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Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on happiness and morality – sample philosophy compare and contrast paper

Immanuel Kant’s Duty and Reason and John Stuart Mill’s The Greatest Happiness Principle both reflect on ethics and happiness. This sample philosophy ethics paper compares both philosophers approaches on morality and the source of happiness. Topics such as the role of suicide are also explored in this sample comparative essay. It would be a good reference for a student who wants to organize a paper on two competing philosophical schools.

“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.” -Immanuel Kant

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“Ask yourself why you’re happy and you will cease to be so.” – John Stuart Mill

Two of the most widely known ethical philosophers are Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. While they may have philosophized around the same time period, the philosophers have very different ideas about ethics and happiness. Immanuel Kant, author of Duty and Reason, believed in the morality of the good will and duty. He espoused that happiness is an irrelevancy insofar as fulfilling duty is the most important aspect of leading a moral life. Conversely, John Stuart Mill, who wrote, The Greatest Happiness Principle, is well known for his utilitarian mindset, the greatest happiness for the greatest amount. While they may have disagreed about what makes an action ethical, Kant and Mill are both extremely significant philosophers whose ideas about morality, duty and happiness are important to critically analyze.

Kant and Mill have similar, though often differing, beliefs regarding how the moral value of an action ought to be judged, the relations between the moral and natural good, and what the duty is for both of these. Kant argued that in order for something to be moral, it must be done from duty. He calls this the moral law (law is a product of reason) or the moral good and said there were two forms of this feeling of obligation expressed in the categorical imperative. Essentially, the categorical imperative consists of acting on maxims that can be considered a universal law and always treating people as ends and not means. By acting on maxims that can be considered moral law, Kant meant that ethical decisions should be based on a greater ideal. This maxim, however, should not just be applicable to you in the situation. Instead, for a maxim to be moral it needs to be applicable to everyone, otherwise it’s not a moral law and not morally rational. The reason this is so important is that it directly relates to a sense of duty. A person who believes themselves the exception to whatever moral decision or maxim they’ve made up is not swayed from duty, instead they’re swayed by inclination. In other words, they make a decision based on what’s best for them and not based on moral reason. Thus for Kant, duty and moral law are very closely linked in the quest for taking ethical actions.

John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, judges morality a little bit differently. He argues that the amount of suffering and happiness is what denotes the morality of an action and thus strongly believes the consequences of an action are what decide its morality. He claims that an act is good or right insofar as it brings the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people. By happiness he means pleasure and joy as opposed to pain and suffering. From his point of view, the happiness derived from an action doesn’t even have to be that person’s own. Rather, as long as it makes more people happy than unhappy, it is moral. The nature of morality of an act for Mill is its consequence. While motive in an action initially affects the agent, it has little to do with the consequences and therefore the morality. This may sound flawed because it doesn’t adequately explain why a person would care about someone else’s happiness over their own. However, according to Mill, people are still apt to be moral even if the moral path doesn’t make them happy because of internal sanctions. These sanctions ensure a person fulfills his or her utilitarian duty, which is essentially ensuring decisions made about actions cause the least amount of suffering for the smallest amount of people. These sanctions generally show themselves in a person as guilt or other forms of mentally internal pain. For Mill and utilitarianism, sanctions are inevitable if you don’t abide by the philosophy’s rules. As guilt is often a painful enough reason not to do something, a person does not choose happiness over duty.

As far as happiness goes, Kant also had his own ideas about what causes happiness. He didn’t believe morality should be based on happiness, because sometimes the most moral action (doing your duty) can make you very unhappy. In fact sometimes, the happiness someone receives from your duty does not outweigh your unhappiness. Kant did not express a belief the utilitarian theory of happiness and chose instead to analyze different types of happiness and the kind of happiness fulfilling your duty brings. Kant believed in the concept of the natural good which is basically happiness. His argument was that you can’t reason your way to happiness-and if you could, you would and would always be happy. Thus because you can’t, happiness must be the natural good. On the other hand, Kant also believed one couldn’t blame the rational soul for unhappiness. After all, a person’s job in life is not to use reason to get out of suffering, but rather simply to use reason, period. This explanation of the natural good is important because the natural good is very different from the previously discussed moral good. The natural good is happiness whereas the moral good is good will.

