Argumentative Sample Essay on the Ethical decision-making principles of Kant’s Duty Ethics and Mill’s Utilitarianism

Kant recognizes that a rational agent even without philosophical instruction has means

available to determine what ought to be done and Kant stresses repeatedly that what duty is, is plain of itself to everyone and that the voice of reason is so distinct, so irrepressible, so audible even to the most common human being that only the perplexing speculations of the schools are mute to this voice. The reason for this optimism is that, according to Kant, an agent can always ask herself would actually be content that my maxim should hold as a universal law. Pre philosophical agents, in their everyday moral evaluations, are able to make use of a hypothetical

Universalisation test which allows checking if one can still will a maxim under scrutiny as universal. According to Kant, this test can be applied in the shortest and yet infallible way.

The test cannot fail to deliver the correct result, once an agent applies it. The hypothetical universalisation test is in the power of every rational human agent, easily done, and does not require a philosophical background, wide-ranging acuteness or experience with regard to the course of the world It is of course this pre-philosophical universalisation test that is given an explicit formula by the Universal Law Formulation of the Categorical Imperative Kant’s emphasis on the pre-philosophical universalisation test shows that he believed that it is possible and even intellectually undemanding for agents without philosophical instruction to determine what the right course of action is.

The question whether or not this conception is ultimately convincing would require critical discussion of some of the most fundamental elements of Kant’s conception of reason, agency, and universalisation. Instead of going into these intricate topics, we close this sub-section by noting that at least when granted some of his main assumptions, moral-cognition, according to Kant, is usually not difficult and not demanding as it might be for a theory that requires complicated, lengthy, and frequent calculation of expected outcomes. In what follows, the aim of our investigation is to show how demanding Kant’s philosophy is, if one accepts Kant’s main assumptions concerning moral epistemology, overridingness and purity. The next two sub-sections will show that the combination of overridingness and purity can be the sources of extraordinarily high demands even and especially if Kant’s assumptions are granted.

Kant’s ethics is a good example for a pure moral point of view. Williams

Famously criticized Kant’s conception of purity. To Williams, the notion of purity contains many Kantian elements but it is important to note that Williams detected those Kantian elements also in Utilitarianism. Kant’s ethics is based on practical reason, not on human nature, personal goals,

social relations, etc. In order to determine the moral option an agent must abstract from or not take into consideration her own inclinations and interests and use the universalisability of maxims, or considerations pertaining to rational nature and human dignity as sole criteria. The will inspire and an action fulfils the commands of duty fully if and only if an agent does not let herself be determined by her interests or personal projects, but does the morally commanded option for the sake of duty . Reason commands without promising anything to the inclinations, and hence, as it were, with reproach and disrespect for those claims. For Kant it is an unquestionable truth that we have to obey moral commands at all costs, even if they infringe on all inclinations. In addition, Kant believes that an agents actual capability to fulfill her duty should play no role in determining what her duty is.

In his System of Logic, Mill introduces what he calls the ‘Art of Life’, a set of general practical rules for the promotion of overall utility. The ‘Art of Life’ has three departments called ‘Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Aesthetics’ which concern, respectively, ‘the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works’. Each department represents a different category for evaluating conduct,  and  is  constituted  by  its  own  set  of  general  rules  in  the service of overall utility. These categories of evaluation may come apart: conduct may be right and noble, but not expedient, or expedient and noble, but not right, and so forth. Because Mill uses the term ‘Morality’ here to name one department of the Art of Life, I propose to refer to

Mill’s ‘ethics’ when discussing his overall framework for the evaluation of human conduct. The present question, then, is how the right, the expedient, and the noble all figure in Mill’s ethics.

Although  it  is  important  to  a  full  understanding  of  his  ethics,  I will  here  set  aside  Mill’s  discussion  of  Aesthetics  or  nobility,  which concerns the evaluation of conduct in terms of what it indicates about the  character  of  the  agent.


These  character  evaluations  take  the dispositions  of  agents  as  their  objects  and,  while  it  is  undeniable that  these  factor  into  our  approbation  or  disapprobation  of  a  given behavior, they are not directly relevant to the punishment passage under consideration. What matters more directly is Mill’s distinction between  ‘Morality’  and  ‘Prudence  or  Policy’  –  between  ‘the  Right’ and  ‘the  Expedient’.  Let us start with Prudence.  Mill  explicitly identifies Prudence with expediency and ‘expedient’ is his regular way of  referring  to  whatever  action  or  practice  would  produce  the  best overall  consequences.  Although ‘prudence’ now often brings to mind considerations of long-term self-interest – and Mill sometimes used the term in that sense – it is not historically limited in that way. Instead ‘prudent’ can refer more generally to judicious or discerning conduct, given some end.

Whatever   the   independent   attractions   of   these   sanction-based views, the main interpretative problem for Lyons and Miller is that Mill nowhere states that judgments of blameworthiness. In fact, Mill more than once argues that rule following maybe blameworthy. Earlier we saw that the individual ‘cannot discharge himself from moral responsibility by pleading that he had the general rule in his favor’.  Similarly,  he  writes:  ‘the  physician  who  preferred that his patient should die by rule rather than recover contrary to it, is rightly judged to be a mere pedant, and the slave of his formulas. Mill does not present these as cases in which the individual has simply failed to appreciate some more important or higher-order secondary principle. He states that  exceptions  might  be  justified  not  just  in  the case  of  conflicting rules, but also when there is ‘some unusual circumstance’ In a general rejection of strictly rule-bound decision-making.

In particular, it can explain Mill’s claim that individuals generally should attend only to matters within the rules laid down by social authorities. But, in contrast to Rawls’s account, the constraints on  decision-making  that  result  from  this  picture  do  not  constitute rule-utilitarianism and   the  resulting  view jurisdictional act utilitarianism. Mill’s political philosophy is littered with examples in which he assigns decisional authority or jurisdiction over different matters by determining which available party is most competent to decide them. This  means,  on  his  view,  that  the  decisions  of  the  less  competent may rightfully be constrained by the decisions of the more competent. The key thought is that in most cases most of us do best simply by attending to  our  own  personal  sphere  and  otherwise  abiding  by  the  rules  laid

down  by  those  more  competent  to  decide  matters  of  general  policy. It  is  important  to  see  that  Mill’s  jurisdictional  approach  gives  his practical  ethics  a  seemingly  rulish, institutional  character.  But  it is  also  important  to  bear  in  mind  that,  unlike  Rawls,  he  does  not deny individuals the right to appeal directly to utility considerations to justify violating a general rule when it is clear that doing so will best promote utility.

Mill’s argument is that in most cases an individual’s best bet to promote overall utility is not to calculate all the consequences. Most individuals are poorly placed to make decisions on that basis – even relatively speaking. But most individuals are very well placed to make decisions concerning local consequences. Of course, the time and effort involved in calculating local consequences in each case may also interfere with promoting utility. As a result, he argues, ‘human happiness, even one’s own, is in general more successfully pursued by acting on general rules, than by measuring the consequences of each act. But whereas the individual has jurisdiction over his own good and must attend carefully to local consequences, with regard to broader and distant social consequences the individual would rarely be justified in  violating  general  rules  of  practice  that  ‘point  out  the  manner  in which it will be least perilous to act, where time or means do not exist for analyzing the actual circumstances of the case, or where we cannot trust our judgment in estimating them’