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Immanuel Kant’s Ethics Of Pure Duty


Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill are philosophers who addressed the issues of morality in terms of how moral traditions are formed. Immanuel Kant has presented one viewpoint in The Grounding For The Metaphysics of Morals that is founded on his belief that the worth of man is inherent in his ability to reason. John Stuart Mill holds another opinion as presented in the book, Utilitarianism that is seemingly in contention with the thoughts of Kant. What is most distinctive about the ethics of morality is the idea of responsibilities to particular individuals.

According to Kant and Mill, moral obligations are not fundamentally particularistic in this way because they are rooted in universal moral principles. Mill and Kant are both philosophers whom have made great impact on their particular fields of philosophy and a critique of their theories in relation to each other may help develop a better understanding to them and their theories individually. Mill’s utilitarianism theory is a version of the ideal judgment theory. So is Kant’s, but there are differences.

Mill holds an empiricist theory while Kant holds a rationalist theory. Kant grounds morality in forms that he believes, are necessary to free and rational practical judgment, namely his deontological ethics. Mill’s utilitarian theory is a form of consequentialism because the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined by the consequences. Thus, deontologicalism and consequentialism are the main criticisms for both these theories. Kant’s ethics of pure duty is the basis for his categorical imperative, which provides the basis for his universalist duty based theory.

Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is a primary form of consequentialism. Both deontologicalism and consequentialism are valid points of argument to the ethics of an action but they are also argumentative towards each other. Mill, in his later work, On Liberty, adds deontologicalism to correct his consequentialist view. John Stuart Mill, who made utilitarianism the subject of one of his philosophical treatise Utilitarianism (1863), is the most proficient defender of this doctrine after Jeremy Bentham.

His contribution to the theory consists in his recognition of distinctions of quality, in addition to those of intensity, among pleasures. Thus, whereas Bentham maintained that the “quality of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry,” Mill contended that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” that is, human discontent is better than animal fulfillment. Or more clearer stated as “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”, as the fool would only be of a different opinion because he did not know both sides of the question.

By this statement, Mill seems to have rejected the identification of the concept “happiness” with “pleasure and the absence of pain” and the concept “unhappiness” with “pain and the absence of pleasure,” as found in Bentham’s works. Although his position was based on the maximization of happiness, he distinguished between pleasures that are higher and lower in quality. Mill’s ‘principle of utility’ or ‘the greatest happiness principle’ seeks for the logical rationality of ethics through the consequences of actions as the consideration determining their morality, thus the acquisition of happiness as opposed to the avoidance of pain.

Utilitarianism may be viewed as an instance of a more general theory of right consequentialism, which holds that right and wrong can only be assessed by the goodness of consequences. This general kind of theory can perhaps be most easily understood by considering the form of consequentialism. Consequentialism is that an act is right if, of those available to the agent at the time, it would produce the greatest overall net value in the end. Utilitarian views are based around the concept of attaining happiness and Mill maintains hedonism; happiness or pleasure is the only intrinsic good for persons.

Mill believes, that a hedonist should, maintain that pleasures involving cultivated intellectual, emotional, and imaginative faculties are intrinsically better. In Mill’s utilitarian theory, he holds that there are qualitative pleasures as well as quantitative. Hedonism shows that the intellectual pleasures are better pleasures because they are in better quality than those of purely extrinsic value. Kant sees this distinction and goes on to explain that a numerical value cannot be placed on something that has intrinsic value. His ethical theory has been more influential than his work in epistemology and metaphysics.

Most of Kant’s work on ethics is presented in two works, The Grounding For The Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and The Critique of Practical Reason (1787). Kantian theory on morality is stated in terms of his ethics of pure duty. What is the duty that motivates our actions and gives them moral value? Kant distinguishes two kinds of law produced by reason. Kant believes that rational agents are moral agents, that every moral agent has the same ability as any other and therefore must be given consideration and respect. Hence, moral agents cannot be instrumentalized to reach an end but are ends in themselves.