Kant explained that part of a person’s duty is to ensure the continuation of one’s life. In other words suicide is immoral. For the most part, simply staying alive has no moral value, except in the case of the individual who wants to die but continues to live without enjoying it. In that individual’s case, maintaining life is a moral action. The issue of life, death and suicide is very closely tied into the idea of duty. When a person is considering suicide, Kant implies that a rational person would consider their own morals and whether or not these morals can be applied to all aspects of nature. Kant would also argue that a person is not a means, but rather an end. As individuals are ends in themselves, suicide is inherently immoral. Additionally, Kant argues that when you rationalize that you love yourself and are killing yourself out of that love, your rationalization, in that instance, is contradictory. Essentially, there is no situation where intended suicide is moral.

John Stuart Mills has a different view of suicide-it’s still immoral in most situations, however, immoral in a different manner. Mills promotes the idea of the greatest happiness principle, which means that even if your happiness is sacrificed you still need to live. The reality is, that if you were to kill yourself it would cause so much pain to so many people that any happiness you theoretically would have is counteracted by the sorrow of others. Of course, the topic of suicide does not fit neatly with Mill’s theory. Suicide in many senses implies unhappiness with life with contradicts Mill’s push for happiness and utility principle. Thus, a scholar could induce that if one were to live by Mill’s theory of utility, suicide would never even come up. If a person is living by the idea of happiness as the highest pleasure and ultimate end, then a person would not be drawn to suicide because suicide does not promise happiness. Clearly, according to both Immanuel Kant’s and John Stuart Mill’s philosophies, suicide in almost any situation is immoral.

While intentional suicide is immoral, the line of morality is blurred in situations where a person risks his or her own life for the life of another. If, for instance, a child was drowning and you were passing by, it is generally agreed within society that you are obligated to do whatever you can to save that child. This becomes a moral issue when risk is taken into consideration. Both Kant and Mill agree that if you cannot swim and your attempt to save the child would end in increased suffering, then you are morally obligated to not jump into the water. The morality of the issue comes into play when, hypothetically speaking, you do have the ability to swim and thus theoretically the ability to save the child but you both end up drowning anyway. Kant believes it’s the intention that dictates morality. He would argue that although your actions may cause more suffering in the end (via sad relatives and friends mourning for both you and the child), your intentions were good and that was what mattered. Furthermore, he would support this because it supports his theory of the categorical imperative. Hypothetically, your maxim could be something along the lines of, “If an individual they have the ability to save a life, he or she should at least try because it’s his or her duty.” This is a maxim that can be universalized. Additionally, it acknowledges that the drowning child is an end and deserves to be saved. On the other hand, if you were only saving this child because he’s the mayor’s son and you would get a reward, you are treating the child as a means to an end (the reward), which treads the line between moral and immoral.

John Stuart Mills disagrees with Kant on this issue entirely. If a child was drowning and you successfully saved, you’re actions would be considered moral because you prevented suffering. On the other hand, if a child was drowning and you tried to save him but also ended up drowning, Mills would argue that that is immoral. He would defend this by pointing out that this would cause both your friends and family and the child’s friends and family pain which, according to the principle of utility, is worse than just one family feeling pain. In the case of impure intentions, for instance if the drowning child was the mayor’s kid and you saved him because you wanted fame and an reward, Mill believes that because you prevented suffering you took the moral high road. Treating people as a means is irrelevant in Mill’s arguments because as long as you don’t increase their suffering you’re still ethical. He argues that no matter what, even if the intention is good, if in the end your act causes more suffering, it was immoral. While the theories of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant are applicable in the same situations, they disagree about what a person should do.

Comparing Kant and Mill allows other philosophers to critically analyze the moral value of an action. On a personal level, I have often believed that the consequences are less important than the motive behind the action when it comes to morality. I also believe in the concept of universal morality, or as Kant would say it, the categorical imperative. Thus on those issues Kant and I very much agree. On the other hand, I value happiness as an end above all other ends (the Aristotle in me) and inherently believe in the rights of other to happiness. In fact in many situations, I would support the utilitarian approach. I shall assume I am not alone in my beliefs and thus find it interesting that two seemingly somewhat contradictory theories both have their place within an individual and his or her actions.

The reason ethics is such an important subject matter is that it dictates the affect a person has on himself and others. Often situations occur where the line between moral and immoral is blurred. Kant allows a way to clear up any confusion by telling us to come up with a maxim for the situation and universalize it. If it can be applied universally or is a part of one’s duty, the action is moral. Mill suggests a different way of looking at situations. Rather than sticking to a strictly duty and universal standpoint, he suggests analyzing what will bring the greatest amount of joy to the greatest amount of people. If trying to save a child will cause more harm than good, don’t do it. For him, morality is about consequence. Both philosophers espouse important theories that are necessary to consider in day to day life. Their ideas aren’t simply words on a page, but rather recommendations for everybody concerned with living a moral life.