Last Updated 20 Apr 2022

A Comparison between the Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant

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The discussion on Moral Philosophy and ethics has always been a controversial and very debatable topic, especially if we are to discuss each and every philosophy or ideology of every philosopher starting off from Greece up to the Post Modernists.  In relation to this particular philosophy, the author would like to compare two of the philosopher’s moral philosophies and how each come to have similarities and contrast with each.

To be more specific, the author would like to dwell on the similarities and differences between the moral philosophies of Utilitarianism proponent John Stuart Mill and Idealist Immanuel Kant and to answer the question What are the key concepts in the moral theory of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant?  Furthermore, to be able to answer the specific question: What are the similarities and differences in the moral ideologies of Mill and Kant?

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The school of Utilitarianism had John Stuart Mill as one of its leading proponents.  Mill speaks of morality in the sense of desire versus desirable but he contradicts that of Jeremy Bentham.  He further states that the true utilitarian interprets the greatest happiness principle to mean not my greatest happiness but the greatest happiness of the greatest number.[1] Contrary to the first utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, Mill posits through this principle the concept of greater good for the greater whole.

Mill further states that utility would enjoin first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness or the interest of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion which have so vast a power of human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissolvable association between his own happiness and the good of the whole...so that a direct impulse to promote the general good maybe in every individual one of the habitual motives of action.[2]

We can see arising from this argument that Mill was giving more emphasis on the quality of pleasures and not just our personal pleasure and turns towards the good of the whole which we must seek.  This therefore gives Mill ground morality not just on personal pleasure but more on our obligation towards the people or on others.

This, according to Mill does not at all contradict with the Utilitarian doctrine / teaching where one aims to seek for happiness or pleasure.  According to Mill, happiness is the center of moral life and the most desirable goal of human conduct.  The said argument of Mill gives us a gray area in asking what would be the basis or sole basis of desirable?

Mill answers that that which is desirable is that we ought to choose.  Happiness is something that we desire and it is our moral duty to pursue happiness.  Mill’s moral principle evolves in the concept that an act is good in so far as it produces happiness.  Mill was trying to build a moral system that was based on duty, by stating that which ought to do upon what in fact we already do.  Happiness for him is still the ultimate of human conduct.

When Mill posited happiness as something that man should sought for out of duty, it cannot but prevent people from raising their counter-arguments with the query how can we prove that happiness is the true and desirable end of human life and conduct?

To answer the query, Mill posits and states that the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people does desire it.[3] The answer that Mill provided though has not completely settled his detractors because Mill has made an analogy wherein he compared visible to that which is desirable.

According to him, that which is visible means that something is capable of being seen, thus, that which is desirable automatically makes us desire it.  Such a conclusion falls under one of the logical fallacies because that which is seen, by means of the faculty of the mind means it is visible to our senses but that which is desirable, cannot and does not automatically become an end that we would ought to desire.

The fact lies that the human mind, man, as a person may desire a thing which is not desirable in the first place.  Mill proposes that our pursuit is not limited to happiness alone but the pursuit of duty.  According to him, a sense of duty directs our moral thought.  For him, the basis of morality is a powerful natural sentiment, a subjective feeling in our own minds and the conscientious feelings of mankind.

[1] Stumpf, Samuel Enoch.  Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy.  Singapore: Mc Graw Hill Inc. 1991. p. 348.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. p. 349.

A Comparison between the Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant essay

Related Questions

on A Comparison between the Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant

What is the difference between Kant and Mill's View of morality?

The differences is that while Kant advocates for morality to be a conscious driven force at all times, Mill advocates for morality to be a situation/circumstance-driven force, which should not be based on reason or cognitive factors. Kant supports the notion that duty to humanity is more crucial than derivation of pleasure from out actions.

What is the moral principle of John Stuart Mill?

Mill’s moral principle evolves in the concept that an act is good in so far as it produces happiness. Mill was trying to build a moral system that was based on duty, by stating that which ought to do upon what in fact we already do. Happiness for him is still the ultimate of human conduct.

How did Kant use practical reasoning in his moral theory?

Immanuel Kant utilized practical reasoning in his moral theory and suggests that there exists only one moral obligation; categorical imperative’. He states, “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant second section).

What is Mill’s moral principle on happiness?

Mill answers that that which is desirable is that we ought to choose. Happiness is something that we desire and it is our moral duty to pursue happiness. Mill’s moral principle evolves in the concept that an act is good in so far as it produces happiness.

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