What is ethics? Simply put, ethics is the study of the way things should be – ethics gives insight into what people do and why they do it. There are several different types of ethics; this paper will focus on two types: Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism.
Kantian Ethics is the ethical theory of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Instead of emphasizing an action’s results, Kantian Ethics emphasizes the principles behind actions. People must treat others with respect and be motivated by the right principles.
The categorical imperative is a pivotal piece of Kantian Ethics; it is a moral obligation that is compulsory in all situations and does not depend on a person’s inclination or purpose. The categorical imperative states that people should always respect the humanity in others, and that people should only act in accordance with rules that apply to everyone. With the categorical imperative, people act as they would want all others to act toward each other. For example, if it were said that stealing is wrong, then under no conditions would it be okay to steal. People act so that they treat humanity always as an end and never as a means. This means treating people well and with respect, promoting their welfare, respecting their rights, and avoiding harm to them. Never manipulate others or use them to achieve one’s own goals.
Kant argued that people are inimitable, and things are replaceable. Kant also believed that people have a self-worth that things do not. People have desires, and things that satisfy those desires can have value for people. People also have self-worth because they are free agents who have free will to make their own decisions. When people are motivated by the right principles, they act ethically. Good actions that are performed by people are the results of them feeling that they ought to act a certain way. The intention behind an action is whether an action is good or bad. Kant felt that if people disappeared, the moral dimension of the world would also disappear.
Kantian Ethics also states that the only way for moral goodness to exist is for rational creatures to act from a good will – good will is the only thing that is completely good. A person committing an act that they think is good does not make the act itself good; it is the attitude the person has toward doing an act that matters.
Utilitarianism is a moral theory that claims that what really matters is the amount of happiness or suffering created by a person’s actions. Acting accordingly involves increasing the amount of happiness and decreasing the amount of suffering or unhappiness. The only effects of actions that are relevant are the good results or bad results that they produce. With utilitarianism, life is made better by maximizing things that cause good feelings like happiness and pleasure and minimizing the things that cause bad feelings like unhappiness and suffering. Utilitarianism determines what actions are right or wrong by focusing on the outcomes of the action; we should promote happiness and oppose suffering. The question that utilitarians ask is “Which action would produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness?”
With the utilitarian theory, laws should restrict people’s freedoms as little as possible. Whatever action is being evaluated, the action that produces the greatest amount of good is the action that should be chosen – the outcome that produces the best consequences is the outcome that should be selected. For example, three people were in a vehicle accident and needed organ transplants to save their lives. Doctors harvest organs from a perfectly healthy person to transplant into the three that were in the accident. Because doctors are saving three lives at the expense of one life, this would be acceptable because it causes the greatest amount of good.
Kant Versus Utilitarianism
Kantian ethics and utilitarianism have different ways of determining whether actions are right or wrong. Under Kantian ethics, we should look at the intentions of specific actions; humans are free rational beings and should not be used purely for the enjoyment or happiness of others. You should not act on motives that you would not want to be universal law under Kantian Ethics; people should not use other people to get what they want. Under utilitarianism, we should perform actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness; you may use whatever means necessary to achieve an end that increases happiness.
Considering the Case
Suppose that you are sitting in a classroom about to take an exam for which you are unprepared. You are normally a diligent student and proudly maintain a 4.0 GPA. You find yourself in a situation where you can cheat without getting caught, by copying from the student next to you who you know is one of the best students in the class, and who you know has studied hard for the exam. Getting an A in this class is important to you since you will be applying to medical school where the competition for admission is fierce. Anything less than an A might jeopardize your chances of getting into a good school and therefore could have consequences on your entire career path. Should you cheat?
Under Kantian Ethics, we would have to look at the intentions of the action and whether those intentions are good or bad. What principles lie behind my actions to cheat? Is the action I am going to perform a good action or a bad action? Am I being motivated by the proper principles that treat everyone with respect equally? In a situation like this, I would think that Kant would advise that cheating is morally wrong, as the only person in the situation that would be benefitting from my actions is myself. It is my desire to cheat, but that desire only satisfies my needs, not anyone else’s. The only person that cheating would have value for would be myself. If I cheated, I would likely be guaranteed an A, and I would get into medical school. The person whose test I used to cheat would receive no value out of my actions. Therefore, Kant would say that copying from the student next to me would be morally wrong because I am manipulating that student to my advantage.
Under utilitarianism, no one is suffering from me copying from the student next to me. Cheating from another student will maximize my happiness and does not have any harmful effects toward anyone else. Copying from the student next to me would increase my pleasure and happiness and would decrease any pain and suffering I would have if I did not cheat and had failed the test. Failing the test would jeopardize my chances of getting into medical school and therefore, I would suffer. Under utilitarianism, my action of copying from another student would be acceptable because the outcome would bring the greatest amount of happiness, and happiness is a good thing. The consequences of my action would only affect me and no one else, so what harm would there be if I were to copy another student’s test?
To conclude, Kantian Ethics bases the outcome of an action on the principles behind the action, and not the results of the action. In Kant’s view, the principles behind copying another student’s test are morally wrong. I am not good by copying another student’s test and my actions are not good, because my intentions only satisfy my needs and desires. So according to Kant, I should not copy the paper of the student who sits next to me just because I need to get an A, or I might jeopardize my chances of getting into medical school. I put myself in this situation and should suffer the consequences. Under the utilitarian view, it would be okay for me to copy another student’s test because doing so would increase my happiness and decrease my suffering. I would almost be guaranteed to receive an A, which would make me happy because I would not jeopardize my chances of getting into medical school.