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.

Governance

 

The question of whether a direct democracy or specially trained experts (rule of few) provides a better method of governance is a complex issue because neither method is clearly wrong and it requires a thorough analysis of the positives and negatives of both methods to determine which method should be used.  Unbiased experts, each dedicated to studying a specific field (Economics, Politics, Leadership, etc.), should safeguard the public good by making decisions regarding their various fields because if left up to a majority vote,  biased and often un-informed individuals will vote purely in favor of their own interests which often will not benefit the society as a whole.

Thomas Hobbes, one of the greatest philosophers of the 17th Century, holds that the state possesses the right of absolute power over its citizens due to the social contract.  Hobbes argues that, because the citizens agree to give up certain rights in return for the protection of the state (social contract), they are completely bound to the laws of the state.  Because Hobbes describes the citizens as acquiescing to the laws instead of choosing them for themselves, he implies that there is a sovereign or some other form of executive power.  While Hobbes’ executive does not completely coincide with the concept of the rule of few, Hobbes implication of the executive imparts the idea that Hobbes, in general, would support a centralized and consolidated government, which is the form that the rule of few takes.  One may argue, “Well, what if the government is corrupt and only exploits the people instead of helping them?”  To this question, John Locke provides an answer.  John Locke was an Englishman, another great 17th Century philosopher whose thoughts and writings were a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers and on the documents at the root of the United States.  Regarding unjust executives and laws, Locke provides the citizens recourse for challenging the established power.  John Locke’s philosophy utilizes the logic that an unjust law is not a law at all and need not be followed.  Assume that a decree issued by an executive is unjust (which means the executive is also unjust), according to Locke’s logic and philosophy, the law and executive need no longer be observed and the executive may be removed from office.  In the case of the rule of few, Locke’s philosophy would allow the citizens to remove unjust experts, in this way the rule by few would be good for a society because the people would not be hopelessly enslaving themselves to an elite few.  There are other practical reasons for establishing the rule by few.  In the rule of few, small groups of experts make major decisions for the society.  In many situations this is much more beneficial to society than a direct vote because the small group of experts is much better informed than the average citizen and can thus make a better decision regarding what is optimal for the society as a whole.  If the decision were left up to a majority rule, sectional tensions and rivalries would make almost any decision made by the unbridled majority extremely ineffective.

It is a challenge to decide whether the majority rule or the rule of few is more beneficial to society.  According to Locke however, the recourse made available to members of a state as well as the many natural superiorities the rule of few has over the rule of majority tips the balance in favor of the rule of few.  The rule of a small group of experts is vastly more beneficial to society than the majority rule is.

Unbiased experts, each dedicated to studying a specific field (Economics, Politics, Leadership, etc.), should safeguard the public good by making decisions regarding their various fields because if left up to a majority vote,  biased and often un-informed individuals will vote purely in favor of their own interests which often will not benefit the society as a whole.

Rule of Few

The question of whether a direct democracy or specially trained experts (rule of few) provides a better method of governance is a complex issue because neither method is clearly wrong and it requires a thorough analysis of the positives and negatives of both methods to determine which method should be used.  Because a majority vote often results in biased and under-informed individuals voting purely in favor of their own interests, specially trained experts in various fields should safeguard the public good by making unbiased decisions for society regarding their various fields.   

            Thomas Hobbes, one of the greatest philosophers of the 17th Century, holds that the state possesses the right of absolute power over its citizens due to the social contract.  Hobbes argues that, because the citizens agree to give up certain rights in return for the protection of the state (social contract), they are completely bound to the laws of the state.  Because Hobbes describes the citizens as acquiescing to the laws instead of choosing them for themselves, he implies that there is a sovereign or some other form of executive power.  While Hobbes’ executive does not completely coincide with the concept of the rule of few, Hobbes implication of the executive imparts the idea that Hobbes, in general, would support a centralized and consolidated government, which is the form that the rule of few takes.  One may argue, “Well, what if the government is corrupt and only exploits the people instead of helping them?”  To this question, John Locke provides an answer.  John Locke was an Englishman, another great 17th Century philosopher whose thoughts and writings were a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers and on the documents at the root of the United States.  Regarding unjust executives and laws, Locke provides the citizens recourse for challenging the established power.  John Locke’s philosophy utilizes the logic that an unjust law is not a law at all and need not be followed.  Assume that a decree issued by an executive is unjust (which means the executive is also unjust), according to Locke’s logic and philosophy, the law and executive need no longer be observed and the executive may be removed from office.  In the case of the rule of few, Locke’s philosophy would allow the citizens to remove unjust experts, in this way the rule by few would be good for a society because the people would not be hopelessly enslaving themselves to an elite few.  There are other practical reasons for establishing the rule by few.  In the rule of few, small groups of experts make major decisions for the society.  In many situations this is much more beneficial to society than a direct vote because the small group of experts is much better informed than the average citizen and can thus make a better decision regarding what is optimal for the society as a whole.  If the decision were left up to a majority rule, sectional tensions and rivalries would make almost any decision made by the unbridled majority extremely ineffective.                

            It is a challenge to decide whether the majority rule or the rule of few is more beneficial to society.  According to Locke however, the recourse made available to members of a state as well as the many natural superiorities the rule of few has over the rule of majority tips the balance in favor of the rule of few.  The rule of a small group of experts is vastly more beneficial to society than the majority rule is.                              

Who Should Rule?

Specially trained and unbiased experts in various fields should safeguard the public good by making decisions regarding their various fields because if left up to a majority vote,  biased and often un-informed individuals will vote purely in favor of their own interests which often will not benefit the society as a whole.

Ethical Relativism = Moral Conformity?

According to the theory of ethical relativism, an individual should follow the moral rules and customs of their society. This theory also claims that there is not an “absolute morality” and that morality is determined by an individual’s own society or community. A component of this line of thought is that if the society is incorrect as to what is moral (determined by whom?), the citizens of that society are not able to change their morals according to ethical relativist theory.  According to the theory of ethical relativisim, a true ethical relativist would claim that it was not morally right to invade Germany for the purpose of stopping the extermination of jew and homosexuals because Germany was exercising its right to choose its own morals.

Majority rule?

There are many governments in the world that have small groups of experts make major decisions for their society.  There are several reasons why small groups of experts should make major decisions for society instead of the majority rule. There are many occasions where the nature of the issue at hand are extremely complex and are not able to be fully appreciated or comprehended by a majority of the population. As a result, a majority rule could result in a severely detrimental result for the society if the uninformed rule of majority were supreme. In such a situation, it is appropriate that a small panel of experts make a decision for the majority because they are better informed to the situation at hand.

Conversely, there are also important reasons for which major decisions should not be made by a small group of experts.  One reason for this is that the decision makers may not be impartial and may not have the majority’s best interests at heart.  If the appointed or elected decision makers are out for personal gain, they can use their influence to create laws and policies that are more beneficial to them personally than they are to the rest of the society. Additionally, if an outside individual is able to influence the panel of experts through coercion or intimidation, then the panel’s decisions will be not be primarily for the well being of the society. 

There are many reasons for both the majority rule and the rule of few. I believe that the rule of the elected or appointed few is better than the rule of majority because due to sectional tensions and different backgrounds, the rule of majority will be unable to reach consensus on what is best for the society as a whole. Additionally, the general population may not be informed enough to make a good decision regarding an issue. Regarding the rule of the few, assuming the society is democratic, if the rule of few becomes corrupt for any reason the people can vote these “few” out of office.