Kant and Mill represent to us two opposites of ethical thought. The discovery of any common ground between them which might form the basis of a relationship may appear a hopeless task. Kant says that a good will is not good because of what it performs or effects, but simply by virtue of the volition, that is, it is “good in itself” and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by any inclination. Mill says in Utilitarianism that the “creed which accepts as the foundations of morals Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
We have here a conflict between the subjective and the objective—between the individual and his environment. With Kant the moral ideal is regarded as the product of pure reason. With Mill and utilitarianism it is the result of an accumulated experience of pleasure and pain. Yet before accepting this opposition as absolute, and rejecting on or the other system, we must examine the problems which were before the minds of Kant and Mill, that we may be sure they are giving contradictory answers to the same question. It may be that they are not arguing over the same thing, and that the stasis of debate is unclear. If so, we may take comfort in the idea that human reason is not as divided against itself as it sometimes appears at first glance.
The common, and apparently essential, characteristic which it would seem possible to discover in all forms of Utilitarianism is that moral conduct is estimated by the effects of action, and that the effect which is the moral criterion is the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” By “greatest happiness” is meant the greatest excess of pleasure over pain, considered in reference either to all sentient beings or to all mankind. Pleasure is to be considered abstractly and purely quantitatively, as if one could hypothetically measure the sum of all hedons and pleasurable experiences. Thus, no question of individuality is considered. One man’s hedons are not only quantitatively different from that of another.
Most importantly, motives have nothing to do in deciding the worth of an action, except if they are useful in the production of pleasure. As Mill puts it, “The morality of an action depends entirely upon the intention—that is, upon what the agents wills to do. But the motive, that is, the feeling which makes him will so to do, when it makes no difference in the act makes none in the morality; though it makes a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or bad habitual disposition—a bent of character from which hurtful or form which useful actions are likely to arise.”
In this case the motive is also included in the moral judgment, but does not form the principle of that judgment. It does not determine the moral character of the effects, but is determined by them. Thus all departments of moral life are subordinated to feeling: that is morally good which produces pleasurable feeling; that is morally bad which does not. The great merit claimed for this system of morals is its great clearness and practicality. Every one is supposed to know what pleasure is, and most people know what will tend to produce it. If they do not, the common code of morals, which is claimed to be the result of the accumulated experiences of the race, furnishes a generally correct guide. This brief description of the utilitarian position attempted to show its wholly external character. The effects of conduct must be the only objects of moral judgment, unless we fall into confusion and mysticism, losing all standards of valuation except the individual moral sense, or an arbitrary code of revealed morality. Motives, so far as they are internal, a supposed free will or autonomous self, cannot be subjected to observation and experiment, and hence must be ignored in considering the principles of moral judgment.
Kant, on the other hand, has always been connected with a system the exact opposite of the one just described. The idea is that the only good thing in the world is a Good Will. Here we have the direct contrary of the Utilitarian position that the will has no value except in relation to the effects produced by it. Kant recognizes that face that his doctrine of the absolute value of the good will must seem wholly paradoxical to the adherents of the happiness theory, yet he emphasizes it as the only basis for a universally binding moral law. If the desire for happiness were to be admitted by Kant as the principle of determination of the will, no necessary law could be formulated; since pleasurable consciousness is the result of experience, no examination would give rise to any sort of necessary law. In other words, the principle would be heteronomy instead of autonomy, which alone gives a basis for distinctly moral judgment. To allow a material principle such as pleasure to determine the will would be to place the Ego under natural laws in which no freedom is possible—and if there is no freedom, then for Kant, no morality is possible.
The moral law, then, must be purely formal and given by the subject. The good will must consist in willing the good out of pure respect for law. This is where the contrast is most clearly drawn by Utilitarians between them and Kant. Their criticism is that from such an empty statement of morality no practical duties can be deduced. What practical help will it give to apply Kant’s formulation of the moral law to any given perplexity? “Act from that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law of nature”—this is the first statement of the rule.
In the case of lying, this could give us no help, since if we wished to lie it would be easy to suppose our maxim as a universal law. We might will that all men should steal, or all men should lie, and Kant’s rule would make such actions moral, since we could imagine them and will them to be a universal law. Only if we consider the consequences of the act, say his critics, can we tell whether it is moral or not. We know by experience that lying, stealing, murder, are not productive of more pain than pleasure, hence we call them morally bad, and not because they cannot be made universal laws.
