Kantianism > Utilitarianism

Onora O’Neill simplifies Kant’s moral theory through the Formula of the End in Itself, which is acting in such a way that treats humanity as an end, as opposed to a mere means. To use someone as a mere means is to “involve them in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent” (O’Neill 412). To treat a person as an end is to respect an individual “as a rational person with his or her own maxims” (O’Neill 412). After an understandable explanation of Kantian ethics, O’Neill shows the advantages of Kantianism over utilitarianism.

Kantianism and utilitarianism have different ways for determining whether an act we do is right or wrong. According to Kant, we should look at our maxims, or intentions, of the particular action. Kantians believe “human life is valuable because humans are the bearers of rational life” (O’Neill 414). In other words, humans are free rational beings capable of rational behavior and should not be used purely for the enjoyment or happiness of another.  On the other hand, Utilitarians believe that we should do actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness. The problem with this, however, is that it could involve using people as mere means and may lead to the sacrifice of lives for the greater good. (O’Neill 413-415). Christopher Bennett expands on this point by stating that Utiliarians justify punishing an innocent party “if it is necessary to bring about a sufficiently important good effect” (Bennett 59). Additionally, promises, which are typically binding in our society, can be broken if it produces a greater good. This can be applied to any promise, including those made with loved ones. Utilitarianism sometimes involves the sacrifice of an individual’s happiness or life in order to promote the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of misery (Bennett 71).

It is easier to determine an action as morally right in Kantian ethics than in utilitarian ethics. When data is scarce, Kantian theory offers more precision than utilitarianism because one can generally determine if somebody is being used as a mere means, even if the impact on human happiness is ambiguous. Kantians “consider only the proposals for an action that occur to them and check that these proposals use no other as mere means” (O’Neill 413). Contrastingly, utilitarianism compares all available acts and sees which has the best effects. Although utilitarianism has a larger scope than Kantianism, it is a more timely process. The decision-making method of calculating all of the potential costs and benefits of an action is extremely time consuming and leaves little time for promoting happiness, which is the Utilitarian’s goal (Bennett 63).

What world would you rather live in? A world where your happiness or life can be taken away from you for the sake of others or a world where you’re acknowledged as a rational being?  A world based off of trust or a world full of broken promises? A world full of calculations or a world with quick decision making? The decision is yours.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Onora. “A Simplified Account of Kant’s Ethics.” 411-415. Blackboard. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.

Bennett, Christopher. “Utilitarianism.” What is this thing called ethics?. London: Routledge, 2010. 55-73

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