18 May 2018
Paper 3.1: Applying Mill Kant on Right Action
What determines or makes an action right or wrong? Mill would say the consequences determines if the action is right or wrong while Kant would say that the principle of the action makes it right or wrong (lecture). Kelly wants to do what is morally right, but is not sure what the morally right choice would be. Drawing from both philosophers’ respective views on right action, I will explain how each of them would handle this case.
Is it morally permissible for Kelly to lie to her father? Kelly’s father Thomas, hopes that his children will take over the business he had started. He does not know that the siblings were actually going to sell his business after he passes away. Mill might say yes because of his Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness” (Mill 7). Utilitarianism explains that actions are only permissible if an only if they produce the greatest amount of happiness; any other actions are morally wrong (lecture). The more happiness and less “suffering” the action, the better the action is. Utilitarian theory focuses on maximizing the most amount of happiness, but leans to favor the majority instead of the individual. Utilitarian theory challenges us to strive away from our own interests, and instead to consider the interests of others since our actions do affect other people as well. Kelly’s action (assuming that she lies) is not a self-guided one because she wants her father to be happy. Therefore, this type of theory should not be the one and only principle guiding her decision and is why Mill’s theory is not successfully applicable to this case.
Now I will address how Kant would address this case. According to Kant, “the only thing that is morally good without qualification is good will” (Lecture, 393-4). Kant defines good will to be, “doing what is right regardless of what you desire” (Lecture). In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says that, “A good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes…but is good in itself” (Kant, 4). The morally right action to Kant is telling the truth, not only because of false promising, but because it is “the right thing to do.” Kant’s main principles are formulated in his Categorical Imperatives, which act as unconditional moral laws. Kant believes that his Categorical Imperatives could be used universally. Kant split his Categorical Imperatives into different phrases (formulations), so that we may have different ways of examining the same idea, without a continuous contradiction. Kant would automatically reject the idea of Kelly lying to Thomas because of what he calls “false promising.” Kant views that we should ever lie. To him, lying doesn’t make sense because of The Formula of Universal Law, which states, “Act only from maxims (principles) that you can rationally and without inconsistency will as law for everyone” (Lecture). This law does not suggest that we should only do something because people do it all the time, instead, if it would rationally make sense for them to do it all the time. By Kant’s theory, it would not be morally permissible for Kelly to lie to her father. According to Kant, “We find that we do not really will that our maxim should become a universal law, since that is impossible for us, but that the opposite of our maxim should instead remain a universal law, only we take the liberty of making an exception to it for ourselves to the advantage of our inclination…yet subjectively not hold universally but allow exceptions” (Kant, 34). Kant essentially is saying that exceptions cannot be made for ourselves if we won’t allow them to be made for others. It wouldn’t be fair to allow exceptions that favor one’s own welfare over others. Thus, no exceptions are to be made under Kant’s theory. This is why Kant would say that it is not be morally permissible for Kelly to lie to her father and that she should tell the truth. Just like Mill’s view of equality, under Kant’s Categorical Imperatives, everybody is equal to the law with no exceptions. Kant’s Formula of Universal Law cannot be a universal law if it works only one way. Kelly cannot lie only once in a while, and expect never to be lied to. This is why Kant strictly believes that moral rules apply to everybody equally. Therefore, Kelly should not lie according to Kant’s Formula of Universal Law.
In this essay, I have shown how these philosophers would apply their views of right action to this case. Mill would want Thomas to be happy, which is why thinks it is permissible for Kelly to lie. Kant thinks that it is not permissible for Kelly to lie to her father because of false promising, and the Formula of Universal Law. Although these philosophers both argue about moral law, they each have respectively different views and beliefs. Mill would use his theory to convince Kelly that her only option is to lie, so that her father may be happy. Kant in contrast would use his Categorical Imperative to convince Kelly that we are obligated to behave morally all the time since it is our “duty”. By Kant’s theory, Kelly cannot lie, and must tell the truth because she is morally obligated to do so.