Given some end we wish to achieve, reason provides a hypothetical imperative, or rule of action for achieving that end. A hypothetical imperative says that if you wish to buy a new house, then you must determine what sort of houses are available for purchase. Deriving a means to achieve some desired end is the most common use of reason. However, Kant shows that the acceptable formation of the moral law cannot be merely hypothetical because our actions cannot be moral on the ground of some conditional purpose or goal. Morality requires an unconditional statement of one’s duty and reason produces that absolute statement for moral action.

Kant believes that reason dictates a categorical imperative for moral action. To be moral one cannot have the condition of “if I want to achieve some end, then do X”, but simply “do X”. The moral or categorical imperative is unconditional whereas the hypothetical imperative is not. Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative states that humanity is the ultimate value and should be regarded as an end in itself. Categorical imperatives say what, under certain circumstances, one ought to do. Unlike a hypothetical imperative, one can conclude that, if the circumstances obtain, one really ought to act.

A hypothetical imperative is not simply a conditional “ought”. Hypothetical imperatives merely indicate an action as what one must do, consistently with pursuing a given end. Genuinely willing, as opposed to idle wishing an end is being prepared to take some means to achieve it. Primarily the inclination in the antecedent makes it a hypothetical imperative whereas an unconditional motivation will make it a categorical imperative. Part of what Kant means in the Preface by the ‘absolute necessity’ is that an essential component of our ordinary idea of moral duty or obligation, is that moral “ought’s” are categorical imperatives.

The basic premise for Kant’s categorical imperative is to do the right thing because the very idea of it being right contains the reason for doing it. Always do the right thing because it is right and that is the morality of it. Kant now gives his three definitions of the categorical imperative. These three definitions are the basis of what Kant believes to be the proponent to achieving morality when committing any given act and that if one follows these positions when committing an act, the act will always be morally and ethically right. Kant was the key advocate in history of what is called deontological ethics.

Deontology is the study of duty. On Kant’s view, the sole feature that gives an action moral worth is not the outcome that is achieved by the action, but the motive that is behind the action. Kantian belief is that free will is indispensable to morality. To be moral is to do something because it is the right thing and to do the right things for the right reasons. If you can universalize this then it will always be moral and right. The Kantian perspective is that if the action contemplated is wrong you cannot universalize it, but if the action is right, you can universalize it without conditions.

Mill then argues that once you universalize the maxims, the consequences slide back into the picture of things. Pursuing the comparison with Mill, Kant’s anti-consequentialist or deontological claim is that it is wrong to treat persons in certain ways even if that maximizes happiness. This is grounded in Kant’s metaethics or metaphysics of ethics. This is one criticism that can be drawn from Kant’s theory, because according to Mill there is the sum ranking of the welfarist utilitarian view, which holds the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”, and the ideal utilitarian view of the “greatest good for the greatest number”.

To Kant, there are differences in people and sum ranking does not respect this. Kant continues to criticize utilitarianism in explaining that happiness may be subjective for each individual and that measurement of such happiness as quanta is impossible. Happiness for each individual is different and thus a value cannot be placed upon it making it immeasurable. What is distinctive about utilitarianism among consequentialist theories is that it supposes that all intrinsic value is value for someone such as welfare or benefit, and that a person’s welfare or benefit consists in how happy they are or how much pleasure they experience.

However, to Kant, since happiness may be subjective for each individual, it is intangible and cannot be measured. Utilitarian moral theories evaluate the moral worth of action based on happiness that is produced by an action. Whatever produces the most happiness in the most people is the moral course of action. Kant’s objection to this is that utilitarian theories actually devalue the individuals it is supposed to benefit. He believes that if utilitarian calculations are allowed to motivate our actions, we are allowing the valuation of one person’s welfare and interests in terms of what good they can be used for.

