Utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative

While both Mill’s consequentialist Principle of Utility and Kant’s deontological Categorical Imperative seem both to have ethical import, the applicability of each depends on the situation to which they are applied. Utilitarianism is that the goodness or rightness of an ethic in question, depends on the desirability of its consequences.

On the other hand is the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, where according to Kant the value of a maxim that holds categorically or universally (e.g., the Categorical Imperative), depends on one acting out of duty (e.g., Deontologically). If an act is moral, then it must hold categorically, as understood through reason (i.e., one must not steal, because to steal would result in nothing belonging to anyone – respect for private property being a maxim or law that holds categorically using reason). While both these principles seem vitally important, how is one to decide which is paramount when their ethical proscriptions overlap?

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Mill’s ethical system is consequentialist, that is the value of the ethical act depends on the consequences. Mill’s system depends on the Principle of Utility. According to the principle of utility, the desire that people share is the desire to be happy. And to be happy depends on how much pleasure one can have in their life. Something is ethical by maximizing happiness (e.g., pleasure), in the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s system has been criticized as being hedonistic, (e.g., the base pleasures being the highest good) but in fact other pleasures besides the sensual pleasures are included. Lucidity in thought can result in pleasure. Or loving another can bring pleasure as well.

One unfortunate byproduct of utilitarianism is that when one wants to maximize happiness for the greatest number, this often is to the detriment of the minority. Being that this is so, the rights of certain individuals can suffer.

For example, say one was misbooked on a ship of sadists, and they weren’t a sadist. In order to maximize happiness (e.g., pleasure), one must allow oneself to be abused in order to make the majority happy. So the question that becomes apparent, when looking at Kant’s and Mill’s ethical systems; where do rights of others end and the rights of the individual begin?

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant’s categorical imperative takes a contrary view. In conformity with the first formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., one must always act in such a way that the principle in which one acts holds categorically or universally), is the second formulation of the categorical imperative, where Kant states that none should be treated simply as a means, but also as an end in themselves, where the principle of how one acts holds universally as well. What Kant is saying is that not treating someone as a means refers to not denying the rights of another. In others words not treating someone as a means to an end, but rather respecting their autonomy.

By one being an end in themselves, one can consent to being used in which case ones autonomy is not violated. For example a bank robber might think they are justified in robbing a bank, because the outcome for instance is that the bank robber parent can buy their children food. Yet one is not treating the teller as an end in themselves, because the teller has no option but to obey and doesn’t part with the money willingly.

Why are Rights Important?

Freedom may be abridged by the principle of utility. Yet according to the founders of the constitution this freedom is not abridged as a right of the state, because rights are god given, not something that can be bestowed on autonomous beings. In the case of free speech rights, rights are based on the principle that in order for there to be a just society, all speech must be respected. Yet how is one to balance the safety of the public at large with the right of the individual (i.e., free speech?).

The best way, and one of the safeguards of free speech, is to ensure that the society one lives in is a just society, where everyone’s rights are protected. For example the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, would not have happened at all if the rights of African-Americans were first protected.

In the US, it is generally felt that non-violent demonstrations are acceptable, or at least tolerable. This has become the norm as a sort of compromise between the destruction and violence that can come from demonstrations and the respect for free speech.


Honderich, Ted Ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 1995.

May, Larry et al., Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach. Third Edition. Pearson Education, Inc. 2002.

Moore, Booke Noel., Steward, Robert Michael., Moral Philosophy: A Comprehensive Introduction. Mayfield Publishing Company, California State University, Chico 1994.

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Doug Frame

I am a former professor who taught for almost 10 years. I have a BA and an MA in Philosophy. I enjoy writing about philosophy but ever more so I enjoy writing philosophy.

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