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John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant


Ethical theories are meant to aid human beings make good choices, i.e., morally good choices, by giving them parameters on what makes a human act good and what makes it bad. Nevertheless, in spite of this noble aim of ethicists, it is undeniable that ethical theories have clashed with each other since time immemorial. The root cause has been the very definition of what “good” is. Now, two of the biggest ethical theories are Utilitarianism and Deontology. These two theories are best represented by the two great philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant respectively. This paper will attempt to show a comparison between Utilitarianism and Deontology. More specifically, the two shall be compared on their views on the moral good and right actions, the points of agreement and disagreement between these two theories, and how each theory would answer possible objections to it. In the end, we shall show that these two diametrically opposed ethical theories that give two different judgments on issues as these two theories look at two different things or factors in making an ethical judgment.

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The Two Views on What is a Morally Good Act

John Stuart Mill would probably best represent Utilitarianism. After all, it was Mill’s “greatest happiness for the greatest number principle” that summarizes what Utilitarianism is. First, let us go through the Utilitarian concept of moral good.

Mill presents the ground of his theory of morality this way: “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends (p. 575).” For Mill, the highest principle is that of pleasure, happiness. Now, before anyone might judge the Utilitarians as a group of hedonists who seek nothing else but sense pleasures, Mill is quick to note that there are numerous desirable things, and sensible pleasures are just one of them. In fact, Mill points out to the acquisition of qualities that emanate from the human being’s higher faculties (p. 576). The acquisition of these qualities have always been given premium by human beings, most specially those who have experienced or possessed them, over pleasures emanating from the senses. He gives as an example the acquisition of virtues. He gives this as an example not only to illustrate that human beings put premium on the possession of qualities that come from the higher faculties; it is also meant to prove the other ethicists wrong that there are in fact other human desires apart from “pleasures” or “happiness.” Mill points out that the acquisition of virtues as well as the retention of power, the accumulation of money, and other pursuits may all be means towards happiness, or, may even be parts of happiness (p. 580). This would mean that those who claim that Utilitarians are wrong in claiming that what is desired by human beings is happiness is mistaken themselves: the acquisition of virtues constitute the happiness of the individual, and eventually, general happiness. The majority generally prefers and is benefited by the presence of a virtuous member. This short discourse on virtues ought to demonstrate that virtues in fact are means or even part of the individual and general happiness. As such, it is not true that there are other things aside from happiness that human beings desire due to the fact that virtue (as well as other desired things) lead to or constitute happiness, whether that of the individual or societal happiness.

We have mentioned the term general happiness above. It is important to state that Utilitarianism is also characterized by the giving of premium on this type of happiness. In the pursuit of happiness of all individuals in society, without any partiality towards an individual happiness, Mill does not have much of a choice but to give importance to “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” This has led the Utilitarians in the calculation of hedones (i.e., units of pleasure). What ever gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number would then constitute what is good in this ethical theory.

If the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number would summarize the ethical position of utilitarianism, it necessarily follows that a human act is morally good or acceptable if the act does not go against this basic principle. As Mill himself pointed out, acts such as acquiring power or money or fame may all be acceptable so long as one’s act does not reach a point “beyond which they would be more injurious to the general happiness that promotive of it” (p. 580). Hence a young corrupt politician may not necessarily be morally evil if his post is preferred by his constituents and that he is able to produce the changes that the citizens crave for anyway. The means may be ethically discarded at times as long as the greatest happiness for the greatest number is achieved.

Now, this politician may be acceptable for Utilitarians but not for Kantians. Immanuel Kant is known for his deontology called “Categorical Imperative.” Kant’s categorical imperative may be stated this way: 1.) what is truly good is good will; 2.) an act is good if it emanates from duty; 3.) an act that emanates from duty derives it moral worth from an a priori principle called the categorical imperative, i.e., that “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (p. 584); 4.) and at least in one’s dealings with other human beings, it ought to be a universal maxim to treat human beings not merely as means but as ends (p. 589). Let us go through each of these points.

