Friday, February 03, 2006

Kant vs. Mill: A Philosophical Debate

The recent discussion amongst the death penalty poses a very deep psychological question amongst the essence and impetus of human nature. The debate can be categorized into two realms: the Kantian logic of categorical imperatives (a deontologist position) against a Millian logic of utilitarianism (a consequentionalist posititon).

Let's frame the abstract amongst both arguments first, and then one can find where they fit into these ethical normative practices.

The Kantian Logic

The deontologist position is somewhat a little more complicated than the consequentionalist position. Basically Kant believes in a theory of categorical imperatives. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, and is both required and justified as an end in itself. Kant bases his decision making on a universal maxim, something that does not qualify as an end in itself. The act itself MUST have moral content if it is carried out solely with regard to a sense of moral duty.

An example of Kantian ethics:

Imagine Nazi Germany for a moment. Imagine the Gustapo searching German quarters for violations against the proteting Jews, in a time when they were banished to concentration camps. Imagine the Gustapo coming to a house where Jews were living and questioned the Jews if they were in fact Jews or German citizens. Kant would argue that it is wrong to rob yourself of the moral DUTY of the universal maxim and pretend that you are in fact German. Basically, the result of the decision, by Kantian logic would be that these people are to be wisked away to concentration camps. But it is of no dilemma for Kant. You have maintained a sense of moral obligation to adhere to the categorical imperative of truth and reason. Kant concluded that the expected consequences of an act are themselves morally neutral, and therefore irrelevant to moral deliberation. The only objective basis for moral value would be the rationality of the Good Will, expressed in recognition of MORAL duty.

The Millian Logic

The consequentionalist position is in fact very simple. It's maxim, under the doctrine of utilitarianism, is to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. To Mill, no matter how cruel of the actual act that is involved, no matter what extent of grotesque and dirty nature of the act, that as long as the end result is better for more people than the act is inherently justified. To Mill, the universal maxim was happiness. He believed the intrinsic moral value of life was for everyone to attain happiness and pleasure (there are different types of pleasures but thats for another discussion).

An example of Millian ethics:

In the same exact situation described above, Mill would have no problem lying to the Gustapo for a greater amount of happiness for humankind (i.e the Jews). It doesn't matter that they abondoned a sense of "moral duty", the bottom line to Mill is that they achieved what human nature should always be in search of: the greates amount of good for the greatest number of people.

By using this example, many people see that they would never adhere to Kantian logic; it seems ridiculous and in fact morally obtrusive itself. However let's take another example where one may completely agree with Kant, BASED on the same principles.

Imagine the entire city of Chicago has received word that the water system is completely diluted with a bacteria and soon a plague develops amongst the entire it spreads through airborne. Now imagine if you will, for sake of the hypothetical point, that the government was able to contain Chicago in a large dome so to stop the spread of the immediate effects of the epidemic to other parts of the world. Yet, many people are talking about revolting against the government dome and roaming outside, because they are in fact not "infected" yet. Let's also pretend that the only way to stop the spread of the disease is to elminate all citizens in Chicago by means of smart missiles. The question then becomes...

Is it morally right to kill every citizen in Chicago for the benefit of the world? In Mill's eyes, yes, more happiness for the entire world is better than more suffering for the entire world. Hence, he would bmob Chicago so the world is "saved." Yet in Kant's eyes, the act itself is so repulsive that it goes against the moral duty and maxim of society to actually destroy massive amounts of human life to save more people. The ends to Kant are of no regard. It is the ACT in which is against his categorical imperatives.


The Rif said...

But what about all the stuff Mill says about, you know, respecting all opinions in a public forum because, at some level, they all have an intrinsic value.

He outlines fairly clearly to what extent these opinions should be taken in. In "On Liberty" he goes into great detail about how the majority rarely has an absolute corner on truth.

I mean, sure he was a utilitarian (i.e. greatest good for greatest number) as you clearly are aware, but he was also fearful of the tyranny of majority. He recognized how various social dogmas could influence a society, frequently negatively.

So now I think it's a good idea to ask if you are you referring to John Stuart Mill or his father, James Mill? Because at this point, I know you're largely misrepresenting J.S. Mill and Millian ethics.

David said...

This post has made a week of ethics philosophy actually make sense for the midterm tomorrow