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

12 responses to “Kantianism > Utilitarianism

  1. Rachel,
    This was such a clear comparison of Utilitarian and Kantian ethics. You have really illustrated their differences. I do agree that world in which “we are considered rational beings” is far better than a “world where your happiness or life can be taken away from you for the sake of others”. I also agree that the utilitarian calculus is far more time consuming than determining if an action is moral by looking at the intentions behind it.

    That being said, I do not think we can conclude that utilizing Kantian ethics is the solution to all ethical dilemmas.While Kantian ethics “considers only the proposals for an action that occur to them and checks that these proposals use no others as mere means” this sounds unstable to me. Even if we “check” to make sure proposals for an action do not use other human beings as “mere means in a scheme of action”, how can we be sure? There will always be instances in which a person is able to conceal the intentions of his/her actions. Surely this can occur and slip by those who “check the actions”. It just seems like there is too much gray area in Kantian ethics that could potentially still allow individuals to take advantage of others.

    • Laurel,
      I agree with you that “there is too much gray area in Kantian ethics.” At this point in our exploration of ethics, I do not feel that either utilitarianism or kantian ethics are the right way of acting. A combination of the two, or possibly other theories we are yet to learn, will make for a better ethical stance in my opinion. Yes, acting in ways that do not take advantage of people sounds nice on the surface, and acting in ways that promote general happiness also sounds nice, but in every situation, neither works as a perfect ethical bible from which to act in all situations.

      • Josh,
        I agree with you that neither utilitarianism nor Kantian ethics “works as a perfect ethical bible from which to act in all situations.” With that being said, however, I do not think that we will ever come across this “perfect ethical bible” because everyone has different values which are reflected in our morals. This is evidenced by the wide variety of moral theories that have been created. If we had this “perfect ethical bible,” what would be the point in analyzing all of these arguments made by philosophers? I believe that every theory has loopholes. I never stated that Kantian ethics is the “perfect ethical bible,” but I rather agreed with O’Neill’s argument that Kantianism is a stronger moral theory than utilitarianism.

    • Laurel,

      As we have discussed Kantian ethics further in class, I am unsure that there is really that much “grey area” involved. With the strict method Kant has of Testing the Maxim of Your Action, I think there is very little “grey area” in Kantian Ethics. I think that Kantian ethics are too strict–they don’t have any wiggle room (like in the case of saving Anne Frank vs. lying about keeping her in her home). Kantian ethics bases the morality of a decision based off of whether or not the maxim could be a conceivable universal law of nature–which makes it seem heavily rule-based and strict. Kantian ethics do not allow for exceptions, which I see as a major issue.

  2. Rachel, I agree with your views on utilitarianism and how it allows happiness to be sacrificed for the majority. I think you did an excellent job proving why utilitarianism isn’t the most ideal theory of ethics, but I do think you provided enough arguments to explain why Kantian is superior.
    In your post, you mentioned that Kantian ethics “consider only the proposals for an action that occur to them and check that these proposals use no other as mere means.” I am a strong believer that intentions do matter, but there is a problem the idea. I don’t think that “proposals” or reason can motivate ethical action. We may “know” whether an action is right, but there needs to be more importance placed on the desire to accomplish the action morally. Reason is great, but I think we need more in order to motivate moral duties. In some scenarios, people have the correct reasoning, and are able to act on that reasoning, but create distress instead. For example, lets say I was very against smoking cigarettes and decided that because cigarettes are very unhealthy, it i my duty to stop whoever I see smoking one. If I went up to every person on campus and ripped the cigarette out of his or her mouth, I would probably get into many fights and arguments, and will likely cause suffering for the people I violated. Is it moral to have a good “purpose” even if I am very annoying?

  3. Max,
    I would like to expand on your last example. Based off your example, Kantian ethics would deem your actions (taking cigarettes from people who are smoking) not morally worthy. However, it is not because of their inherent consequence of upsetting people, but because you did so because you are very against smoking. The categorical imperative used to justify such an action could be “It is right to foster people’s health.” So if you acted on that principle, it would be, from a Kantian perspective, morally right. Furthermore, if one person took another’s cigarettes and was thanked, and another person did the same but was berated, both have equal moral standing.

    Lastly, you seem to invoke a utilitarian argument for your smoking example. You say that because taking cigarettes from people that are smoking would cause suffering for people, it is morally wrong. However, keeping with a utilitarian argument, do the long term health consequences of continuing to smoke (and inherent suffering of the individual, family, etc.) outweigh the suffering caused by forcing them to quit?