Kant, however, is brilliantly guarded against such objections by his making the test of fitness logical. When we lie, we do so under the supposition that the law is for me to tell the truth; and that, consequently, men will believe that we are doing so. At the same time that we lie, we would not will that lying should be universal, because our own lie would not be believed. Plus the very distinction between truth and falsehood would vanish. Such a law would be self-destructive. So in stealing, we assume that the law of property will generally hold; for otherwise our own act would not be stealing—there would be no property-rights to violate.
It’s not the unpleasant consequences of such a society which leads to the impossibility of willing these laws, but the self-contradictory nature of the laws themselves. This point is not as important as the Utilitarians make it out to be, however. The point of real value in Kant’s thought, and the only point which it is the object of this paper to defend is not his exposition of how the moral law is to be applied to particular cases, but the determination of the principle involved in our judgment of worth. For Mill, if motives are to be judged good or bad, it is only on account of their effects. Kant, on the other hand, places all moral value on the motive itself—respect for law—obligation. Duty he defines in the Metaphysics of Morals as “the necessity of acting from respect for law.” Even actions in accordance with law are not moral, but merely legal, since they may be done from motives other than that of respect for law. Kant’s doctrine is not, “Thou shalt because it is good,” but “Thou shalt, therefore it is good.” The form of the law determines the end, and not the end the form of the law.
Moreover, nothing but the will must determine the will, and in order to find a universal and necessary determinant for all rational beings, only the bare form of will and not its material content must be taken. The law must not be externally imposed; else it loses it binding character and allows us the options of disobedience to its commands under condition of accepting the penalties attached. The governing principle must come from within—it must be the reason issuing its commands to itself. Thus not only must the idea of law be the principle, but it must be the law of autonomy—that of the self-legislating Ego. But, as we have seen, this law is deprived of all content in that it can be merely the universal form of law. To determine our moral judgment by means of an external end would be the dethroning of the legislative self. The natural criticism then is, of what use is this discovery of a law which commands the fulfillment of no end? What use is a will which wills nothing but itself? As before stated, this is the main criticism of Kantian ethics—its purely formal character and its opposition to at least a partial and popular doctrine of happiness as a good and an end of action.
Kant, however, by no means considers his system in such a debilitating way. Kant is as well aware as his critics are that one cannot will a maxim in general and at the same time will no actions in particular. He knows that there must be an object in every act of the will. The purpose of his insistence on the purely formal element in morality is to emphasize the fact that moral law must be universal and necessary—must command obedience categorically and of itself. In this, Utilitarians are right in considering his system as utterly opposed to their own, but the opposition does not consist in the fact that he denies the necessity of an end for every action. It is his aim to change the stasis of debate, i.e. the point of emphasis, and supplement their partial system by one which embraces all the phenomena of the moral consciousness.
Kant says, “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only.” Here, however, we find an apparently out of place element introduced in this conception of an end. Yet this second statement of the law is what follows from the implicit contents of the first. To say that man is to act from a principle which he can will to be a universal law—to make him the supreme law-giver to himself, is to place him above the reach of all law other than his own, or that which he freely makes his own. If, then, as a rational being he cannot be subject to anything without him, he is an end unto himself—an absolute end so far as rational. All men, moreover must also be regarded as ends, and so treated, i.e., the ends of each individual must be made the ends of the particular subject.
Kant is opposed to utility, not as an end of conduct, but as a motive to conduct. Utility places all morality in the outward manifestation. Kant would seek a law which shall command the transition from the individual to the universal—which shall enable the subject to transcend the limits of his private interests, and find his true self in the proliferation of the common good. This can only be done by a universal element in the individual. A system, on the contrary, which makes the standard of morality an end external to the subject, or else and end limited to the subject, cannot bind the subject at all, or compel him to pass beyond his own interests. If the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the sole principle of morality, what power is there which can compel man to seek it? What hold has it over the individual when conflicting with his own interest? The end must have some attractive power in itself to draw men’s wills toward its realization. But, according to Mill, this end can only appeal to men through pleasure, which, as individual, can only be estimated by the individual. If, then, someone does not feel the desire to promote the greatest happiness of anyone beyond himself, he is at liberty to act as he pleases, since there exists no common principle to which appeal may be made. His desires will from his only rule of action. If his own happiness and that of others cannot be shown to be identical, which is possible only under presuppositions destructive of utilitarianism, there seems no way of advancing from the on to the many.
Kant’s moral theory takes us out of the relative and introduces us to the sphere of true being and the Good Will. Instead of making experience the guide of life, and constructing the ideal out of experience, he sets out a theory which is universal and absolute. The content of his moral theory gives rise to experience, but the necessity of the realization is found entirely in the rational self.