Exploring Ethics: Comparing Aristotle, Kant and Mill

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Comparison of Aristotle, Kant, and Mill


Aristotle represents virtue ethics, Kant represents duty ethics, and Mill represents utilitarianism. All three authors conceive of morality as the search for the highest good. They disagree about the definition of the highest good. For Aristotele, it is happiness understood as self-sufficiency (fulfillment of all desires), consisting in activity in conformity with virtue (EN 1.7), for Kant it is a good will, defined by duty (GMM, ed. Ellington, p. 7:393; p. 9:397), for Mill it is happiness understood as pleasure and absence of pain (Utilitarianism, ch. 2).

untarily or through ignorance or for an ulterior motive, and not for the sake of performing just acts.” EN 6.12.1144a13–16, cf. 5.6.1134a19–23; 5.8.1135b2–6.

1. “For in the case of what is to be morally good, that it conforms to the moral law is not enough; it must also be done for the sake of the moral law.” GMM, p. 3:390. 2. “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e. it is good in itself.” GMM, p. 7:394. 3. “[T]o preserve one’s life is a duty; and furthermore, everyone has also an immediate inclination to do so. But on this account the often anxious care taken by most men for it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of their action has no moral content. They preserve their lives, to be sure, in accordance with duty, but not from duty. On the other hand, if adversity and hopeless sorrow have completely taken away the taste for life, if an unfortunate man … wishes for death and yet preserves his life without loving it – not from inclination or fear, but from duty – then his maxim indeed has a moral content.” GMM, p. 10:397–398. 4. “The second proposition is this: An action done from duty has its moral worth, not in the purpose that is to be attained by it, but in the maxim according to which the action is determined. The moral worth depends, therefore, not on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition according to which … the action has been done. From what has gone before it is clear that the purposes which we may have in our actions, as well as their effects regarded as ends and incentives of the will, cannot give to actions any unconditioned and moral worth. Where, then, can this worth lie if it is not to be found in the will’s relation to the expected effect? Nowhere but in the principle of the will, with no regard to the ends that can be brought about through such action.” GMM, p. 12–13:399–400.

Comparison of moral theories: the moral value lies in …
agent • firm character • acts from choice • for the sake of the noble • acts w/ knowledge • acts with pleasure • sense desires accord with reason • act from duty action • aim at a median • not intrinsically bad consequences • if foreseeable, they have to be taken into account

Aristotle Kant

• in accord with duty • no value by itself

• no value


• indifferent

• all the value

HOW TWO AUTHORS DIFFER FROM THE THIRD a) Aristotle and Kant as opposed to Mill 1.) For Aristotle and Kant, the emphasis lies on disposition of the agent, and little (Aristotle, 5.8.1135b17–25) or not at all (Kant, p. 7f.:394) on effects of an action (the consequences), whereas Mill all that counts are the effects of an act. Aristotle: 1. “[T]he man who does not enjoy performing noble actions is not a good man at all,” EN 1.8.1099a17–19. 2. “Moreover, the factors involved in the arts and in the virtues are not the same. In the arts, excellence lies in the result itself, so that it is sufficient if it is of a certain kind. But in the case of the virtues, an act is not performed justly or with self-control if the act itself is of a certain kind, but only if in addition the agent has certain characteristics as he performs it: first of all, he must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose to act the way...
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