The philosophy of Kant and Mills represent two ends of thoughts of the same moral spectrum but viewed differently. Their concepts are similar as well as differential in many respects. While both philosophers would loathe admitting the similarities contained in their works and would have highlighted how each was different from the other, the discerning reader could perhaps get a sense of the congruence as well as contrasts much more easily. (Schopenhauer, 1998)
Kant and Mills represent the deontological and utilitarian schools of thought in moral philosophy. (Schopenhauer, 1998). Kant’s philosophy is based on a deeply ingrained sense of actions which are moral when considered in conjunction with intentions with which these are undertaken. The consequences arising from these actions are secondary to Kantian morality, which is based on motive rather than the ultimate result produced or the happiness achieved. Rationality is a thus a strong basis for Kant’s arguments on morality. (Kant, 1996). This is so as a person who is rational as per Kant is also consistent in following rules. These rules are those which have been framed and accepted universally. The aim of these set of laws is to uniformly guide actions of a person. Since these are derived from universal principles, a normative value can be allotted to the same much more easily.
There is one central rule as far as Kant is concerned. This is a rule which can be applied rationally to virtually all situations most impartially. (Kant, 1996). All other rules are to be applied based on a test or a process which is judged within the framework of this main rule. An action can be judged as righteous if it meets the parameters laid down in the universal rule. By this norm, theft is not acceptable in a human transaction as a rule. It is immoral, so would be depriving your fellow being food when two persons are starving and one has access to eatables. Utility is of limited relevance in this context, but following the rule is most essential.
Kant values persons as individuals, as human beings in a system who are to be treated with moral dignity provided rights and protection. (Kant, 1996). People thus cannot be treated as an end. The rights of each person guarantees fair treatment and thus develops a sense of respect which is to be valued. Rights will also create duties towards others as per Kant and hence form a mutually supporting dyad. The correlation of one’s rights with duties is thus another important principle of Kantian morality, for rights are not accessible without duties. (Kant, 1996) The strict moral principles evolved by Kant denote that actions are moral not based on the consequences but the motives with which these are undertaken and in pursuance of universally established principles of law. This is a general formula to be applied to specific circumstances.
The acceptance of these moral principles as per Kant should lead to freedoms. This will also liberate our will from the consequences as well as the forces extrinsic to the results. This freedom of will is said to come from intuition rather than experience. (Kant, 1996).
John Stuart Mills’s principal thoughts on the other hand are based on morality arising from utilitarianism. The development of utilitarianism as a liet motif of Mill’s thought occurred as an evolving process. Mill was first introduced to the theory of utilitarianism at the very young age of 15 or 16 and thus by the time he went on to write his major treatise in 1863 propounding the concept his thoughts and ideas had matured considerably. While Mills wrote on a variety of philosophical and ethical subjects, his thoughts on utilitarianism as opposed to Kant’s philosophy of rights, duties and a priori acceptance of moral principles invite the greatest debate.
Mills’ utilitarianism derives from a study of the intuitive and inductive considerations of moral theory. The intuitive approach to moral theory relates to our ability to assimilate ethics without having experienced the same. (Mills, 1982). Thus we accept that stealing from another person is unethical without having stolen things ourselves. While inductive morality entails acceptance through observations and experiences, either personal or vicarious. As opposed to Kant who evolves his philosophical thought from the intuitive school of ethics Mills believed in the inductive experiences providing empirical learning of morality.
Thus actions are right or wrong based on the consequences that are experience by a person. If the consequences are good, actions are also deemed to be moral and if the results are bad then these will be classified as unethical. Thus Mills considers ethical actions are those which emerge from having experienced their consequences. (Mills, 1982). This could be indicated as the primary difference in the theories propagated by both the philosophers.
Happiness is another basis of determined morality as per Mills. (Mills, 1982). Thus actions are right to the extent that they bring about happiness in a person and are wrong if they produce sadness. The utility of action is thus more individual rather than collective in nature and is determined by contentment and sorrow produced by it. This in turn also dictates the rightness or otherwise of every action as per Mills (1982). The principle of utility is expanded by Mills to indicate not just sensual but also intellectual pleasures derived from an action. Motives or traits of character of a person undertaking the action have no bearing on its rightness or otherwise and it is only the ultimate utility through generation of happiness which will determine whether it was right or wrong.
Mills thus rejects the model of classical virtues. But he is not totally oblivious to societal good as a basis of morality. From the primary principles of utility as related to personal happiness, as per Mills, would flow the secondary values, which are more in line with classical virtues as are commonly understood. To interpret this he provides some examples. Thus the action of stealing is immoral as it is related to a general feeling of deprivation thereby against the principles of general utility and hence should be avoided being immoral. This example would also amplify Mills reliance on inductive ethics rather than intuitive morality. The ethical flow comes from a person of a group having experienced the larger harm caused by theft in society. Till this group has actually not undergone the experience of damage caused by stealing the morality linked to utility will not be proved.
Morality, utility and survival have been intricately linked by Mills. Thus if a person is starving, then he is justified in depriving a fellow being in the same state of food. However a fine judgment has to be made, whether he would derive happiness from seeing his fellow being without food, while he is fulfilling his own hunger or he is willing to stay hungry or on a half empty stomach to feed another man’s craving for food. This could also be indicated as the theory of proportionality or the righteousness of actions in proportion to the happiness that they produce in a human being which ultimately dictates morality.
The concept of morality arising from theory of utility as per Mills is derived from intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. extrinsic motivations are those that fulfill our obligation to make others including God happy by our actions. The other motivation is internal, the feeling of sense of obligation or duty which arises from experiences and emotions developed from these observations. Thus empathy, self esteem and religiosity are all feelings which contribute to happiness in a person which are derived from the experiences developed over a period of time.
By not being able to abide by these principles, a feeling of guilt is produced thereby leading to conduct which is judged as immoral. The extrinsic judgment of immorality has greater influence on a person, while an intrinsic one may not be as demonstrative but is equally persuasive. Mills goes on to place even the concept of justice in a utilitarian framework. Justice as a concept is denoted to be utilitarian from the point of view of social utility. Thus if a particular right has social utility at a particular time, it is moral; if not then it may not be deemed so.
A review of the main theories propounded by Kant and Mills would reveal that the principles of morality expressed by Kant are a priori or intuitive while those given by Mills draw strength from practical reasoning derived from empirical evidence of its acceptance over a period. While Mills talks of broad principles, these are of a secondary order, to Kant’s morality is derived from the same. Mills would apply them to general circumstances but not so universally. The specific utility to which these are applied will determine their overall relevance.
The Kantian test is of universality of acceptance of a principle which guides action, Mills assessment on the other hand is the ultimate utility derived from that action, which will come from the happiness derived from its end result. Taking the example of theft, Kant’s philosophy would decree that theft in all circumstances is immoral. However Mills would be more permissive in accepting theft which for instance is carried out in the interest of saving ones life as morally sanctioned. Kant believes that happiness of others is also inclusive in the concept of happiness of the self, while to Mills this is of secondary nature. Kant has not totally rejected utilitarianism but used it in the form of a categorical imperative. To Mills, this is a misplaced notion of utilitarianism and would go for a more pure version which provides an individual perspective.
Kant Immanuel. Gregor,Mary J (Editor) (1996). Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge : CambridgeUniversity
Mills, John Stuart. (1982). Utilitarianism and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.
Schopenhauer, Arthur (Author). Payne, EFJ. (Translator). (1998). On the Basis of Morality (Paperback). New York. Hackett Pub Co Inc.