Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Utility vs the Will | November 12, 2008

Both Kant’s theory and utilitarianism have holes in them, holes that Kant and Mill seem to at least subconsciously recognize, and gloss over in their arguments. Between the two of them though, Kant tends to do much more glossing over, and is much less specific than Mill, because the issues with his theory are much harder to defend.

The only real, contradictory problems with utilitarianism are the issue of time (which is easilly solved), and Mill’s argument for the superiority of intellectual pleasures. As far as subjective problems, he has to deal with the issue that sometimes actions seem to us (humans) to be good for their own sake, not because of their consequences, or that someone’s intention may reduce the morality of their action. This only comes up occassionally though. Another hole brought up is the moral potentiality of people, that utilitarianism essentially says that the more powerful you are, the more potential you have for good or evil. Boone doesn’t like this, but I actually think this is in many ways true, and in international court and in society we treat the intentional creators of immoral institutions (the gestapo, etc.) as being more evil than the every-day murderer.

Kant has much bigger problems. His theory itself can be very loose at times, and he never attempts to rectify this. On top of this, his moral theory fails at the one, most essential duty of all: telling people what to do; specifically, how to determine between two actions when both are wrong. Kant allows no moral degrees, only absolutes (opposite of utilitarianism) which makes actions unnegotiable, and actually seems to not reflect real life, where things can be morally gray, or be more good or bad than other actions. In an atempt to combat the relativism in utilitarianism, Kant has just blindly grabbed onto the problem of moral fundamentalism. Kant also has problems with his Laws, in that some of the justifications actually might contradict the whole principle of his moral theory (frequently sneeking in utility to justify the existence of laws), and in these and other cases he seems to be trying a little to hard, sometimes looking backwards to justify, trying to use his theory to back moral Laws he already follows or thinks people should follow, instead of starting from scratch and figuring out the moral theories that way (because it’s always possible that the morals one follows are wrong). Also, without seeing a better argument for his thoeries, Kant’s meandering and frequently insubstantial arguments, that gloss over some very real issues, I have to assume that it is a result of Kant’s theory being weak, and not simply him being an inconsisten philosopher.

Between the two of them, I think Kant’s theory has much larger and more frequent holes, and he is the much less consisten arguer. His theory seems to me to fit in a much wider number of situations than Kants whose justifications feel like they correspond with our internal justifications. Utilitarianism is far from perfect, but it is vastly less imperfect than Kant’s theory. So, I give the nod to Mill on this one.

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1 Comment »

  1. I agree, both theories have holes in them. I also agree that Mill’s theory tends to be easier to abide by(although there is some gray area, but at least his examples seem valid). Kant’s theory and the fact that it is absolute and unconditional automatically places people in the position of acting immorally. I wonder how many times he practiced his own theory? With respect to morals, Kant equates “murder” with “cheating” and draws no distintion between the two. Someone can cheat on a test and is just as immoral as someone who murders an innocent person. In a fantasy world his theory seems ideal, but in the real world it just doesn’t cut it. I like some of the basics of the theory, but the examples he used and the justifications for his theory were ridiculous.

    Comment by stacey k. — November 13, 2008 @ 8:43 pm


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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