Criticism on Utilitarian Ethics and the Categorical Imperative

The Utilitarian ethical view states that “a morally right action is one that produces more good or fewer bad consequences for everyone than any other action that could be performed it its place” (Velasquez, 467). In other words, the Utilitarian ethical view believes that a morally just action is one that results in the greatest amount of happiness and pleasure for the greatest amount of people. It is somewhat similar to the consequentialist viewpoint, in that Utilitarianism states an action should be judged by its consequences. However, Utilitarianism is focused not only on the doer of the action, but on everyone who would be effected by that action.

There are essentially two different types of Utilitarianism; Act Utilitarianism (which is associated with Jeremy Bentham) and Rule Utilitarianism (which is associated with John Stuart Mill). Act Utilitarianism states that an action is morally good if it provides the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people regardless of “rights violations” or “injustices” (Velasquez, 471). In other words, Act Utilitarianism states that the general happiness of the collective is more important than the rights or liberties of the individual. If punishing an innocent man leads to the greatest amount of happiness (whereas releasing the innocent man would lead to less happiness), then under the Act Utilitarian guidelines an innocent man must be punished.

The other version of Utilitarianism is Rule Utilitarianism. In this version of Utilitarianism, there are an established set of “rules”, and the “rules” that lead to the greatest amount of happiness are the ones that are morally justified. In other words, when making an ethical decision, one should think “which rule should I obey that will lead to the greatest amount of happiness?” Whereas Act Utilitarianism is rather chaotic and subjective; Rule Utilitarianism has a little more order and stability. The main idea of Rule Utilitarianism is that there are established rules in a society that one must follow, and when making an ethical decision, one must choose which rule will best lead to the desired consequence (i.e. the greatest amount of happiness). Of course, the major implication with Rule Utilitarianism is that the “rules” themselves may be flawed.

Immanuel Kant had a somewhat different approach to ethics than the Utilitarian method. Kant’s main ethical idea was the categorical imperative. However, before discussing the categorical imperative, it is important to note that Kant believed a ‘morally good’ person will act morally because it is the right thing to do – not because of its intended consequences. In other words, the Utilitarian’s believed that an action must be judged by its consequences (i.e. how much happiness it produces), but Kant believed that an action is moral regardless of its consequences, and regardless if it produces happiness or not. In fact, Kant believed that a morally good person will not act in “self-interest, nor [in regards] to pleasure or enjoyment” (Velasquez, 484). Of course, since “pleasure and enjoyment” are not to be considered in the making of an ethical decision, this automatically separates Kant’s ethics from Utilitarianism (since Utilitarianism believes that all actions must be judged on the amount of pleasure and happiness derived from said action).

This categorical imperative states that an action is morally justified if “(1) it is possible for everyone to do the same [action] for the reason, and (2) [if] I am willing to have everyone do the same [action] for the same reason, even toward me” (Velasquez, 486). In other words, before we do an action, we must ask ourselves “what if everyone did that?”, and if the answer is “yes”, then the action is probably morally right. However, we must also ask ourselves if we would be fine if everyone we knew did this same action too– even towards us. If the answer to both of these questions is “yes”, then the action is morally justified. Kant’s categorical imperative also asserts that essentially everyone is equal, and that therefore people should be as ends in themselves, rather than as means for some other purpose. So, the major difference between Utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative is that the former bases the morality of an action on its specific consequences (i.e. happiness), whereas Kant’s ethics are not focused on consequences but on the nature of the action itself. Also, Utilitarianism comes as a very collectivist themed morality – because it takes into account the greatest amount of happiness accumulated from the greatest amount of people. Kant’s ethics on the other hand tend to be more individually based, since each individual must not commit an action based on how well it will help the community, but on whether or not the action fits the requirements of the “categorical imperative”.

Personally, I dislike both the Utilitarianism view and Kant’s view. Utilitarianism (both Act and Rule) is too idealistic and illogical in my opinion. Judging an action based on the amount of “happiness” it produces seems rather impossible, since there are so many different people in the world with so many different feelings and personalities – how is one supposed to calculate the ‘happiness’ that an action produces? No to mention that Act Utilitarianism essentially states that the rights and liberties of individuals are nonexistent – and that any innocent person can be sacrificed or abused as long as it results ‘in the greatest amount of happiness’.

I dislike Kant’s ethics too, mostly on the basis that his ethical guidelines are a little too idealistic and illogical. Everyone in the world has differing tastes, personalities and qualities, so to believe that there is an action that “everyone can do” is absurd, because this would imply that every person is the same. However, I do think Kant’s categorical imperative has a little more substance and plausibility than Utilitarianism. So, if I had to choose one of them, I would choose Kant’s ethics (although personally I think my own ethical views are closest to Ethical Egoism). I prefer Kant’s ethics because they seem more secure and plausible in the real world, whereas Utilitarianism is too utopian and idealistic in nature. When making an ethical decision, it is much easier for me to ask myself “what if everyone did x action?” and “would I be content with so and so doing x action towards me in a similar circumstance?” These questions are much more discernable and solvable than asking myself “which action will lead to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people?”

Also, I like how Kant stresses the idea that people should be treated as ends in themselves, and never as a means. Utilitarianism on the other hand (especially Act Utilitarianism), essentially allows for the destruction and abuse of any person so long as it results in the ‘greatest amount of happiness.’ Under Utilitarianism, abuse and decimation can occur so long as more people are happy with it (the abusers) than those who are discontent with it (the abused). For example, under Act Utilitarianism, it would be morally justified to discriminate against a minority group so long as the majority of citizens are ‘happy’ or ‘receive pleasure’ from abusing said minorities. Kant, on the other hand, essentially has an ethical code similar to the golden rule, or the ‘treat others as you yourself would want to be treated’ saying. This, in my opinion, leads to a better society than one that bases all their morally right actions on some form of collective happiness. However, I think both ethical viewpoints are flawed and, to some extent, overly idealistic and implausible. Although if I must choose between the two, I would have to go with Kant and his categorical imperative.