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Reflections on Kant and John Stewart Mill

It’s interesting to read John Stewart Mill. He is very direct and very clear, a refreshing contrast to Kant. Mill had the advantage of writing well after Kant, and being familiar with his work. Mill appears philosophically and temperamentally opposed to Kant. Where Kant wanted to discard all practical and outer considerations and reason his way directly to morality, Mill quickly discards the very approach and goes at the essence of morality from completely the other direction. Kant claimed that,

[A metaphysic of morals] must be carefully cleansed of everything empirical, that we can know how much pure reason can achieve…, and from what sources creates its a priori teaching. The metaphysic of morals must be cleansed in this way… … Isn’t it utterly necessary to construct a pure moral philosophy that is completely freed from everything that may be only empirical…? (Kant 2).

Mill, on the other hand, writes that,

“It is evident that [a proof of  the Utilitarian or Happiness theory] cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term. Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. … Considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine; and this is equivalent to proof.” (Mill 134-35)

That is, Mill will not even try to prove his theory by Kantian standards. He rejects the very method. Rather, if he can convince your ordinary reason that the Utility principle is the best basis for morality then he feels he has succeeded. The two aren’t even playing in the same ballpark.

Kant proceeds along a tortured path of abstract concepts, settling on a duty to an abstract “goodness” as the source of all morality. “Since I have robbed the will of any impulses that could come to it from obeying any law, nothing remains to serve as a principle of the will except conduct’s universally conforming to law as such”(Kant 11). Mill fences in the issue, ruling out possibilities until it becomes logically clear that the best system is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Determining first that, “A test of right and wrong must be the means… of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it (Mill 132) – a clear swipe at Kant – Mill then over many pages systematically surveys all the way Utility would work and the possible objections, concluding:  “Difference of opinion on moral questions was not first introduced into the world by utilitarianism, while that doctrine does supply, if not always an easy, at all events a tangible and intelligible mode of deciding such differences”(Mill 153) . That is, it must be right because it works. In all, very different approaches, and probably irreconcilable.

Kant, Immanual. "Groundwork for the Metaphic of Morals".  2006. PDF. Ed. Jonathan Bennett. (Nov. 2006). 20 Aug. 2007 <>.
Mill, John Stuart. "Utilitarianism."  On Liberty and Other Essays. 1863. Ed. John Gray. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

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