Morality: Immanuel Kant's And John Stuart Mill's Innovative And Eye-opening Philosophies
Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill both propose innovative and eye-opening philosophies regarding the concept of feelings in the study of moral philosophy. Kantian ethics focuses on separating the intrinsic good of an action from the morally right intention. Moral duty according to Kant, must come out of the action rather than any preconceived notions one may have before the action is done. John Stuart Mill on the other hand would claim that our basic human emotions should be taken into consideration when going about life. Both philosophers bring important concepts into realization, However I will argue that John Stuart Mill’s philosophy is more correct in his approach. Feelings or emotions are what drive our everyday actions as human beings therefore it is much more reasonable and realistic for humans to use information from our environment to deduce whether we take part in action or not.
Kant begins his approach on moral philosophy by blatantly stating that self-interest must not be considered when referring to moral action. His reasoning is that once there is inclination present, the action is nullified making it immoral. Kant delves deeper into this concept with his theory of moral worth. Moral worth to Kant is the separation of achieving the action verse fulfilling a moral deed. Kant believes that there is a flaw in the way humans approach the positions of doing a deed because he would argue that there is always intention behind the action, he supports this on page 9 of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, “As one which to have influence on the will, its true function must be to produce a will which is not merely good as a means to some further end, but good in itself.” Take the example of helping an elderly lady cross the street, to follow Kant’s philosophy correctly one would need to without hesitation help out the lady and go back to your business. If this situation was to happen in reality, there would be a moment of thought in anyone’s mind to justify helping the elderly lady so she wouldn’t get hit by a car or trip in the middle of the street. Even with a morally correct justification, Kant argues that the action done to help the lady was immoral due to having inclination of helping her in the first place. The good being done must not be a preconceived thought but instead done because it is what needs to be done.
Mill’s argument about moral action is simpler than Kant’s, because as human beings we are able to relate to the thought process of happiness coinciding with what must be right. Some can argue that happiness is relative and not everyone experiences full happiness, I would respond by stating that everyone has at least experienced pain or suffering at some point in their life leading them to stop doing an action. There is an innate instinct we all hold in which we evade situations which impact our life’s in a negative ways or most likely act in accordance to end whatever is causing the pain. We have been almost programmed to pursue what makes us happy and fulfills our pleasure not only socially, but it is engrained within us biologically. To aid the survival of any species for example, there are biological measures which essentially help us respond to stimuli which either aid or inhibit survival. Although we live in a much more advanced society than humans ever had before, over generations pain and pleasure have configured our thinking to act in ways which pursue pleasure leading to a much more moral existence. There simply will always be an outside factor in which influences us to react in a specific way, either effecting ourselves or the ones around us. Therefore, with the societal influences which pressure our actions or biological influences which we all contain, Mill is much more correct in stating that morality is based on human emotion.
In order to continue, I believe it is important to define what pleasures we are referring to in the context of both Kant and Mill. Pleasures can either be defined through personal well-being or the well-being of others which can bring happiness. When we look at personal pleasure, we sometimes have the thought process of being selfish or not caring about others in society, however, is that necessarily a bad thing when referring to morality. Let’s say everyone has a moral compass but the ways in which we act on those moral decisions are based on environmental factors out of our control. Through Kant’s prospective, our moral decisions are completely separate from pleasure or harm because he doesn’t allow for there to be a connection between morality and inclination. This is the first place where I believe his philosophy is flawed, we are not programmed beings who go about everyday life, not taking into consideration societal factors. Mills would agree with the statement that personal pleasures are integral in our day to day decision making because it is the basis for our survival as a species. We as humans have always weighed our options in order to guarantee the survival of our species, which would not be possible if we followed Kant’s philosophy. It is important to distinguish however, that I am not talking about primal instinct because Kant is not talking about instinct in an animal sense, but rather laws which we all are bound to morally. Mill also is hesitant when discussing pleasure and animal instinct as proven by the quote, “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites…” He is essentially stating that we as humans are higher beings than animals because we are able to distinguish pleasures for survival and pleasures for moral causes. The distinction between animal and human must be made because morality is what essentially separates our existence verses animals who are not basing their life on moral actions.
