ETHICS
Chapter 9  Kantian Theory : The Categorical Imperative
Section 2. Consequences

What about consequences?

Kant is not a Utilitarian
He believes that there are many actions which we ought not perform, even if they have good consequences. Some actions may, for instance, accidentally benefit a lot of people -- it doesn't make any sense to say that their actions were morally good. Lucky, perhaps. But we would not want to say that right actions are right in virtue of being lucky, right? Nor would we want to say that an action is wrong in virtue of being unlucky.

And utilitarians think that the proper way to evaluate actions is in terms of their consequences -- they don't care if an action is done happily, resentfully, with anger, or out of spite. If it give more people pleasure than the other options, then it is morally good and that's all there is to be said.

For Kant, that is not all there is to be said.

Utilitarian moral theories evaluate the moral worth of action on the basis of happiness that is produced by an action. Whatever produces the most happiness in the most people is the moral course of action. Kant has an insightful objection to moral evaluations of this sort. The essence of the objection is that utilitarian theories actually devalue the individuals it is supposed to benefit. If we allow utilitarian calculations to motivate our actions, we are allowing the valuation of one person's welfare and interests in terms of what good they can be used for. It would be possible, for instance, to justify sacrificing one individual for the benefits of others if the utilitarian calculations promise more benefit. Doing so would be the worst example of treating someone utterly as a means and not as an end in themselves.

Another way to consider his objection is to note that utilitarian theories are driven by the merely contingent inclination in humans for pleasure and happiness, not by the universal moral law dictated by reason. To act in pursuit of happiness is arbitrary and subjective, and is no more moral than acting on the basis of greed, or selfishness. All three emanate from subjective, non-rational grounds. The danger of utilitarianism lies in its embracing of baser instincts, while rejecting the indispensable role of reason and freedom in our actions.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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