Kantian views hold this to be determining the value of a person’s welfare with their utility. It would then be possible, for instance, to justify sacrificing one individual for the benefits of others if the utilitarian calculations promise to be more beneficial. Doing so would be the worst example of treating someone utterly as a means and not as an end in themselves. Another way to consider his objection is to note that utilitarian theories are motivated by the subjective inclination in humans for pleasure and happiness, not by the universal moral law that reason dictates.

To act in pursuit of happiness is arbitrary and subjective, and is no more moral than acting based on greed, or selfishness. This stems from the subjective and non-rational grounds, which will violate the individual whom does not hold the same views of happiness as that of the majority. Kantian beliefs see the danger of utilitarianism because it embraces the “baser” instincts while it rejects the role of reason and freedom in our actions. Critics of utilitarianism argue that morality is not based on consequences of actions, as utilitarians believe, but is instead based on the foundational and universal concepts of justice.

Mill sees this as the strongest argument against utilitarianism, and thus sees the concept of justice as a test case for utilitarianism. Therefore, if Mill can explain the concept of justice in terms of utility, then he has addressed the main deontologicalist or non-consequentialist argument against utilitarianism. Mill offers two counter arguments in defense of utilitarianism. Mill first argues that all moral elements in the notion of justice depend on social utility. There are two essential elements in the notion of justice: punishment, and the notion that someone’s rights were violated.

Punishment is derived from a combination of vengeance and social sympathy. However, vengeance alone has no moral component, and social sympathy is the same as social utility. The notion of the violation of rights is also derived from utility because rights are claims we have on society to protect us, and the only reason society should protect us is because of social utility. Thus, both elements of justice such as punishment and rights are based on utility. Mill’s second argument is that if justice were as foundational as non-consequentialists contend it to be, then justice would not be as ambiguous as it is.

According to Mill, there are disputes in the notion of justice when examining theories of punishment, fair distribution of wealth, and fair taxation. These disputes can only be resolved by appealing to utility. Mill concludes that justice is a genuine concept, but that we must see it as based on utility. Mill’s counter arguments in defense of utilitarianism against Kant’s ethics of pure duty and criticisms seem to be begging the question so to speak. In Mill’s second argument states that because the notion of justice is so ambiguous that that is the reason behind the hindrances behind the other social theories.

However, what he fails to recognize is that if one does not define justice in an ambiguous way and defines the notion of justice in a clear fashion, that in itself would be an injustice. That argument simply goes against him and reinforces Kant’s beliefs because to define justice in terms of utility would be to subjugate every individual to being the same. With Aristotle’s definition of justice as being “harmony in the soul”, to define justice in terms of utility would be to give sum ranking to the individuals.

Harmony in the soul” as a definition of justice means that justice is different for everyone because every individual holds different beliefs and values. Mill later on concedes his consequentialist views and adds deontologicalism in his later work On Liberty. In normative ethics, an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness, but not just the happiness of the performer of the action but also that of everyone affected by it.

Utilitarianism also differs from ethical theories that make the rightness or wrongness of an act dependent upon the motive of the agent because according to the utilitarian, it is possible for the right thing to be done from a bad motive. Mill sought to show that utilitarianism is compatible with moral rules and principles relating to justice, honesty, and truthfulness by arguing that utilitarians should not attempt to calculate whether a specific action would maximize utility before the action is performed.

Mill says that they should instead be guided by the fact that an action falls under a general principle such as we should keep our promises and that adherence to that general principle will increase happiness. For Mill, only under special circumstances is it necessary to consider whether an exception may have to be made but in Kantian retrospect, this makes it hypothetical rather than categorical and therefore, not moral. Kant’s “end in itself ” formulation leads to us to treat rational nature, whether in our own person, or in that of others, always as an end and never simply as a means.

Since will is the distinction of rational beings to all else, we may take this direction to always respecting the will of others. However, Kant cannot expect that we never act contrary to someone’s will because this could not be followed in a situation where wills conflict. It might be closer to Kant’s idea to interpret him as requiring persons always to respect others as capable of acting for principles, and thus ably prepared to restrain our actions towards others if they or we could not will our maxim to be universal law.


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