When speaking about moral theory it is hard not to question moral standards of two big philosophers John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. Mill believed that the action's consequences determine its moral worth, while Kant argued that morality of the action depends on the good will. Based on the two contradicting theories above this paper will support Mill's view of the moral worth of an action because it is determined by its practical and useful consequences in our society while Kant’s dismissal of the action's consequences is irrelevant to our society's moral values.
The aim of this paper is to clearly show how Mill’s belief to do good for all is more appropriate for our society than Kant’s principle that it is better to just do what's morally right. I would like to present these philosophers' theories to the reader, and explain why J.S. Mill offers a better guide to moral behavior while describing the differences he distinguished between rights and responsibilities of human beings to themselves and society.
Both philosophers offered unique justification for moral theory; they believed that these theories can be used as a foundation to establish moral worth. Kant based his view of morality entirely on reason. His main theory is founded on the idea that the any morally correct action must possess “good will.” In other words, a person, who makes his or her decisions on the basis of the moral law, is a “good” person. Kant clarifies that a “good will” is not good because of its outcome or effect, but because of its desire to do well for another. The motive of the action that is provoked by self-interest or self-happiness, aside from how indispensable it might be, does not qualify as a “good will”, but the intention motivated by moral duty before another is an eligible definition of “good will” in Kant's view.
Mill on the other hand based his theory on the fact that the consequences of an action determine its moral worth. Mill was the leading defendant of utilitarianism against critics in the nineteenth century. Utilitarianism defined as the greatest happiness principle was established from the idea that the actions are right based on the amount of happiness they endorse. “By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (Cahn & Vitrano, 2008, p. 121). Mill describes two types of pleasures that differ in qualities; these are the higher pleasures - intellectual, artistic, and moral; and the lower pleasures - the physical pleasures that can be experienced by humans as well as by animals. In other words the good action is the one that brings the greatest happiness to the highest number of participants.
I believe that Mill’s theory is very intuitive, to the point, and straight-forward; do what is better for everyone. Unlike Kant’s view, where morality is opposed to happiness, Mill linked these two attributes together. According to Utilitarianism the core of moral judgment should focus on the amount of pain and pleasure a certain act creates for maximum number of people.
Mills theory has common sense and we can find it in the following example. A woman was attacked by the rapist or a murderer, while fighting she gets a hold of a knife. According to Mill she should stab the rapist for her own good and her action of self-defense will not be considered immoral. But according to Kant the odds of such self defense being immoral would gain ground. By acting morally using Kant's view she would not be able to defend and protect herself, consequently, this woman may be killed or heavily injured. In this case it is obvious that acting morally under Kant's theory could potentially endanger a life of a human being or lives of any future victims attacked by this criminal.
Unlike Kant’s moral philosophy that does not offer the option to choose between actions, Mill’s theory offers the flexibility of choosing the action based on the evaluation of the outcomes. Most of the time people act in accordance to the Mill’s theory, where one can access the consequences and choose the action that will increase the chances of the positive result for self and others.
While utilitarianism is a popular ethical theory it is difficult to rely on it as the only method for making moral decisions or actions. For example N. Warburton in his book “Philosophy: The Classics” presented the objection to Mill’s theory that he called “Difficulties of calculation.” Warburton (2005) states:” One practical difficulty is that of calculating which of the many possible actions is most likely to produce the most happiness overall.” (p. 171). Utilitarianism requires that we calculate the benefit and harm of our actions and compare them to the benefit and harm resulting from another action. Most often it is difficult or even impossible to calculate the consequential value and utility of our actions. “Mill’s response to this objection was that throughout human history people have been learning from their experience about the probable course of different sorts of action.” (Warburton, 2005, p. 171). This is where intuition and common sense come handy, but there is some ambiguity to Mill's theory as well. A good example of ambiguous case would be the dilemma Warburton chose for his book in which one had to choose “whom to save from a burning building, given you could only save one person and there were three people trapped inside.” (Warburton, 2005, p. 171). Utilitarian would say that if there is no time or no way to make careful calculations for decision, make a quick estimate and proceed with it. In the case above, depending on the circumstances, one will have to quickly evaluate the situation and figure out who is more easily accessible, located closer or even lighter in weight. Let’s say first person is a pregnant woman, trapped on a second floor of the building; second is an 8-year-old boy down the hallway whose leg is broken and he can’t move; and the third is and old man who got locked in his apartment on the third floor. Given that I can only save one person, I will have to make a quick evaluation of what would be the highest probable action leading to the successful results. According to the circumstances the building is on fire, there is no time to get to the pregnant woman or an old man. The probable course of my action, if I were to try and save an old man or a pregnant woman, would result in my death and death of other three people trapped in the building. I will get to the boy, pick him up and carry him out of the building. This is the action that will keep me safe and save the life of a young boy. Therefore my action would be considered moral and will maximize the happiness of others.
