Kant vs. Utilitarianism

One of the best ways to understand an ethical theory is to understand an opposing theory…

The underlying idea behind Kantian ethics is that each human being has inherent worth.  Simply because you are a human, you have worth in and of  yourself.  Kant’s evidence for this is simple (or, rather I can explain it in a simple way), without human beings, there would be nothing “valued” — so, since the value must come from someplace, it must be from human beings.

Further, Kant argues that human reason facilitates human autonomy.  So, we can reason to what we want to accomplish in the world — i.e. we can make decisions about how to act and the overall course of our lives.  Thus, we can also reason to right behavior.

Kant’s idea is that the Categorical Imperative should function as a decision rule for right action.  The general idea behind the CI is that you shouldn’t act on motives you wouldn’t want to be universal law… so, in essence, you shouldn’t do what you wouldn’t want others to do….

One of the major variations on the categorical imperative is the “means / ends” formulation… which makes an important point about Kant’s view of humanity — namely, that you ought not treat humans as a means to an end.  In other words, you shouldn’t use people to get what you want.

All of this boils down to a test of your motives — if your motive for action (maxim) passes the categorical imperative, your action is permissible.

For utilitarianism, you may use whatever means (act on whatever motives) are necessary to achieve an end that increases happiness. It doesn’t matter why you did the action, only that the end result is an increase in happiness.



Filed under Ethical Theory

10 responses to “Kant vs. Utilitarianism

  1. Shmuel

    I think your explanation on the Categorical Imperative is great, but there wasn’t much space left for Utilitarianism. Why does Kant’s theory deserve five paragraphs and the latter deserves only one? In my opinion, you should have explained Utilitarianism further and evaluated the flaws of both ideas. In this way, you would had been less partial, I guess.

    • If you look around, you’ll see plenty on utilitarianism.. The point of this blog is to give my ethics students more information, and when they read this post, they’ve already learned about utilitarianism.


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  5. Daniel Coleman

    Kant is ultimately veracity and to be aimed for as the idealism, and thus Utilitarianism is an exception to the rule… peace to you…

  6. BSG

    I think Kant is here mis-characterized. He doesn’t ever say not to do what you wouldn’t WANT others to also do. That would be a form of consequentialism, which he is specifically opposed to. He says not to act on any maxim that you CANNOT will to be universal law. So, for example, it is wrong to take what doesn’t belong to you because if everybody did that, then the very concept of belonging would be rendered meaningless. So in an important sense, you can’t rationally will that everyone take what doesn’t belong to them. It’s not that you wouldn’t like the result of everyone taking what didn’t belong to them, it’s that the act of everyone taking what doesn’t belong to them is logically impossible.

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