Immanuel Kant is a very influential western philosopher whose studies and researches have had a great impact on the development of western philosophical thought. It is difficult to meet a person who would not know the expression Categorical Imperatives that make the basis of the Kant’s teaching. Kant has developed an ethical system of his own mostly presented in his two works – The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and The Critique of Practical Reason. Search for universal and supreme principle of morality was on the focus of his attention. Finally, the universal moral law (Categorical Imperative) was found as a basic law that can apply to complex and changing situations.
Kant distinguished imperative as command, dictating particular actions. He defines several types of imperatives. He presents hypothetical imperative as opposition to moral or categorical ones. In general, he defines hypothetical imperative as imperative, which is formed in conditional form and focus on the final result. Thus the person knows that some actions will bring desirable result – happiness, and behaves accordingly. Foe example, “if I learn the poem, I will get a good mark”. All in all, the desire to be happy is not of great value and it can not be the measure for morality. Kant opposes hypothetical imperatives to moral ones as hypothetical imperatives do not contain universal truths and are based on subjective considerations. He states that there can be no general happiness, because people desire different things and they understand happiness in different ways. Hypothetical imperative is defined by personal liking and preferences and can not be called a universal moral principle. (Kant, 1964)
Kant states that good or bad actions can be performed to achieve the worse or better result and this puts us in the position of moral dilemma where choosing good for yourself, one can hurt others and vise versa. The actions we perform after these reflections and considerations Kant defies as moral actions. Moral actions for him are the actions, where reasons stay earlier than the action itself, and where we take others into account when taking the final decision. It means that we think about the consequences of our action for others and ourselves before we perform it.
According to Kant, all humans should follow universal moral low and “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, 1967, p. 227).
He defines morality as a set of rules, which make the part of pure reason. According to Kant this pure reason should make us choose such type of actions, which bring good to others or help us to self-improve. Such kind of actions and behavior must make people virtuous presenting the patterns of moral behavior. When applying this theory to reality we very soon notice that not all human actions can be directed to help others or to self-perfect the personality. So, moral laws can not direct human behavior in such cases and here dichotomy between morality and prudence arises as Kant describes prudence as something, which regulates human actions when moral regulations can’t be applied. In Morals, he states that main difference between prudence and morality is in a priory nature of morality while prudence does not possess this characteristic.
John Stuart Mill is a prominent philosopher of the nineteenth century, who is famous for his theory of happiness – Utilitarianism. According to this ethic theory people must try to promote the greatest number of happiness to a great amount of people. Mil’s theory is an exact antithesis to Kant’s theory, which is based on rational thinking, while Mill is guided by the principle of pleasure.
In his work Utilitarianism Mill presents the first principle of morality, which helps us to distinguish right and wrong: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill, p. 246).
Happiness is the only thing we desire essentially, not just for the sake of other things. So, being the only true value, happiness can distinguish moral principles in the society. Mill states that people do not always value things as the means to reach happiness; they value them for their own sakes. All in all, valuing things for their own sakes, people actually value them as parts of happiness. For example, people value freedom, peace, and knowledge as things that bring happiness. So having their own value, these things are parts of happiness.
According to Mill only the feeling of happiness can teach all human being to be tolerant to each other and develop the inner desire to be in unity with other people. This feeling helps to care about other people, worry about them and have not individual interests and follow not selfish goals but perceive interests linked with others. Of course, people can not always strive for the general happiness, but one of the signals of moral progress is the phenomenon when the happiness of other people, even unknown people, becomes important. It the greatest stage of morality and each society must move in this direction. (Mill, pp. 203-59)
In my opinion, both Kant and Mill theories are worth our attention because they are based on assumptions proved by philosophers’ arguments. Nevertheless, both theories have their drawbacks.
Kant states that morality is based on pure reason. People motivations are based only on rational thinking and reasoning from this people consciously do not do any harm to each other. Nevertheless, in real life we see that motivation is not always based on rationalism, but in most cases on our desire to feel good and be happy. Striving for happiness is not a rational desire, it is a feeling. I agree with Kant at a point that happiness is a subjective notion, but at the same time I agree with Mill that there is general happiness. All people have their small desires and goals but at the same time we all have an ideal of general happiness: it is peace, freedom, wealth, virtue and so on. To my mind, these values are true values and just they form moral principles, which can be applied for the whole society.
1. Kant Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
2. Mill, John, On Liberty, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2002.
3. Mill, J. S., Utilitarianism. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, J. M. Robson (ed.), Toronto: University of Toronto Press, v. 10, 1861, pp. 203-59.