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A 5 Pages Term Paper on The Good, the Right, and the Just: In View of Kant, Aristotle and Mill

      Contemporary moral philosophers have produced an enormous amount of rich and varied published work on virtually all the issues falling within the scope of ethics and moral philosophy. Morality and the Good Life is a comprehensive survey of contemporary ethical theory, which collects thirty-four selections on morality, and the theory of value. Emphasizing value theory, metaethics, and normative ethics, it is non-technical and accessible to a wide range of readers. Selections are organized under six main topics:  Concepts of Goodness, What Things are Good, Virtues and Ethics, Realism vs. Anti-Realism, Value and Obligation, and The Value and Meaning of Life.

      The text includes both a substantial general introduction featuring explanatory summaries of all the selections and an extensive topical bibliography, which enhance the volume's research and pedagogical utility. The most up-to-date and wide-ranging survey of its kind, Morality and the Good Life is ideal for advanced study in contemporary ethical theory, moral philosophy, and theory of value.

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      Conceived originally as a serious presentation of the development of philosophy for Catholic seminary students, Frederick Copleston's nine-volume A History of Philosophy has journeyed far beyond the modest purpose of its author to universal acclaim as the best history of philosophy in English.

      Copleston, an Oxford Jesuit of immense erudition who once tangled with A. J. Ayer in a fabled debate about the existence of God and the possibility of metaphysics, knew that seminary students were fed a woefully inadequate diet of theses and proofs, and that their familiarity with most of history's great thinkers was reduced to simplistic caricatures. Copleston set out to redress the wrong by writing a complete history of Western philosophy, one crackling with incident and intellectual excitement -- and one that gives full place to each thinker, presenting his thought in a beautifully rounded manner and showing his links to those who went before and to those who came after him.

      The beginning point of Kant is his assumption that all human beings experience a moral law which is universal, the same for all rational beings, and necessary, that is obligatory for all to obey. Kant believes that there are common experiences in which people become aware that no one should murder another human being for personal gain, for example. Kant is saying that everyone should avoid such killing, no matter what they feel. In other words, it is a universal, obligatory law.

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      Kant again reveals his starting point when he writes: "Nothing in the world--indeed nothing even beyond the world--can possibly be conceived-which could be called-good without qualification except a good will. By a good will, Kant is not referring to good Intentions or to a wish for good but to the free will of a rational being that strives with all its ability to obey the moral law, the law which is universal and necessary. Only such a will is unqualifiedly good: such a will is the only thing good without qualification. All other aspects of a rational being, such as mind, temperament, health, are good but not without qualification. The mind can be very good in planning a bank robbery, but it is not good without qualification for it is being used for an evil end. So also with health and temperament. One could misuse one's calm disposition and health in pulling off the bank robbery. Only the morally good will is good without qualification. The will, which obeys a universal and obligatory moral law, is unconditionally good.

      According to Mill, Kant should admit that happiness is relevant to moral evaluation, despite Kant's statement that consequences are irrelevant. Even in Kant's own examples, it is the potential undesirable consequences of universal adoption of certain rules ("Leave everyone else alone, even if you are in a position to help them," for example) that makes it "contradictory."

      ill's ethical theory was entirely consequentialist. The goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness, of an action is determined only by its fruits. Thus he professed a doctrine diametrically opposed to Kant's. As with the ancient Greeks, Mill held that the good for a human being his happiness, and like Epicurus, he located happiness in pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His advance on the Epicurean doctrine was to introduce the element of universality. It is not my particular pleasure or averted pain that makes an act good, but rather that of humanity as a whole. The principle of utility calls an act good when it contributes to the overall promotion of human happiness. The popular slogan for this principle is that a good act results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

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      It was Mill's contention that all moral systems have always had this principle in mind, though they have not properly understood it role. Thus he sought to clear up misunderstandings, which he thought were the basis for objections to utilitarianism. We shall discuss a number of them.

      Kant describes the moral law in his technical terms as a categorical imperative as opposed to a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is a conditional command: if one desires an end such as going to New York, then one ought to take an appropriate means. A categorical imperative is an unconditional command: no matter what one desires, one ought to do something, for example, no matter how I feel about someone, I ought not to murder that person, I ought to value that person's life. In the light of this distinction, Kant is saying that the moral law is experienced as a categorical imperative.

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      The idea that pleasure and pain are determinants of moral goodness is shocking to some, who hold that the basest of human responses are elevated to the highest status. Is a life of wanton indulgence to be promoted, at the expense of more refined virtues? Certainly Aristotle was very cautious about the role of pleasure and pain in human excellence, recognizing that what is pleasurable often leads us away from excellence.

      Mill responded by claiming that there is a hierarchy of pleasures, with the base pleasures at the bottom and the more refined pleasures (e.g., music appreciation) at the top. A basic principle for Mill is that what is desirable is a function of what is desired, so that the most desirable pleasures are those that are most desired. If few people in reality desire the refined pleasures, it is because they lack acquaintance with them or the capacity to appreciate them. Those with the proper acquaintance and capacity prefer a way of life that uses the higher faculties. Here we might compare Aristotle's view that the contemplative life is the highest as well as most pleasurable.

      Kant defines happiness as the "rational being's consciousness of the agreeableness of life which without interruption accompanies his whole existence. He argues that man as a rational being which has certain lacks or needs necessarily desires to fulfill those needs. - Hence, a conscious being with needs necessarily desires happiness, the satisfaction of those needs. On this point both Kant and Aristotle would agree. Aristotle used the desire for happiness as the basis of his ethics. As a rational being with the desire, with the need to think, man can only be happy by thinking through his life and choosing in accord with a well thought out life. The virtue of wisdom and the other virtues such as temperance and courage and justice and friendship enable a person to live the well examined life, a life in which all one's needs are satisfied in as harmonious a way as possible.

