Morality and Utilitarianism
Kant’s concept of categorical imperative states that people should follow actionable maxims, which have the potential to be applied universally without the development of any self-defeating contradiction. In essence, the framework of a categorical imperative propels a human being to do an action regardless of consequences of the action; ergo, if an action is ethically right in itself, and can be applied universally, it falls into the domain of the categorical imperative.
An example of an ethical dilemma meriting debate though the prism of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the situation where a person is running late for an appointment and wishes to exceed the speed limit. The question here is: Is it ethical to exceed the speed limit? The question of whether exceeding the speed limit would be helpful in meeting a commitment does not arise while deciding upon the question. Exceeding the speed limit has to be seen as a self-sufficient action. Applying the principle of universality, it needs to be considered whether it would be alright for everyone to exceed the speed limit. If everyone were to exceed the speed limit, there would be danger to society; hence a universal application of the concept is not possible. Hence, it would not be ethical to exceed the speed limit as per the tenets of the categorical imperative.
Higher and Lower Pleasures
John Stuart Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism. However, he wished to refute the opponents of the concept of utilitarianism when they charged that assessing an action for the sum total of pleasure it provided would reduce every person to being infantile and without depth. Mill clarified that there were two types of pleasures: higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures emanated from the intellect, and included feelings such as pride, dignity, the love of power and independence. In contrast, lower pleasures were mainly bodily pleasures related to food, drink and comfort. According to Mill, any action that provided a greater sum total of higher pleasures was preferable to one that provided lower pleasures. Going by this logic, Mill prophesied that those seeking higher pleasures would invariably be less happy than those seeking lower pleasures, as it was inherently more difficult to achieve higher pleasures. However, Mill maintained that a life of discontentment while in pursuit of higher pleasures was worth more than a life spent wallowing in lower pleasures. This gave rise to his statement that ‘it is better to be a human satisfied than a pig dissatisfied’ (Mill 7).
Principle of Utility
The principle of utility, espoused by Jeremy Bentham, states that an action is right if it promotes happiness or pleasure. Different strains of utilitarianism emanate from this basic fount of the principle of utility.
The chief moral dilemma arising from the principle of utility is concerned with the phenomenon of hedonism. For example, it is a human desire to lead a life of luxury and comfort. A bigger house, a bigger car, more food, better clothes and gadgets contribute to pleasure, and therefore the pursuit of luxury could be said to be morally right. However, when juxtaposed against the vast differences in lifestyles across the world where millions of people do not even get three square meals a day, the question of how much pleasure is enough in terms of luxury for one person becomes an ambiguous moral dilemma. Similarly, with bigger cars, a person contributes to global warming and puts future generations at risk. The question that follows is whether the pursuit of pleasure today is worth putting future generations at risk. Therefore, there need to be limitations to the principle of utility. Utilitarianism tries to bridge the gap by espousing that an act is morally right if it brings pleasure to a maximum number of people. However, this principle runs counter to the principle of overall justice. The Nazis were convinced that the entire human race was better off by sacrificing the millions of Jews based on the principle of utilitarianism. This belief of the Nazis brings to the fore the limitations of utilitarianism, and requires categorical imperatives to be brought into play for overall justice and morality to be effective. Thus, the principle of utility is not without loopholes, and requires the countervailing force of Kantian categorical imperatives to retain a sense of balance.
Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” n.d. Web. July 07, 2015.