Commonsense Morality- Categorical Imperative v. Rule Utilitarianism (Revised)

The basis of morality is that any action or intent of action which infringes on or is intended to infringe on the fundamental human rights of others is an immoral action and should not be taken.  Immanuel Kant’s model of morality asserts that it is the actions and intent of those actions that one takes that are morally paramount.  John Stuart Mill counters with the argument that gaining a greater good as a result is the only item of consequence and moral worth.  Kant’s philosophy holds that morality is not reliant on the result of an action but in the intent and physical carrying out of the action itself.  Mill, on the other hand, claims that the end result is the primary focus and the acts one takes to achieve a greater result are of much less importance.  The best model of commonsense morality is the one that is more closely aligned with the basis of morality, the one that better respects human rights.  Kant’s focus on morality in actions is a better commonsense model of morality than Mill’s morality in results because Kant’s morality results in a primary focus on preserving fundamental human rights.

Kant explains his philosophy using the Categorical Imperative (CI), which he uses to test maxims, subjective principles of action, of their universalizability and respect for humanity.

I only ask myself whether I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. If not, then the maxim must be rejected, not because of any disadvantage to me or even others, but because it cannot be fitting as a principle in a possible legislation of universal law, and reason exacts from me immediate respect for such legislation.[1]

This statement imparts the idea that for any action, and intent of action, an individual takes, if they are not willing to receive an action of equal magnitude and intent from others, the action is not morally sound and should not be taken.  Testing an action in this way is called testing the universalizability of an action.  Using this test, Kant means to prevent individuals from causing intentional harm to one another.  Additionally, Kant believes that any act that does not respect human rights should not be taken.  Thus, according to Kant, an action is immoral if it is not universal or if it violates human rights.  With such a definition of immorality, a truly Kantian society would be one in which no individual intentionally harms or infringes on the moral rights of another individual.  For instance, consider a truck driver, who gets paid per mile, transporting her cargo from City X to City Y in mid January.  There are two possible routes the truck driver may take in order to get from City X to City Y.  One of the routes is much longer than the other, and thus would create more profit for the truck driver; however, the shorter route is considered unsafe and is plagued by a dangerous combination of black ice and sharp turns.  The truck driver decides to take the longer safer route and as a result earns greater profit upon the delivery of her cargo.  With regards to morality, the formulation of the decision to take the longer route is what determines whether the action is moral or immoral.  Consider the following statements:

1)      I will take the longer route because it is safer than the shorter route

2)      I will take the longer route because I will get more money from my boss for it

If the truck driver’s decision took the form of statement 1, the action is not immoral because she is attempting to preserve her own right to security, a universal right, and is not infringing on anyone else’s moral rights.  If her decision took the form of statement 2, the action is immoral because she is intending to seize more of her employer’s property than she would otherwise have been entitled to and the truck driver would not appreciate making that action a universal law.

John Stuart Mill uses the concept of Rule Utilitarianism to determine morality.  According to Mill, moral rightness is achieved when the greatest amount of overall happiness, or utility, is achieved for the society.  To some this might mean that individuals may walk all over one another in order to achieve their ends, this is not what Mill means at all.  Mill claims that when acting under the principle of rule utilitarianism, there are some general maxims of justice such as abstaining from lying, cheating, or stealing.  However this abstinence does not result from Mill’s desire to protect human rights, instead he claims that such limits are moral because without them the total amount of utility appreciated by the society as a whole would be decreased.  Additionally, Mill claims that if the infringement of the moral rights of some individuals benefits the society of the whole, the infringement of those rights is moral and should be conducted.[2]  According to Mills, the rights of the individual mean little when compared with the benefit of the society.  Consider a situation where there are severe limitations of the food supply of a society.  A solution the society comes up with to combat the food shortage is to kill off a small portion of the population in order to preserve food for the rest of the population.  Although a direct violation of the rights to life, security, and subsistence, according to Mill the action is moral because it increases the overall utility of the society as a whole.  This action is not considered moral, however, when the basis of morality is the respect of human rights.

Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a better account of “commonsense” morality because through the CI’s tests of universalizability and respect for humanity, no individual will intentionally violate the moral rights of another.  If intentional harm doing is eliminated from society using the CI as a model, a huge amount of harm is eliminated from the society and the well-being of the society is drastically improved.


[1] Kant, I. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993, p. 7.

[2] Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism, edited by George Sher. Indianapolis: Hacket Pub. Co, 1979, p. 62.

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