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      Of course, even the most highly educated person will at times forego the higher pleasures for the lower. This is not an indication of their relative value, but rather of the frailty of the human condition. "Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance." Mill believed that education and the maintenance of culture were of the utmost importance. The promotion of the general happiness requires the general cultivation of noble character.

      A further objection to the utilitarian identification of the good with happiness is the alleged unattainablity of happiness in this world of woes. For the most part, Mill believed, the impediments to happiness are of our own making, e.g. the result of bad education or unjust social structures. In particular, he opposed inequalities based on race, ethnicity and gender.

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      Kant agrees with Aristotle that the end of happiness is necessarily desired but argues that the means to happiness cannot be clearly known and hence cannot serve as the basis of a moral law. The means to happiness cannot be clearly known. He writes:


Does a man really want riches in order to be happy? Perhaps his riches might cause him much anxiety, envy of others, and other sorrows. Does a man want knowledge and discernment? Perhaps knowledge might prove to be only an eye so much the sharper to show him so much the more fearfully the evils that are now concealed from him and that cannot be avoided. Does a man really want a long life in order to be happy? Who guarantees to him that lt. would not be a long misery? In short, man is unable in any specific case to determine with certainty what would make him truly happy because to do so he would have to be omniscient. All that reflection can do is suggest various counsels such as temperance, prudence, and courtesy, which do on the average promote well being or happiness and satisfaction.

      What counts as happiness is crucial to the response. The happy life is a matter of degree. It is not a continual state of highly pleasurable excitement, for this is indeed unsustainable. Excitement and tranquility must follow each other. The pleasurable life for the human being consists of some moments of pleasurable excitement, few and short-lived pains, variety in pleasures, and an active life.

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      Yet another objection to utilitarianism is due to its quantitative character. The objection is that to conform to the principle of utility, human action should be based entirely on cold, hard calculation of consequences. But Mill rebutted the objection by pointing out that most of human action is not concerned with the promotion of pleasure and avoidance of pain for all of humanity. At any rate, the principle of utility is used to evaluate actions. It does not matter what the motive of the person may be, whether calculation is involved in carrying it out or not.

      The quantitative nature of utilitarianism does give rise to a more serious objection that is not so easily swept aside. The greatest happiness for humanity as a whole might involve the sacrifice of a few for the pleasure of the many. If this is in fact what it requires, if human happiness really would be served by, say, the torture of twenty people out of five billion, it seems that the principle of utility endorses this action. Mill himself stated that everyone has a right to equality of treatment, "except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse."

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      Reflection upon happiness cannot give an unconditional command which man would experience as a moral obligation. Aristotle would agree that reflection upon happiness could only suggest good habits, habits that must be prudential guide lines, not mathematical absolutes. But Kant believes that the ambiguity in defining personal happiness makes it unsuitable as a basis for morality. Since happiness or goals which are the object of desire cannot be the basis of the moral law, the moral law is based not on what the person desires, namely, happiness (since we cannot avoid wanting to be happy), but on the way in which the person wills what he desires. There are two ways in which an objective or goal can be willed: either selfishly (for oneself as an exception) or unselfishly (anyone in these circumstances should do the same). As a rational being, pangs reason obliges him, argues Kant, to act in a self-consistent way. If I say to myself that I will act in a specific way towards others although I would not want others to act that way towards me, Kant would say that such a maxim of the will is not self-consistent, but is irrational and immoral. For I am treating myself as a rational being in a way different than I am treating other rational beings. If I ask what is wrong with being inconsistent in my treatment of others, and myself Kant would reply that there is something in every human being that makes him resist and resent being treated as a thing instead of a person. Just as I as a reflective and therefore free being resent being treated as unreflective and unfroze, so also do all other persons as reflective and free beings resent being treated as things. When I claim for myself a dignity as a reflective and free being I am thereby asserting to claim dignity. Therefore inconsistency in the way I would treat others and myself in effect destroys any rational claim I make for myself as someone valuable for my own sake. If I can deny to others their value for their own sake in the maxims of my actions, then I am logically denying to myself any right to claim value for my own self as rational and free. Consequently the best formulation of the basic value or moral law is: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end, never as means only. "

      Perhaps there is a way around this problem by appealing to the vagueness of the notion of 'general' in the principle of utility. It might be said, for example, that the general happiness cannot be promoted by anything that makes any person miserable. But then the question is one of implementation: how can one then formulate the principle precisely in such a way that it is attainable. It seems practically impossible that general happiness in this sense is anywhere nearly attainable. At any rate, utilitarian theorists are always performing a delicate balancing act in trying to find the formula for general happiness.

      Kant argues that a universal moral law cannot be based on the concept of happiness, that is, on the concept of the emotional fulfillment of the individual because everyone defines happiness in a different way for himself. Kant bases moral law simply on man's rationality and argues that persons cannot be considered qualitatively as situation ethics so considers them. He argues that persons must be considered qualitatively and the Categorical Imperative at the basic moral principle is: "So act as to treat humanity whether in thine own person or in that of any other in every case as an end, never as means only. Kant argues for this principle in the following way: since one's rationality and freedom make it possible for one to be a person, every person should respect others as much as he respects himself. A moral person would will that similar agents could do similar acts in similar circumstances.

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Works Cited

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Dec.8, 2001 <http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm>

Kant Philosophy. Dec.8, 2001 < http://www.friesian.com/kant.htm#idealism>

O'Meara , W. Dr.  First Lecture on Kant’s Ethics with Questions for the Lecture.  Dec.8, 2001 <http://falcon.jmu.edu/~omearawm/ph101kant1.html>


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