Another objection from Warburton’s (2005) book is “Unpalatable consequences”. The example author presents in his book is “there had been a gruesome murder, and the police had found a suspect who they knew hadn’t committed the murder, there might be utilitarian grounds for framing him and punishing him accordingly.” (Warburton, 2005, p. 172). Mill came up with some general principles that can be classified as just or unjust. These principles are known as rule utilitarianism and are focused more on the kind of actions that tend to promote happiness, than on the particular action itself. The example above presents the action as punishment of an innocent person to maximize public's happiness, but according to the rule utilitarianism this kind of action will promote more unhappiness than happiness. Therefore the punishment of an innocent person should not be considered as an act to maximize happiness.
Now I would like to demonstrate how Mill’s theory is applicable to contemporary moral issues such as abortion. According to Cohen (2010) there are two main groups involved in the abortion debate in the United States right now: pro-choice, defending the abortion and believe that the woman should be entitled to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not; and pro-life, the movement against the abortion. Both groups are trying to influence the public and get legal support for their position. I believe that the right to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy or continue with it and have a child belongs to a women and women only.
Most women who decide to go through abortion make a conscious decision based on their circumstances and outcomes. They evaluate the situation they are in right now and the situation they will be in at the time the baby is born. They also evaluate their financial status, their readiness to have a baby, and willingness to make such commitment. For example, a woman who is career-oriented, working full time, studying in the MBA program, accidently gets pregnant. According to Mill’s theory she will need to evaluate the consequences of both actions; if she keeps the baby, she will have to either loose the job or stop school for some time, her financial situation will change, she will not be able to support the baby financially, travel as she used to, and her child most likely will be raised without a father. On the other hand, if she chooses abortion her life will not alter in any way, she will continue with her education and career, will return to the family planning and will have kids when she is financially stable and in the solid relationship. The act of abortion will maximize the happiness in this situation and the destruction of human embryo would qualify as a moral action using Mill's view.
One of the commonly used objections by the pro-life movement is that the embryo is a person and it is immoral to kill a person. I will prove why the embryo is not a person. First and for most the organism that weighs less than an ounce, unable to exist, feed and protect itself outside of the mother’s body, who has no sex, no brain, unable to hear, see, or smell cannot be called a person or a human being. Second, there are no circumstances under which two persons can live in one body and possess equal rights and autonomy. And third, by promoting the life of the embryo and not allowing women to have abortions will take women’s legal rights and control of their own bodies away from them. In accordance to Mill’s moral standards women may desire abortion as a mean to their happiness.
I strongly agree with the evaluation of the moral issue I presented above and believe that Mill’s theory gives the right assessment of the abortion debate in particular. In today’s society of career-oriented, self-centered people utilitarianism reminds us that morality calls us to look beyond ourselves and to the benefit of all.
Abortion debate. (n.d.). Retrieved June 26, 2010, from the Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_debate
Cahn, S. M. & Vitrano, C. (2008). Happiness. Classic and contemporary readings in philosophy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, N. (2010, May 29). Nuance matters in abortion debate. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on June 30, 2010, from http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-cohen-abortion-20100529,0,5336153.story
Hillar, M. &Prahl, F. (Eds). (1997). Philosophers and the issue of abortion. Retrieved on June 29, 2010 from Center for Socinian Studies website http://www.socinian.org/abortion.html
Warburton, N. (2005). Philosophy: the classics. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.