Ethics: How Should I Live My Life

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April 15, 2011

How Should I Live?
Immanual Kant vs. Jon Stuart Mill

In their works “Principle of Utility” and the “Categorically Imperative” the philosophers Kant and Mill have addressed one of the most prominent questions humans have asked ourselves since the beginning of time; what are the fundamental moral principles that we should base our lives on? My intent is to show how each of these philosophers in their approach this subject yielding totally different results. I will compare and contrast and ultimately determine which of their philosophies I personally find better suited to my own way of life. I will also point out when sometimes you can have circumstances when they do not contradict each other. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 3rd edition p.398).

The purpose of the above passage is to define that the moral choice according to Mill. According to him when presented with a choice of actions to take, the correct and moral action is to choose the one which will produce in its consequences the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain in the world. To help understand his concept I present the following scenarios in which we would need to make a moral choice according to the above framework. Let’s suppose that while driving we are stopped at a traffic light and a couple of young kids ask you for a donation to help them make a trip to another state for their National Little League Championship. The outcome seems to depend on how much you need the money. If you were out of a job, struggling to make payments on the rent or food for example giving away your money will definitely decrease your own happiness more than it would increase the happiness of others. However if you have some disposable income giving it away to the little league of baseball players would who need it more it would definitely increase their happiness, therefor increasing the total amount of happiness in the world as the Principle of Utility demands.

Another scenario would be as follows. Imagine that you are harboring a fugitive that committed a petty crime but that you know without any doubt that he has the cure of a disease that currently kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. If this person gets caught by the police he would never have the chance to develop the cure. The police go to your house and ask you if you have seen the person in question. Now if you are following the Principle of Utility you have to consider the impact on the total amount of happiness each of the two possibilities, telling the police the truth or you telling them something else will bring about. If we examine what could happen if you tell the police the truth, we can see that the police’s happiness will be increased as the lack of pain from future victims of the fugitive’s crimes. But when we compare this against the happiness of the people whose lives will be saved by cure that the fugitive will be helping create we can see that in this case the greatest good will be done by telling the police that you have not seen the petty thief. In this case the long term effect of the decision helps make it a clear choice according to Mills. Long term consequences are also evident in the third scenario. In this scenario you find yourself witness of a horrible crime being committed, let’s say a rape. At first considering the demands of the Principle of Utility the choices are a little difficult to discern for if you choose to end the life of the rapist you are denying him much pleasure of the long term and causing him a lot of pain in the short term. Not doing so will also bring overall loss of pleasure by the victim and increase of pain would occur. Nevertheless if we consider the consequences of not only the...
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