Mill, Kant, O’Neill

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5 thoughts on “Mill, Kant, O’Neill”

  1. John Stuart Mill posited that justice is more fluid than absolute, with some aspects such as theft being justified in certain cases that elevate happiness. If that is so, how would Mill propose a way for the justice system to discern if the person’s actions were sincere to a happiness cause?

    1. You’re right that he thinks many rules have exceptions, so there is a sense in which morality is fluid. Justice is a bit trickier, though. He does say that sometimes we can do things that would seem to go against justice (like steal medicine to save a life), but he also argues on the last page of the Utilitarianism reading that what is going on there is not that we are violating rules of justice. Rather, it’s that what is required because of justice in many cases (avoiding stealing) is not actually required by justice in this case. So one is still being just by stealing the medicine.

      Now, that still doesn’t address your question! Maybe one way to think about it is that a justice system could have laws that would take into account such cases where what generally is unjust is actually permitted in certain cases. And then the person wouldn’t be guilty of a crime. I’m also wondering if what you mean by the second sentence is whether or not we can discern a person’s motives? In other words, are you asking whether a justice system could determine if one really was doing something because they thought it would lead to more happiness, and that was their main reason for doing it? If so, remember that for Mill the motive doesn’t matter to the morality of an action (though it may matter in a criminal justice system). For Mill, what matters is that one did something that is a kind of action that would generally promote happiness in that sort of situation, even if one had a motive for doing so that many people might not think is very moral (like saving a life because one wanted a reward or wanted others to like them).

      I’m not sure if what I’ve said fully responds to the question you had; if not, please reply back if you wish!

  2. Say you become the primary care giver of a dying family member?you cook meals for them, clean, read to them etc. You aren?t doing these things for the sake of your family member, as you want to preserve a place in their will or want to make a positive impression on other people. Your family member does not know of this motive and is so happy to see you everyday, thoroughly enjoying each visit. Although this act may not be considered immoral, is it still something you should continue doing since your family member will die happy?

    If a maxim such as this is universalized, would it be considered moral or immoral? (Could it be seen as moral because everyone is taking care of each other and treating each other nicely, the act leads to good consequences and everyone is happy? Or could it be seen as immoral because everyone is treating each other as mere means, it is deceiving since you have other ulterior motives, and although the consequence is good the motive is not.) How would Mill or Kant view this situation?

    1. Great questions!

      I’ll start with Mill. For Mill, the motive, or why you are doing an action, doesn’t matter to whether the act is morally right or not (though it does matter for evaluating whether the person themselves has a morally good character). What matters for evaluating the morality of acts are the consequences: does the sort of act you’re doing tend to have good consequences? And I think the answer here is yes, because the sort of act one is doing is helping the family member in the way you describe, and that tends to have good consequences (the family member is happier, others are happier because the family member is not suffering, and you yourself may be happier if you end up getting a place in their will). So for Mill, I think this kind of action could be morally good.

      However, the fact that there is deception involved makes it more complicated. For Mill, generally lying doesn’t produce good consequences (though there may be circumstances in which it would); he talks about this on p. 6 under the heading “We should think about happiness in the longer term, such as upholding rules that promote happiness.” Telling the truth is important to human communication generally, so acts of lying tend not to produce greater happiness. But for Mill there could be exceptions to this (or any) rule, based on what would promote the most happiness in a particular kind of situation. In this kind of situation I can imagine a utilitarian going either way: either that this is the sort of thing that it’s okay to lie about because it won’t tend to undermine truth-telling or human communication, and people could expect that there may be lies in this kind of case so having that happen won’t tend to produce unhappiness. Or I can imagine a case being made that lying in this kind of situation would be the kind of act that would tend to produce less happiness. One problem with utilitarianism is that it can be harder to give precise answers because it depends on empirical facts about what would likely produce the most happiness, and these can be disputed.

      For Kant motive does matter to the morality of actions. You have to be doing what is morally right, with a “good will”–because it is morally right, not for some other motive. Though remember that you can have other motives involved; you can also, for example, enjoy doing your duty and have that be part of your motive. What’s important is that the motive of duty is strong enough that it would make you do the right thing even if you didn’t have any other motives for doing it.

      In this example, the motive is a selfish one–one is helping the other person not because it’s the morally right thing to do, but because one wants to get something out of it for oneself. So from that perspective, since the person isn’t acting with a good will, the action is not morally right in a Kantian view. But one can also look at it from the perspective of the categorical imperative: as you note, there is deception involved (one wouldn’t get what one wants out of the action if there weren’t). The act is ruled out from the perspective of the second form of the categorical imperative therefore. Using the first form is often a bit trickier, but I think it can work here: if it were permissible for everyone to help those in need just in order to get something out of it for themselves, one could say it would be unlikely for the goal of the action to be possible–would one get what they want out of such actions if everyone knew that they might be helping just for the sake of getting something out of it for themselves? Or, thinking about deception: if everyone were to deceive others when they wanted to be benefited by giving help, then the deception would no longer work because no one would believe it anymore.

      I hope this has added some clarity and not too much confusion! Please respond back if it hasn’t helped or you have other questions.

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