The second type of pleasure deals with the well-being of others which in turn gives us pleasure. Taking into consideration the previous example of the elderly lady, most individuals would feel a sense of accomplishment as if the good being done directly impacted their life. Since we get this pleasure Mill’s theory holds true that we would continue to act because it brings pleasure or does not bring pain to anyone involved in the situation. The problem may arise however, if an action is being done out of good intent bringing pleasure to the actor in the situation but non pleasure to the recipient of the action, who decided whether the action is of moral virtue. Since there is still an absence of pleasure, being associated with the situation Mill would argue that the entire scenario is of nonmoral standards.
I believe a fault in both philosophies regarding inclination and pleasure is the fact that we are assuming that everyone holds this concept of a moral compass which dictates how we live our lives. When philosophers try to explain concepts that seem to them as being innate, they use morality as an easy explanation to categorize everyone. Aristotle specifically did this by outlining 4 specific virtues which defines what a moral person is and how to identify one in society. The moral philosophers I have focused on do not necessarily take the same route as Aristotle nor do they specifically explain what being moral really means in the context of modern society. The problem arises however, not when we try to define morality but rather applying morality to everyone in society. When considering morality in this conversation we must be aware that not everyone holds the same idea of right and wrong in life, which inherently debunks the uniformity both philosophers are trying to apply to morality. For Kant, a person is deemed to be moral if they go about life without inclination or ambition to achieve any specific goal. However, one can argue that acting in a moral fashion can be the result of preforming actions because it leads to a good or right cause. Is morality than defined by the action or the thought behind the action? Take for example the moral act of giving to the poor through charitable deeds. The action of giving to the poor is assumed as being of moral status, however what if the person chose to donate for a tax deduction at the end of the year. This example would support Kant’s claim that the thought behind the action is immoral because it stems from greed, but the action being done can illicit some type of pleasure which would than satisfy Mill’s philosophy making it moral. We should also take into account the relativity of how actions affect certain people rather than others. If the same action is done and negatively affects one person more than another, is the action than morally wrong since the action brings forth more “unhappiness” to one? According to Mill, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” By stating the term happiness, he is referring to the deficiency of pain in a situation which as a result creates “Unhappiness” leading to the action being wrong or immoral. Therefore, going back to the situation where someone is hurt more than someone else, is the action immoral since there still is evidence of “unhappiness” associated with the action and its results? In my opinion, when this situation is presented at a larger scale with the actions affecting society and maybe the world, Mill’s argument is much more valid that Kant’s. I believe this because if an action is done and it has a ripple effect in society as a whole to where innocent people who have nothing to do with the situation are being negatively affected, the action is than to be called wrong or immoral. If the action is done in a much more localized sense to where only the people involved are being affected by the outcome, than the rationalization must change due to the fact that society in general is not being affected because the action is so minute.
Mill’s also brings up a refutation regarding the much larger topic in which both philosophies fall under which is Utilitarianism. Mill’s responds, “It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that chills their moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration of the consequences of actions, not taking into their estimate the qualities from which those actions emanate.” I would agree with Mill’s statement because in comparison to Mill’s argument where we must take into account pleasure and happiness, Kant seems like the ideal Utilitarian in the fact that he makes humans seem cold and dry while not taking into account heir qualities as human beings. Kant’s philosophy would work on programmed sentient beings who interact in society for a specific purpose, however when dealing with human beings who are inherently flawed due to our way of interacting with society it is unreasonable to not take into account feelings and desires. One counter argument one can make in support of Kant is that Mill is specifically talking about the consequences of actions which would not be considered in Kant’s philosophy because the action will be done anyways. Without rationalizing the action there should than be no thought given to the consequences even if they turn out to be morally correct. Mill does have an argument regarding the entire field of utilitarianism which makes his philosophy even more interesting by including necessary human emotional outcomes which everyone can relate to.
