We all act morally or otherwise. We all see others and judge whether they act morally or otherwise. The question is what right do we have to do so. Is there an underlying procedure or principle that allows us objectively to declare are own or others acts moral or not? In the history of moral philosophy there have been two standard ways of doing so, and these two theories form the mainstay of most ethical courses both in schools and universities. They are utilitarianism and deontology. Both also have a long pedigree and can be found right at the beginnings of Western philosophy. They can also be found in other traditions outside of this canon. For ease of explanation, however, in this lecture we going to focus on the main representative of both theories: Bentham and Mill for utilitarianism, and Kant for deontology. At the end will we ask, despite the fact that they are very different theories, whether they both harbour the same prejudice that is it possible to make sense of our ethical and moral principles outside of the culture in which we exist.
Though we can find utilitarian arguments for ethics in Socrates’ speeches, for example, probably the best modern representative is the English philosophy Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of his utilitarianism is the maximisation of human happiness. What determines all human action is pain and pleasure. Rationally, every human being, like any other natural being, seeks to maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain. To determine whether a course of action is moral or not is to add up the maximum amount of happiness for all. If the pleasure outweighs then the pain, then the action is rational.
What makes this moral theory attractive to many is that it seems to reduce moral choices to something quantifiable and calculable. It is not surprising that even today government policy is decided by utility calculus. At the heart of the calculus is the idea of a common currency. We can take what apparently appears to be value judgement and transform it into a cost benefit analysis. This is even clearer when we take this common currency literally and transform it into an economic calculation where we measure people’s preferences in terms of a monetary value. Thus we might say that it makes sense to force people to wear seatbelts because although this causes pain to a small number of people the benefit to society as whole is greater because of less deaths in road accidents.
Historically, when we come to look at the application of utilitarianism, we might, however worry about its moral basis. Thus Bentham argued that poor workhouses should be created for the poor, because the sight of beggars on the streets was more harmful to those who saw them, than the individual’s freedom to beg. The poor themselves would be forced to work in these workhouses so that they paid for their own incarceration so that the taxpayers wouldn’t have to forgo the pleasure of any loss of income.
Although this historical example might appear extreme to some, many people will defend utilitarianism in this way: a harm to one is a benefit to all. One such example is torture. If you could prevent a bomb killing millions of people would you not torture the terrorist to find out where the bomb was? It seems rational to say that you would, since you would be weighing one human life against a million others. The argument against this scenario is that it would be wrong to torture the terrorist because every human life inviolable. The utilitarian would respond that such principles are unrealistic, since this situation requires that we cannot seriously take the one life to be as important as the million others.
We might think, however, as Sandel points out, that we are not comparing like with like (2010, pp.38–40). For the real comparison, since we suppose that the millions who would die by the bomb are innocent, would we be willing to torture the innocent daughter of the terrorist in order to find where the bomb is, and many would not be willing to take this step even though the purely utilitarian argument would force us to do so. Those who routinely defend torture do not usually defend the torture of innocents even for the best utilitarian arguments that doing so would lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
That Bentham’s strict utilitarianism seems to go against some of our fundamental ideas of what morality is meant that his disciple Mill looked to improve it by resolving human rights with utility. His basic conception of liberty is any individual should have the right to do what they wished as long as they did not harm others. This idea of a right seems stronger than any utility, since no society, for example could banish religion of minority simply because it did not coincide with the wishes of a majority. Mill, however, argues it can be defended on a utility calculus because it is better for a society to have non-conforming elements than supress them. Thus, in the long term, allowing dissent and individual differences prevents a society from becoming rigid and stultifying. The majority should test its views and opinions, and can only do so because it allows for a minority to exist. The problem with this utility argument, again, as Sandel points out, is that it does not sufficiently preserve individual human rights (2010, p.50). Although it is possible to imagine a society that exist with minorities, it also perfect possible to image a happy society is which every one’s needs are fulfilled but is despotic. Now we might prefer to live in a society that has individual rights, but we could not argue for that on totally utilitarian argument.
To defend utilitarianism against the idea of a common currency that all lives and all pleasure can be quantified in the same way, Mill makes the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, as he famously writes ‘it is better to be a human being unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied’. The test is that if one individual experiences both the lower and higher pleasure (let us saying listening to One Direction or going to an art gallery), then if we add up all these individuals choices, then the higher pleasure will take precedence over the lower pleasure. The only problem with this analysis is that someone can desire the lower pleasure even though they know the other choice is the greater accomplishment. The nobler life might not the most pleasurable. It might be better to go to art gallery and listen to Shakespeare, but it might be more pleasurable to slob on the settee and watch rubbish T.V. If we do think that the other life is more noble, as Mill obviously does, then it cannot be a utility calculus that makes us think that, but our ideas of what a dignified and worthy human life might be. As Sandel writes, ‘It is not desires here which are the standard but the principle of human dignity. The higher pleasures are not higher because we prefer them; we prefer them because we recognize them as higher.’ (2010, p.55)
The opposite of utilitarianism is deontology, and we are going to use Kant as our example. Like Mill and Bentham, Kant too thinks that moral choices should be determined by reason, but for Kant moral reasoning determines the principles of actions and not its ends. Kant sharply distinguishes human action from natural events. Natural events are governed by external laws of nature. A stone falls to the ground because of the law of gravity, not because it chooses to do so. The necessity of moral laws is neither empirical nor natural, but ideal. I act morally because I have rational principles I act by.
