How to Be Good? (Mill vs. Kant)

If you were questioning an abductor, and you knew the hostage might die without the necessary information from the kidnapper, would you threaten him with torture, even if you knew that you would never actually execute it?

In case you would answer this question with yes, than you are a potential criminal yourself. At least that is what a German court ruled a few years ago, when they convicted a German police superintendent and a detective chief superintendent for doing exactly the above mentioned.

The accused hijacker claimed that the superintendents threatened him with a torture specialist and that he would be incarcerated with two big black guys, who had a cosy predilection for white abductors. He confessed.

German Morality

This case symbolises the German moral philosophy deeply. It is inspired by the first Article of the German Constitution, which says: “The dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state authority.” This sentence symbolizes the victory of Kantianism in Germany. The importance of dignity as well as the idea to use humans not as means but merely as ends is advocated by Immanuel Kant.

In another case judges ruled that the German military is not permitted to shoot down an aeroplane abducted by terrorist, even if the downing of the plane could save many more lives on the ground and the passengers in the plane are doomed to die most likely anyways (see 9/11 or e.g if the plane hits a nuclear plant, and endangered thus thousands of lives). Why? Because according to the Germans lives are not supposed to be weighed on a scale.

English Morality

After spending more and more time in the UK, I have the feeling that the English are even patriotic when it comes to philosophy. Instead of following the good old Kant, they seem to prefer their home-grown John Stuart Mill. His utilitarianism claims that an action is right if it produces the highest amount of  good. (His philosophy is obviously more subtle, e.g he differs also between degrees of good.)

When it comes to downing a passenger aeroplane in order to save more lives in the UK, the utilitarian weighing is up to the prime minister.  Even when it comes to the recent phone hacking scandal editors try to defend themselves with Millian arguments. For example, Bob Satchwell – the Executive Director of the Society of Editors and a former assistant editor at News of the World – defended phone hacking to a certain extent, by arguing that it could evoke good effects, too. (What if Milly Dowler had been found alive as a result of  her phone being hacked?)

How to be good?

As a German, I have a prenatal propensity towards Kantianism. Not only because of human dignity as well as the non-existent line for a good and non-good sacrificial killing (or breaches of dignity), but because utilitarianism is predestined, through its flexibility, –  as mush as it this flexibility can be an advantage as well – to create space for abuse and arbitrariness when it comes to morality.

There exists no black and white when it comes to morality. Plus, must of us are utterly utilitarian in many ways, but in these cases it is better to follow inflexible Kantianism and, if really necessary, make exceptions in order to follow utilitarianism. The problem is that these exceptions can never become a rule (for reasons mentioned above). If I keep on lying that I will torture you without intending to do it, you will stop believing it. But allowing torture is not an option either. So what to do? Probably, we have to make an exception and live with the possible legal consequences for us. I guess that is the predicament of trying to be good.

Researchers found out that most people would not approve of utilitarian killings and that those who do are often unhappy people themselves. Read more here.


9 thoughts on “How to Be Good? (Mill vs. Kant)

  1. I agree with you that the Millerite moral flexibility leaves room for abuse. However, in defense of Mill’s viewpoint, Kantianism’s inflexibility means that lives are lost due to an incontrovertible fundament. In both views loss of life is still a possibility, and if I were to be one of those possible casualties would I rather my death be in defense of another human being or in the defense of a belief?

    • I understand your point of view. Since both moral systems are not a ne plus utlra, the question remains whether we put in certain situations Kant’s or Mill’s idea first and then diverge from there. In these cases I would put Kantianism first but would in certain circumstances make exceptions (or bend the rules). For me it is like jurisprudence: most laws are more strict than they have to be, since the state anticipates the citizens to bend the rules to a certain extent anyways. For example, the consumption of marijuana is often strongly prohibited by law, but accepted to a level in the public and even by authorities. In the same way I conceive this moral predicament.

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