(I have the most amazing family. Thank you Miss Meliss for the fab edits. If I were in Virginia I'd take your class, even if my Italian sounds more like French. And thank you M— for listening to me read this aloud half a dozen times and also for your stellar recommendations so I could finish the blasted thing.)
In choosing between Kant’s categorical imperative or Mill’s and Bentham’s utilitarian principle as a foundation for morality, the former clearly stands on higher ground.
Utilitarianism accepts as its establishment of morals the principle that behaviors are right as long as they provide for the greatest aggregate happiness and the least aggregate pain. Every possible act must be evaluated for good based on how much happiness it might provide the acting individual as well as any persons potentially affected. The results are weighed against one another to indicate the greatest possibility for pleasure. In instances requiring rapid decision-making, such a formula is troublesome and time-consuming.
Also, while people find happiness pleasurable, the acts that produce the most happiness differ from person to person, lending to a biased, flexible, and inconsistent definition of morality. For instance, in certain situations, the utilitarian principle can be manipulated to justify actions producing a significant amount of aggregate pain, all in the name of “the greater good.” History is fraught with inhumane acts which are no more than imposition of a regime’s standard of ideological happiness, e.g., Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 to intern 110,000 Japanese Americans, and Truman’s choice to drop the A-bomb in 1945.
These examples bring into question whether under utilitarianism morality is situational. It also questions the claim that right or wrong can be determined based on subjective, non-biased inductions of future outcomes.
In the end, it may be argued that utilitarianism is not concerned with morality so much as it is an overly-complex, self-serving method for providing or reducing select emotions.
The categorical imperative, in direct contrast, is not based on emotion at all. Kant stated that mankind must be prepared for the universality of each maxim used in decision-making. He based this moral standard on the belief that men and women deserve great respect, because by nature, humans are capable of making rational choices contrary to their inclinations or instincts.
In Western societies, a version of the categorical imperative is taught to children as the Golden Rule. Its simplicity lends to ease of adaptation as moral standard, offering presets for behavior needing only simple deduction. The categorical imperative is therefore visibly more easily implemented as a widely held moral standard than is utilitarianism.
Enacted, the categorical imperative allows each individual to reason for or against behaviors that might be potentially injurious to another based on the criteria that the consequences of the same actions might be applied to him. While the acting individual may not be concerned about others’ happiness resulting from his actions, it is almost guaranteed that his choice will at least spare others suffering. One is not likely to choose pain for another when he considers receiving that same pain himself. This fact negates the need for utilitarian principle.
In one application, regarding treatment of criminals, the categorical imperative requires consequences matching crime or misbehavior. This is the noble alternative to utilitarianism, which calls for exacting revenge on offenders for the sake of the pleasure possibly afforded a victim and his family. Kant’s argument that humans be appropriated dignity, even when found in error, supports the continued morality of all people involved, including those exacting punishment on the guilty.
The categorical imperative guarantees that humans be regarded as ends and never means. It grants them dignity and firm morality. As these points have illustrated, it is the obvious choice between the two ethical options because flexible and biased morality is no morality.