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Utilitarianism and Kantianism

In the 18th- and 19th century, a normative ethics tradition known by the name utilitarianism became popular. This tradition intends to answer the question of the proper or moral action of man. This tradition is that founded by John Stuart Mill and is popularly known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism believes that utility is the foundation of morals. More accurately, utilitarianism holds on to the creed it called the “Greatest Happiness Principle.

” Under this principle, human action shall be judged according to its tendency to promote happiness or pain. An action shall be considered morally right if it tends to promote happiness to the greatest number. Conversely, an action shall be considered morally wrong if it tends to promote the opposite of happiness, which is pain. Utilitarianism is careful to note that pleasure, which serves as the basis of morality, does not simply refer to all kinds of pleasure, otherwise humans would be degraded to the level of a swine.

On the contrary, since humans are endowed with higher faculties than other organisms, it takes more to make them happy. Accordingly, this means that a human being who has higher faculties will have lower capacity for enjoyment, and vice versa. For utilitarianism, such a man is in a better position than one who takes enjoyment in the littlest thing because it means he does not fully understand everything. Utilitarianism also makes it clear that there is a certain sort of hierarchy in pleasure.

Some kinds of pleasure must of necessity weigh greater than others. Finally, The determination of the greatest happiness or pleasure would have to be decided as impartially and disinterestedly as possible. On the other hand, Kantian ethical philosophy is radically different from utilitarianism. Kantian moral philosophy, more popularly known as the categorical imperative, was theorized by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s philosophy is anchored on the concept of duty.

For him, what is moral is determined by man’s duty, and such duty is formulated in the rule of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative serves as the one general rule that shall guide human actions. Thus, whereas utilitarianism does not posit one general course of action, Kant posits that one’s action should only be made if he believes that such action should be adopted by others as a universal law. This criterion is what Kant calls the principle of universalizability.

For Kant, this is an objective and practical standard that is determined by reason. One illustrative case would be euthanasia. Utilitarianism could be used to argue in favor of euthanasia because it would give the greatest happiness to the greatest number. This is so, because pulling the plug of a really sick person would alleviate the tremendous suffering of such person, which is equivalent to the elimination of pain. This would also lessen the pain felt by that person’s relatives brought about by their seeing their loved one suffering.

On the contrary, Kantianism could be used to argue against euthanasia. Reason would support the proposition that there is always the possibility of the sick person’s recovery, and pulling the plug would eliminate such chances. Therefore, euthanasia could not pass the test of universalizability, and it cannot be considered as aligned to the categorical imperative. In the given situation, therefore, it is very clear how the two moral philosophies differ in the manner of reaching a decision and in the kinds of decisions arrived at.

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