In the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, the author, Immanuel Kant, tries to form a base by rejecting all ethical theories that are connected to consequences, and then focusing on our ethical motivations and actions. Kant wants to derive good characters out of contingently right actions. He believes that everything is contingent (everything can have good or bad worth, depending on how it is used). So he is trying to find the supreme principal of morality in all his reasoning. Kant also believes that an action is right or wrong based solely on the reason by which it was performed.
However, a Utilitarian, like John Mill, would reject Kants reasoning of originating good characters out of actions alone, and instead argue that if an action has bad consequences, then the action was morally wrong. Kant believes that an action has moral worth only if it is done out of respect for our moral code. He names this moral action a duty. Kant also believes that in determining the moral worth of an action, we need to look at the maxim by which it was performed. So, we need to look at ones reason for doing an action to determine if it is a duty.
If the reason for performing the action is justified, then the action is a duty. However, Kant says there are two different types of reasons for performing an action. Kant calls these reasons imperatives. The first reason for performing an action, the hypothetical imperative, is based on consequences and on our personal preferences. They are also contingent, meaning that they can be good or bad depending on how they are used. People choose to perform a given action because of the hypothetical imperative. The second reason for performing an action according to Kant is called the categorical imperative.
These are not based on our preferences, dont deal with consequences of an action, and are derived a priori. They are completely separate from hypothetical imperatives. We all have knowledge of categorical imperatives before experiencing them first. They are kind of a second nature for us, which needs to be recognized according to Kant. These are the most important reason for performing an action. These imperatives also have the characteristics that Kant needs in order to make his point that all of our moral principals are categorical, have absolute authority, and are independent of different situations.
These categorical imperatives have three different formulations. The second formulation of the categorical imperative deserves the most attention. The second formulation states that all rational beings should be treated as ends, because they are ends in themselves. So in making a decision, we must choose the action which respects the ends of others and of ourselves. This would be respecting an individuals autonomy. Autonomy is commanding yourself to do what you think is a good idea to do. Since your self-identity comes from the autonomy principal, it is making choices based on your values.
Each person has an idea of how they want to live their life, and with interfering with that idea, we are showing that person a lack of respect for their whole person. A good example of interfering with a persons autonomy is making false promises to somebody. When we lie to someone, we take away their choice by exploiting them. So when we take away their choices, we take away their autonomy. This is because it distracts the persons perception on what is the case. If they cant see everything clearly and make a good, moral choice, that is because they dont know what they should.
So we rob them of the ability to control themselves and their future. If everybody made choices and acted on their autonomy, would this world be a safe place to live? It wouldnt, because some people have no morals, and their autonomy tells them it is on their best interest to kill somebody. However, if each person respected the ends of themselves and of others, while acting on their autonomy, it would be a very safe place to live. In fact, it would be a perfect community. Kant calls this idea the Kingdom of Ends. In the Kingdom of Ends, only those moral laws which respect and further the establishment of this perfect community are adopted.
This perfect community is impossible to achieve, Kant says. But he says it is our best interest to try to reach it. As I mentioned before, a Utilitarian, like John Mill, would argue against Kant by saying that an action has moral worth based on its consequences alone. Mill would argue against Kant by saying that making false promises are good or bad, based on the outcome, not on making the false promise. Mill would argue that if lying to somebody saved them some misery, or even their life, then lying to them would be the right action to do.
For example, if you knew that somebody was going to get the crap kicked out of them tomorrow in class, and this person happened to be your friend, then you would tell them that your instructor called and class was cancelled. This would be making a false promise to your friend, and will most likely have good consequences because your friend did not go to class and get beat up. Mill says this is the right action to take in this situation, because there were good consequences in the end of things. However, Kant would completely reject this idea of performing actions based on consequences. He does this based solely on unforeseen consequences.
We cannot hope to predict the outcome of any given situation. It is impossible; there is no such thing as seeing the future. So by making a false promise to your friend, you have still done the morally wrong action, even though it will most likely save them some suffering. It did indeed take away their choices, so they cant act in a way they want to act (going to class). I happen to agree with Kants idea here. I think that no matter what the consequences are, performing the right action is always the right thing to do. Overall I think that Kant has better arguments because they are directed at the individual, not at society in whole.
I also agree that the moral worth of actions is determined by the motivating principal of the action, not by the consequences, like John Mill. So I am a deontologist, for the most part. However, I also agree with some of the things that Mill has to say. So is there a way that we can combine the ideas of Mill and Kant together in order to form a perfect society in which everybody is happy? I dont know the answer to this question, but we should all strive to do so, and we should start by respecting each others autonomy and treating others as ends.