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Ethical Theories: Deontology and Utilitarianism

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There are a variety of ways in which philosophers believe people should morally behave, and which values they should hold upon going about their everyday lives. In general, different individuals often have different values, and some values may be considered more significant than others. Due to this, their philosophies on life will often differ, as well. Two ethical theories, deontology and utilitarianism, provide standpoints on the ways in which humans are obligated to act, based on each theory’s morals. These theories are mainly supported by two philosophers, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. These philosophers support contradicting ideals, and while both of these theories have their faults, they can be rationalized in some way or another. Through analyzing both Kant’s deontological view, and Mill’s utilitarian view, points can be made to determine which view holds more weight in terms of humans striving to do what is right.

Kant and Mill believed that we as human beings should act according to what is morally “right.” Albeit, what Kant held to be morally right greatly differed from Mill’s ideas. Kant proposed the deontological standpoint that morality is acting on our duty as humans, to do what is right. He called this duty having goodwill and acting on it. This duty, he exclaims, is to do something morally good without having selfish motives—such as expecting a reward or praise, or even “for fear of getting caught” if they were to do the opposite. To him, this would entirely defeat the purpose, being that he calls it a duty, and not a choice. According to Kant, this duty would or should not be affected by one’s feelings/emotions and/or experiences. To him, this would be subjective and not dutiful. In order to avoid subjectivity, Kant established a rule known as the categorical imperative. This rule states that one should not act on something unless this act can be a universal law, or in simpler words, one must not do something unless everyone can do that same thing. This would avoid much inequality amongst human beings by not only realizing what is wrong, if no one else may partake in the particular action but by unintentionally creating a way for people to produce a greater good, simply by starting with themselves. If a person must differentiate between right and wrong, and not act on what may be the wrong choice, they are preventing wrongdoing from another. Moreover, according to Kant, treating people as means to an end violates the duty of doing what is right.

Mill, having utilitarian ideals would disagree with Kant. He would suggest that people should live and make choices that would promote overall happiness or the absence of pain. He called this the Greatest Happiness Principle. Mill believes the overall, greatest happiness or pleasure is one that most people would prefer when given two options, or even multiple options. When distinguishing between two pleasures, and which pleasure makes it more worthy than the other, Mill explains that “if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure”. Further, he feels that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only desirable ends for human beings. So, using anything as a means to receive the greatest pleasure or the least amount of pain would be acceptable to him—since it is pleasing more people, and therefore abiding by the Greatest Happiness Principle.

While both philosophers provide wholesome, supportive reasonings for each of their own approaches, their approaches greatly conflicted with one another’s. One believing in what they think is right may differ completely from someone else’s perspective, as displayed here. With that being said, after closely analyzing and considering Mill and Kant’s viewpoints on what they consider to be the morally “right” way to live, I have decided that Kant’s view is more substantial and realistic. The idea of promoting overall happiness, as Mill would want, seems like an attractive idea, until perhaps destroying the happiness of one person for the sake of ten people, comes into play. There is no way to truly make everyone in this world happy, without forsaking a few. Following Mill’s principle, I think, would actually create chaos. I do not think it is rational or practical to consider everyone’s, or the majority of people’s preferences when making your own individual choices. Being that most people are self-interested to begin with, I do not think this approach would work.

Although I do not completely agree with Kant, his approach definitely gives a better guide for doing what is right, in my opinion. Not only is his approach more doable for us as individuals, but it is less chaotic by far. Making choices with good motives and intentions is something that rational beings are able to do, and can be relatively feasible. Mill argues that using someone as a means to an end for the purpose of producing overall happiness is justified, but Kant argues that using someone as a means to an end is not justifiable at all. He says that using someone as an end rather than a means to that end, shows you have respect for them. Behaving in a way that shows you have respect for others as a general rule, will make it more likely for others to show they have respect for you. Kant’s categorical imperative is also quite significant in terms of doing what is right. This is because it forces us to commit to certain moral obligations, as if it were the law, regardless of our own desires or emotions. Oftentimes, though we are rational beings, we tend to let our emotions be the driving forces of the decisions we make. These moral obligations tend to be derived from pure reason or logic, so they are usually the best decisions we can make for ourselves and society.

In a hypothetical case, two men, Bob and Greg, are walking on a bridge that is above a highway. Bob notices that under the bridge there are four people tied up in the middle of the highway and cannot move. Bob sees a big truck about to hit these four tied-up people and he knows that it is too late for the truck driver to slow down in order to not hit these people. Greg is not paying attention, but instead, looking down at his phone. Greg also happens to be over six feet, and seemingly over two hundred and fifty pounds. Bob knows that if he pushes Greg over the bridge, the truck will instead be stopped by Greg, killing him, but will not hit the four people beneath the bridge. However, if Bob does not push Greg over, these four people will get hit by the truck, and most likely die.

In this moral dilemma, Mill would say that pushing Greg over the bridge is justified because it would save the four people, and therefore promote overall happiness. However, Kant would say that pushing Greg over the bridge is using him as a means, and violates his categorical imperative. Though our feelings and emotions might drive us to take action in this case, and save the four people, we would still be killing one. Kant would argue that taking the action to murder someone is not morally just or reasonable. Bob did not tie those people up beneath the bridge and place them in the middle of the highway. So, he would not have been responsible for their deaths. Once Bob takes action to murder Greg, he is now responsible for murdering him and should be punished—not rewarded for saving the four. If Bob did not take any action to murder Greg, he would have simply been seen as a bystander/witness. He would not have been involved in the situation as a perpetrator, as it was not his fault those people beneath the bridge were in such a predicament.

Given Mill’s and Kant’s vastly contrasting views, as well as the hypothetical situation I described, I was able to evaluate both sides and truly comprehend and appreciate the logic behind Kant’s view. Doing what is morally right, in terms of what Kant thinks is morally right, can be difficult. However, if we do not let our own personal feelings or emotions interfere with us being able to make important logical decisions, we would be better off when it comes to doing what is right. If we recognized when our feelings/emotions and wants were not necessary to be considered when following what Kant believes to be our moral obligations, we as a society would probably function better.  

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Ethical Theories: Deontology And Utilitarianism. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/ethical-theories-deontology-and-utilitarianism/
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