For Kant, what could be called as truly good is nothing else but good will. Other things that have been put into esteem may all be transformed into something bad, but never good will. Hence, courage, the possession of talents, the possession of fortune, intelligence, and many others may all be used in such a way that one does a bad act (p. 582). It is only good will that could never be questioned to be purely good, irrelevant of its effects or attainments (p. 582).

Now, an act that comes from good will is that which emanates from duty. An act is done from duty if it does not come merely from inclination. Hence, extending charity to the poor may be a laudable and praiseworthy act, nevertheless, if such an act results from one’s inclination, such an act cannot still be considered an act from duty. This starkly contrasts with a charitable act of an individual who might not be inclined to do such but out of his/her sense of duty, extends to others. This second act of charity would be that which emanates from duty.

An act that emanates from duty “derives its moral worth not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined” (p. 584).  This means that such actions are morally good actions because of its formal cause, i.e., the a priori maxim called the categorical imperative. An act of duty is truly such if its “principle of volition” is that imperative which compels me to do only those acts that are “universalizable.” We could present some examples to illustrate this. Robin Hood has been praised a lot for helping the poor by stealing money from the rich. Now, someone who is seriously considering following Mr. Hood’s footsteps, if he is to be deontological about it, would have to “universalize” this act probably this way: could stealing be made into a universal? Now, stealing, if made into a maxim, would undermine the human being’s right to possess. As such, no matter how good the intention of Robin Hood may be, his acts can never be considered justifiable.

Lastly, since human beings deal with other human beings, it is important to remember that human beings, due to their dignity, could never be treated merely as means but also as ends. This means that another human being’s purposes and good should never be undermined for one’s (or another’s) sake. As such, Robin Hood undermines the good of the rich for the cause that he has in mind in the same way that a slave-owner skips the slave’s purposes and intentions to meet his own.

Agreement and Disagreement between the Two Theories

The two theories disagree on what is morally good. Utilitarians say that an act is morally good if it leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, while Kantians would say that an act is morally good if it could be made into a universal maxim. As such, the utilitarians’ premium on happiness would not necessarily be something that Kant would agree with. For Kant, happiness itself may lead to something bad as when it inspires pride (p. 582). Instead, what is worth while would be what he called good will. Next, Mill gave more importance to general happiness which may compromise individual happinesses. This would mean that one individual may be sacrificed if twenty individuals could be made happier. This is something totally unacceptable for Kant who puts premium on individuals not merely as means but as ends themselves. Lastly, we have mentioned that utilitarians are consequentialists who may skip evaluating means if an act leads to general happiness while Kant obviously puts importance on means and would not consider ends, no matter how good they may be, if means are anomalous.

The two seem to agree on at least one point, that high faculties are important. Mill talked about the importance of virtues as coming from high faculties while Kant spoke of an act of the will called good will. These qualities emanate from the higher faculties of intellect and will.

Possible Objections and Response

A strong objection that could be passed on to John Stuart Mill would be the Kantian objection that a morally good act is not necessarily the act that is desirable, such as the charitable act of a man who is disinclined to do such an act, but the act that is done out of duty, out of the categorical imperative. Nevertheless, we could imagine that Mill would reply to this by saying that what Kant calls morally right has exactly the same essence as what the utilitarians call the pleasures from the higher faculties. It may not be sensibly pleasurable to aid the poor for example, nevertheless, the thought that one did what was right would still constitute a happiness, even a utilitarian happiness.

On the other hand, many might find it absurd that for Kant, a good act done with an inclination to it has less moral worth compared to good acts done without the inclination. Why would people with heavy hearts be more ethical than people who do good with ease? Kant would probably reply that it is only acts done out of “duty” that could be categorically determined to spring from the “will of a rational being” (p. 584), and hence acts that are fully human. Good acts done with inclination are synonymous to the loyalty that dogs give to their masters.


Utilitarianism acts on the principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As such, it gives premium on acts that lead to the greatest happiness for the majority, which may lead to the downgrading of the ethical evaluation of means. Utilitarians are consequentialists. Kantians, on the other hand, give premium on acts that may truly be called duties, acts that emanate from good will. These are acts that have as their foundation the categorical imperative that does not give importance on purposes as much as it does on the volitional foundation of an act. An act if good, irrelevant of effect, if an act could be made into a universal maxim.