Home » Ethical theories

Ethical theories

The principle of private happiness states that an individual’s prosperity is weighed in proportion to that person’s good conduct. In short, one’s peace of mind is empirically measured by how virtuous one is towards others and to himself. Kant’s objection to ethical theories that use this idea emanates from the fact that it extends human reason, one that determines good will and good conduct, outwards instead of inwards, reason being automatic, inherent in an individual. The above doctrine puts motive on virtues, meaning that one’s good conduct is being used as a means to an end.

Morality is not established because the inner self is not developed out of one’s duty but instead, the necessity to have good will is for satisfying a particular purpose. Moreover, it is superficial, centered on a human being’s feelings and inclinations rather than pure reason. If one can not exercise rational behavior, one will form one’s beliefs out of sheer feelings and base one’s opinion of others on this. Moral feeling is not an apt judge of right and wrong because it lacks that uniform standard, one that is unbiased and not easily swayed by emotion.

The fact that individuals are different also implies that they have different basis and sources on morality, that they have dissimilar opinions on good and evil. It makes it difficult, then, to establish a universally acceptable set of laws if it is solely based on the dynamic nature of human emotion. Kant believes that one’s good will is inherently good in itself, and should not be measured empirically. To use one’s will as a means to an end produces nothing but unhappiness and extends only to misology, the hatred of reason.

Framing one’s life to certain expectations and shaping one’s actions to the attainment of those goals can be fatal when those expectations are not met. Failure brings people down and to lack reason, one that does not conform to desires, is to lack a foundation to stand on, to enable one to bounce back from defeat. It will serve one better to have a definite belief in one’s maxim to be universally acceptable, acting only on those intentions that one believes everybody else will accept.

Therefore, the principle of private happiness calls for a person to prove that moral worth within an existing situation. This theory assumes that one’s will can not stand independently without it being tested or challenged. One’s prosperity is within the human being. All moral conceptions, according to this philosopher, originate not from empirical evidence, but only reason alone. Ends do not justify the means all the time. One can contrast Kant’s beliefs on private happiness to that of Bentham’s utilitarian principle.

The latter defends the fact that actions are moral to the extent that it maximizes happiness. There is a functional aspect to morality in this sense because one’s actions are judged good or bad according to how it makes the individual happy or unhappy. Kant opposes this idea because happiness, in his view, is strictly empirical. What brings a person satisfaction is subject to one’s experiences, it involves comparisons to certain events in one’s life.

And for this, he explains that there is no definite principle to secure happiness, there is no imperative or law that can make anyone happy anytime. Prosperity is often a sign of happiness, and happiness, in Kant’s belief, is more of an issue of human imagination, rather than human reason. Still according to private happiness, good conduct determines peace in one’s life. It can be assumed in this principle that one can only act morally when one wishes to live in prosperity. Kant, on the other hand, reiterates that it is one’s duty to act with good will towards one’s self and others as well.

It is only in this manner that moral worth can be allocated to one’s actions. Private happiness tends to be a belief that is very selective on its character. Individuals that agree with this perspective will tend to follow it whenever they see it fit themselves to do so. But perfectly rational beings, according to Kant, will just do the right thing, without any hidden agenda whatsoever. I believe in some of the areas on private happiness. Like the fact that having good conduct does increase the chances of one having peace of mind.

Having a society that still does good things rather than one mired in chaos and lawlessness, I’d take that in a heartbeat. I can sleep well at night knowing that there are still people who believe in their values and act on them, regardless of why they choose to do so. But the idea of a good will serving a particular purpose does sound hypocritical. Kant’s notion of doing the right thing because it is one’s duty to do so is part of his philosophy that I believe in. But how do you know that there is no hidden agenda?

How do you distinguish an act done out of duty and one done out of personal gain? I mean we have to be omniscient, God-like, to be able to separate these two things. And that is my beef with Kant’s idea of pure reason and pure good will. It is difficult to filter out the purity of another’s intentions. It does seem to be paranoia, or a severe case of distrust on my fellowman, but in order to believe in something, you’ve got to test its strength across different situations. Only then will you know that you’re defending the right ideology.

Kant, on account of the above reason, now says that one should act only on those intentions that can be universally acceptable, to act only on those intentions that everybody else will accept. But again, how do you know what is agreeable to others and what is detestable? Except for the so-called “psychics”, last time I heard, no human being can read minds…so I hope. So, do I agree with the principle of private happiness? I do, when it comes to exhibiting good conduct, that it does determine, among other things, how safe and comfortable one is with his or her life.

I don’t, because it does lose moral worth when it’s a means to an end. However, Kant’s supposition is not that clear either to make me embrace his teachings. I’m left in what others often call a conundrum, stuck with no absolute explanation to the nature of human reason and good will. Maybe that’s why they teach these things… The categorical imperative is a better guide for moral reasoning because it can be applied by the individual with a clear, understandable reverence for the morality of the whole community.

Mill’s utilitarianism is also concerned with the whole, but the mechanism by which one can judge the worth of his or her actions is quite a leap. When a utilitarian makes a moral decision about an action the primary concern is individual happiness. The agent must then consider the consequences of this action within the extent of his or her influence. While there is little argument we all want to be happy, we can not assess the moral worth of our actions on consequence. It is much too difficult to assimilate individual actions and consequences with the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Conversely, Kant’s categorical imperative gives an individual a more reliable mechanism by which to judge his actions. The test begins with intentions rather than consequences. It is easier to assess intentions than consequences, because intentions are not as specific to situation and reliant upon outcome. Instead, good intentions are simple moral intuitions that tend to produce good. If the whole of humanity shares good intentions, acting only upon those intentions which the individual would will for everyone produces the greatest good.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.