the categorical imperative is that one must act in such a way that they can will that the maxim behind one’s actions can be conceived as part of the universal law. The maxim has to be consistent and able to be applied to every situation, for every person. The other main point of Kantian moral theories are the differences between imperfect and perfect duties. Perfect duties are those duties that one must always perform in a particular situation, whereas imperfect duties are those that one must perform only when the situation arises.
Utilitarianism is another theory in which its main objective is to explain the nature of ethics and morality. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which is based upon utility, or doing that which produces the greatest happiness. According to a utilitarian the morality of act is found just if the consequence produces the greatest overall utility for everyone. However, if the greatest possible utility is not produced, the action is then morally wrong. This view says that a person should act as to produce the greatest overall happiness and pleasure for everyone who may be directly or indirectly affected by the action. Therefore, a utilitarian would require that for every action the corresponding consequences for every action should be thoroughly weighed and alternatives proposed before deciding whether or not to perform such an action.
Kantian moral theory and Utilitarianism are similar in the respect that they both attempt to explain how one can go about acting ethically, however they differ in areas of measuring morality and their usage of rules. Both Kant and Mills measure morality in different ways. Kantianism says that an act is deemed moral for two reasons: if it done for the sake of duty and if its maxim can be willed as a universal law. If one completes an action based on their duty to perform, they do the right thing because it is what they feel they ought to do as their duty. Therefore, this act would be considered morally just. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, would only see the act as morally permissible if the consequences of that action produce maximum utility and happiness for all involved.
The two theories also differ in the ways in which rules are applied. Kantian moral theory values the universal law and maxims as its guide for how people should act in a given situation. Maxims “describe some general sort of situation, and then propose some form of action for the situation. To adopt a maxim is to commit yourself to acting in the described way whenever the situation in question arises.” (Feldman, 1999, 202) Maxims are also used consistently throughout and therefore are a valued guide because they apply universally. For example, Kant made a moral rule for lying which says that if one person can make a lying-promise, then it should be said that everyone can do the same and therefore it being a universal law trust would be self-defeating. By saying that it is not a perfect duty to lie, the universal law or rule, states that no one can under any circumstance can lie. Kant has also developed similar moral rules for rusting of talents, helping others in distress, and suicide. Kantianism can therefore be seen as a rational and logical theory in which decisions can be made. In comparison, Utilitarianism has no universal set of rules on to which morality is based; therefore they judge each situation individually. Because of this, in weighing consequences to determine if an action will maximize utility this can become a lengthy, time-consuming process. Not to mention the fact that you will never clearly know if your decision will in effect truly promote the most utility.
In assessing the two moral theories, I believe that Kantianism provides a more plausible account of ethics even though from the outside it seems as though Utilitarianism would be the more ethical theory because it looks to maximize utility. Utilitarianism refers to moral theories which maintain that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable. Therefore, correct moral conduct is determined solely by analyzing an action’s consequences. Utilitarianism requires that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action; we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. It seems as though this process is more subjective and can not be universally applied whereas Kantianism can be. Also, one’s person determination of what produces the greatest utility may not be consistent with another person’s, therefore this theory is inconsistent and a universal law cannot be applied from it. Kantianism is by far more consistent of a theory and can be universally applied to all beings. It is more plausible because even if the consequences of performing an action aren’t necessarily the best, the agent is still obligated to perform the action because it is there duty to do so. Therefore, ethically and morally they are doing the right thing.
In conclusion, this paper has discussed two main theories regarding the ethical behavior of human beings. Kantianism is a theory based on duties, maxims, willing and the categorical imperative. Utilitarianism is based on the concept that we ought to do whatever produce the greatest overall utility and this will be the morally right action. Both theories, although similar in some ways, possess clear differences. Kantianism focuses on the motivation of actions, has clear and distinct set of universal rules, and is morally logical. On the other hand, Utilitarianism relies on the consequences of an action, has no set universal laws as each action is assessed on an individual basis, and morality is based on the results of the assessment. Because of these reasons, I believe that Kantianism is the more ethically plausible theory of the two.