In everyday life, there is always the question of whether human actions are moral or not depending on an individual or the social custom. The study of ethics as a field has its ancestry in the Ancient Greek philosophy. Thus ethics can be described as the study what is right or wrong in terms of human actions such as stealing, paying taxes and lying. Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills have contributed immensely to western philosophy. These two theorists though they present unique arguments attempt to explain the ethical nature of human beings with the major aims of improving or refining the beliefs engraved in the human mind.
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Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory is a duty-based theory that explains whether human actions are moral or immoral based on one’s own will or intention of acting, the basis of assessment of actions is not on the consequences that may occur as a result of the human action such as lying but rather on the person’s will in acting. Kantianism thus has three aspects; categorical imperative, maxims and willing. Maxims assesses the circumstances or the conditions under which human actions may occur while willing involves consistency by a person in making an action to take place. Kant (1993, p.45) states that ‘ categorical imperative says that I ought to act in this way or that way, even though I did not will something else’. He thus considers categorical imperative as the principle of morality that is not limited by conditions.
Mill’s ethical theory maintains that human actions are right to the point where those actions attempt to maximize on the person’s happiness. Thus this theory is classified as utilitarianism in that it attempts to expound on the nature of ethics based on utility or a person acting in a way that brings about the greatest happiness and pleasure to everyone affected either directly or indirectly by the actions of such an individual. Mill (2001, P.35) writes ‘the utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end’. This theory attaches much significance to the consequences of human actions and when these actions contribute to the maximum pleasure then such actions are said to be morally right.
The major difference in these two theories thus lies in the rules applied to determine whether an action is moral or immoral. Kant applies the three principles of maxims, willing and categorical imperative to show that actions should be consistent and that they are no exceptions. In On a supposed Right to Lie, he writes ‘ To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is…..a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency [including philanthropic or life-saving expediency] whatsoever’ (Kant 1993, P. 65). Thus in his example of lying, he argues that we are morally inclined to always tell the truth no matter the situations or circumstances we find ourselves in. On other hand, Mill puts into consideration the end results of every human action thus every action is judged in isolation depending on the consequences anticipated by the individual. He delivered a speech in 1868 in favor of capital punishment arguing that this punishment is an effective deterrent. Mill (2001, P.65) states that the punishment ‘…is the least cruel mode in which it is possible adequately to deter from crime’. He observed that this type of punishment would ensure that a similar crime such as murder is not committed in the future not only by the criminal but also by other members of that society thus contributing to overall happiness of everyone.
In conclusion, no theory is superior to the other and the two theories have some inherent weaknesses and strengths. Mill’s theory is time consuming since it demands that every action be assessed in isolation in order to weigh the gravity of the consequences. Kant’s theory puts much significance to the intentions of the actions and to him consequences are irrelevant. A person should act on the basis of duty irrespective of whether such action causes harm to other or not. Nonetheless, these theorists have been influential and contributed much to the development of the modern philosophy.
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