Both philosophies do present the concept of right and wrong which may be more subtle in Kant’s philosophy but is much more blatant in the argument Mill presents due to the premise of pleasure and emotion. Since Kant refers to an action being moral or immoral, He is allowing for the analysis of the action being either right or wrong by others but not the one doing the action. This is important because he essentially alienates the actor from the situation, but imagine if the entirety of society were to adopt this way of thinking and go about their lives not taking responsibility for actions that they had no preconceived notions of being either right or wrong. The society Kant wants to present is one some may argue as being dystopic due to the lack of emotion present in his description of what it is to be moral. However, is emotion necessary when talking about a concept that should be taken for fact as morality. If something seems to be moral, then the general consciences would be that that action or outcome is considered truth or correct. The reason Kant’s theory is so riveting is because he goes against the norms of society which have been adopted over centuries as a result of religious or governmental factors. Instead of focusing on what the outcomes of the action being done in the first place, Kant spun this concept around and introduced the idea of duty which revolutionized how people act on a daily basis.
To Kant, duty is the premise on which we as humans carry out our interactions with everyone else. Some may criticize Kant for using such an ambiguous term to describe human relation, but this term may make more sense compared to the argument Mill presents through the addition of pleasure and pain. By stating that everyone holds a duty and responsibility to fulfill them, it diminishes the concept of the end result which Kant is so opposed to. The Stanford Encyclopedia for Philosophy states, “Kant believes that our moral concerns are dominated by the question of what duties are imposed on us by a law that commands with a uniquely moral necessity.” The idea they bring up regarding a law that is imposed on us, is essentially what morality is. Although this law may not be government sanctioned or punishable in a said court of law, it taps into a side of humanity that would rather prefer right over wrong. Instead of a law, Mill takes the route of laying out the format for pleasure and non-pleasure but does not go to the extent of solidifying a certain way for all to act. The fluidity of pleasure is what I believe makes Mills’ philosophy more correct in his approach to morality. Everyone seems to have the distinction to what pleasure is allowing for more people to adopt his philosophy.
The dynamic both philosophers portray in their philosophies helps us visualize how and why their philosophies should be practiced. When taking into account the duty aspect of Kant’s philosophy, one realizes that it is a much more effective way of realizing what actions fit within the construct of being moral or immoral. By stating that everyone holds these duties, it is the result of how we use our innate virtues which results in the outcome. The technical use for a law or rule is to set a standard for people to achieve the end goal without taking it into account when the action is being done or even thought about before it happens. The action is therefore to be done as a result of guidelines which are already imprinted within us limiting the need for getting something out of the deed being done. The reason why the argument presented by Mill seems more intuitive to human life is because it is much more relatable than Kant’s theory. We are consistently dealing with immorality on a daily basis which proves that “unhappiness” exists, making us aware of our surroundings and how we interact in society. By the simple rationalization that people do not fully interact morally with each other, Kant is limited to a select few who choose to follow his ideals. If everyone has these moral duties and laws to follow or accomplish in life, why does evil still exist? There doesn’t seem to be exceptions to Kant’s singular method of achieving morality unlike Mill who acknowledges that life has both good and bad. By following the good, we are able to work within the limits of moral action which is preferred as a society.
As a result, Mill and Kant both provide new and distinct ways in trying to understand the ambiguous topic of morality and how society is affected by our actions. Kant specifically denoting human emotion to create innate laws or duties which we must follow and achieve in order to be moral, is extremely different from Mill’s concept of embracing our human emotion and acting in accordance to how we feel. Both philosophies definitely have their own flaws which show that morality is something that one must experience through trial and error in their life. Kant is inherently wrong by labeling rules which need to be followed because people are influenced by different societal factors due to various systematic injustices which are out of our control. The laws should be placed against those who control the rest of society because the object of many, even in our modern world is to simply survive. Mill allows for people to live their life while taking into account societal stimuli to base their actions on what they perceive as right or wrong according to how they feel. Such a simple way of thinking can maybe help the world become a little more moral and less self-centred.