What does it mean to act rationally, rather than just morally? Human beings act rationally because we act through ends and means. I want to have a cup of tea. I know rationally that if I want to have a cup of tea then I need to boil the kettle. The cup of tea is the end, and the boiling kettle is the means. Ends are objects of human desire and the ultimate end for Kant is happiness.
To act rationally therefore is to act under an imperative. If you want x, then you must do y. There are two kinds of imperative for Kant, hypothetical and categorical. The hypothetical imperative is the example we have already discussed. I have an end, and I will the means. If I want to get to the lecture on time, then I have to leave the house at a certain time. Such an hypothetical imperative Kant calls ‘technical’, since to achieve them you need certain skills, knowledge and ability. The overall aim, why I should bother to go to lectures at all, or even get out of bed, Kant calls ‘pragmatic’, and is happiness, since every human being wants to be happy.
All hypothetical imperatives are relative to the individual, since it is me who wants to get to the lecture and not you, and although we all will happiness none us is going to agree what happiness is. The only imperative that has absolute necessity Kant calls categorical imperative. Here the principles of the action are not determined by the end and the validity of law is unconditional. Kant has to prove that such imperative exists. How could there be an action, which if it were rationally willed, would have to be willed by everyone?
For Kant, the moral law takes such a form. Take the example of dishonesty. Kant’s argument is that to will dishonesty is to will lawlessness, and that one cannot at one at the same be rational and will lawlessness. To act lawfully means one can test one’s actions and see if they were lawful for every other rational being. We do so by rationalising them. First order principles are rational means ends calculations. Second order principles, which are moral tests, is where I take my maxims and see if all can follow them. This means for Kant that they are coherent and consistent.
Take then the example of finding a purse fall of money on the street. Should I take the money or should I hand it in? My maxim, then, is as follows: given the circumstances in which I can appropriate the money of someone else without being found out to make myself richer, I will take that thing (Deigh 2010, p.147). Can I universalise that subjective maxim? Kant would argue that I could not and be coherent, because if I lived in such a world in which everyone took each other property at will then there would be no property as such. My belief that I would gain from stealing is predicated on world in which people do not steal but respect private property.
In terms of consistency, Kant uses another example. Imagine a rich man walking down the street who sees a beggar, why should he give that beggar any money since he believes we shouldn’t help others but only look after ourselves (Deigh 2010, p.151). We could imagine him saying to himself I doesn’t think I should have to give any poor people my money. Now this does not contradict Kant’s coherence test, because one can perfectly imagine a world in which the rich don’t give the poor money and help them, but it fails the consistency test, because one could not will a world in which one wanted to live in which no one would offer another a helping hand. Would the rich man, for example, want to live in a world, where in a flood or in an epidemic everyone would let each other die without assistance?
The problem with Kant’s ethics is its excessive formalism. It appears to justify actions most people using their common sense would not think were ethical. So for example, if I lived in a police state, and someone came to my door for my neighbour, and I knew that they would be sent to a concentration camp, then I would still have to tell the police man the truth, since not telling lies is a categorical imperative. More importantly, I think, this formalism hides a social bias in Kant’s account. The categorical imperative against stealing rests on the existence of private property, but it is perfectly possible to imagine societies without private property, and in that case it would not be wrong to steal. We are not really, then, universalising values for all rational beings. We are only universalising our own social values.
Moral theorists, as Macintyre points out, argue as though there were two levels of discourse, each absolute separate from the other (MacIntyre 2010, p.2). One, the everyday moral language that people use, which expresses their history and culture, and the other, the language that philosophers use, which is somehow meant to transcend every history and culture. Kant does not speak of stealing being wrong for 18th century Europe, but of being wrong for all time and for all culture, and for all rational beings (including non-human rational beings, one assumes). The same can be said for utilitarian theories. That one appears to be the greatest benefit for us today, might not be the greatest benefit in the future, nor might not be seen as the greatest benefit to other cultures (they might value different things). What we value, and take to be right, reflect our own culture and society’s views, and that one discourse affects this other. This does not lead to moral relativism, which is merely the opposite side of the same coin of moral absolutism, but that our moral reasoning does not take place in a vacuum.
Deigh, J., 2010. An introduction to ethics, New York: Cambridge University Press.
MacIntyre, A.C., 2010. A short history of ethics: a history of moral philosophy from the homeric age to the twentieth century, London [u.a.]: Routledge.
Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ?, London: Penguin books.
 Metaphysical speaking, the idea of freedom is that the heart of Kant’s ethics. We are moral because we are free and self-determining. In this lecture we only going to focus on the categorical imperative and its difference from utilitarianism. A full account would need to show this necessary relation between freedom and morality for Kant.
 We even might assert that utilitarianism, at least in the form of Bentham and Mill, is itself a historical phenomenon and impossible without the rise of capitalism and economic rationality.