  4. Not going to lie, this was a really good essay that had me rethinking comments that I posted earlier. The idea that you leave the essay on, disputing the definitions/life of Kantianism and Utilitarianism , clearly shows that you for one agree more with Kantianism. I for one , do agree with the idea of being a “rational being”; but , in the same sense I do like to see happiness of others. Obviously since I cant the best of both worlds, to answer your conclusion of questions I make the decision to be neither. As you stated in earlier comments, ethics will never be perfect especially since every one has there own opinions. Furthermore, I feel as though every situation calls for a different solution. I don’t need to do math problems at every situation in life, and I surely cant’ just be quick on my feet either !

    Oh! And to clarify, although Kantianism is a faster decision making then Utilitarianism , I don’t believe its “quick decision making” especially since you have to go though a formatted list of questions to make sure that you are doing such actions cause its truly your duty ?

  5. This post successfully covers the main differences between Kantian ethics and utilitarianism. Because utilitarianism only cares that the end result is an increase in happiness and does not consider the intentions behind an action, I believe that Kantian ethics is a better moral law to follow when compared to utilitarianism. The underlying idea behind Kantian ethics is that each human being has inherent worth and that human reason facilitates human autonomy. Therefore, we should also have the ability to reason to the right behavior. The categorical imperative further implies that we shouldn’t do what we wouldn’t want others to do to us. However, Kantian ethics is not completely flawless in that although the intentions behind one’s actions is very important, the results of the actions are just as important. Going back to the cigarette example from the earlier comments, his intentions are pure in that he only wants to help, but he is also creating a lot of misery and distress. Therefore, I believe that both Kantian ethics and utilitarianism are flawed in that they are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Kantian ethics focuses too much on one’s intentions whereas utilitarianism focuses too much on the results of one’s actions, so I think that an intermediate needs to be formed in order to incorporate the ideas from both theories.

  6. This really cleared up a lot misconceptions I had to do with Kantian ethics, so thank you for that. Also I agree completely with notion that the concept of the utilitarian calculus is flawed, I think that a world where pleasure has to be calculated is quite unrealistic and is hard to apply so in that respect I would think that Kantian ethics is a more suitable theory. However, I don’t think that Kantian ethics is flawless either. First, because all duties are absolute, it can’t help us to resolve conflicts of duty (for example, telling the truth vs. protecting your friends). In addition, it discounts moral emotions like compassion, sympathy and remorse as appropriate and ethical motives for action.

  7. I agree with Josh on his view that: “a combination of the two, or possibly other theories we are yet to learn, will make for a better ethical stance”. The following example substantiates this notion. Imagine a hospital had just received six dying patients who need organ transplants. A healthy individual, with no family, walks into the hospital for a routine check. Is the doctor justified in killing the healthy patient to save the six dying patients? According to utilitarianism, the doctor can justify his killing the healthy patient as long as it maximizes utility. According to Kant, killing the healthy patient would be using a person as a means to an end, which violates the categorical imperative. Therefore, the doctor would not be morally justified in killing the patient. The two ethical theories offers solutions to the two ends of the spectrum with definite guidelines for each and all scenarios. But in reality, we often face situations where we need to adapt and be malleable and thus this calls for an ethical stance which may comprise of an amalgamation of the two theories and maybe more.

  8. Rachel, your illustration of the differences between Kantianism and Utilitarianism clarified a few of the misconceptions I had on these views, but also made me rethink my stance on Kantianism. I still view both Utilitarian and Kantian ethics as demanding, but after reading your post, I strongly favor Kantianism as Utilitarianism is far too demanding. Utilitarianism demands us to drop all pursuits and pleasures in an attempt to maximize overall utility. Pretty much, if an action doesn’t maximize happiness it is the wrong action. Kantian ethics wants us to do good things for other people, which may be an imperfect duty, but we are still able to “pursue our ends” as long as we do so in a way that respects other people. This idea is absent in Utilitarian ethics, which is why I’ve considered it as fundamentally wrong.

  9. Indeed, both Kantianism and Utilitarianism have their advantages and disadvantages. Looking back at different belief systems we have studied, we have recognized each has its own limitations. As people have commented previously, the best solutions to issues and dilemmas can be found by combining the different theories. Yes, certain situations may render a theory incompatible and we able to recognize when such situations occur. However, even if we use a combination of theories to solve a problem, it is difficult to eliminate all subjectivity. Each person has their own beliefs that may subconsciously seep into their decision making even after they recognize the that dilemma at hand requires them to expand and adapt.

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