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Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory, and Kantianism: Comparative Analysis

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Throughout history philosophers have developed ethical theories that attempt to distinguish what is morally right and wrong. Although these theories differ from one another, they all can be applied to multiple aspects of our society. Some examples of these theories include Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory, and Kantianism. The differences between each of these theories are as follows.

Utilitarianism focuses on the outcome of an action as the primary motivation and whether or not that conduct is ethical (Hill, Utilitarianism PowerPoint, Slide 3). The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t give considerations to whether an act is carried out with good or bad intentions. They also run into an additional issue because nobody can be certain about the outcome that results from a particular action, because the future is unpredictable.

Cultural Relativism is the view that all ethical systems are all equally valid and no one system is superior (Hill, Ethical Relativism PowerPoint, Slide 7). However, this causes us to lose perspective and it becomes impossible to argue that anything a culture does is right or wrong. If the only qualifier to make a person's beliefs, values, and practices ethically correct is based on that person's own culture, then we are constantly assuring that whatever action being performed is correct.

The Social Contract Theory states that people will band together in order to avoid being in a “state of nature” (Hill, Social Contract Theory PowerPoint, Slide 5). One issue with this theory is that the political authority itself does not require a contract for its legitimacy. This theory also excludes certain parties such as disabled people and animals.

In the theory of Kantianism, the basis of whether or not a course of action is morally permissible will depend on if it conforms to what he terms the moral law, the categorical imperative (Hill, Kantian Ethics, page 1). Some exceptions do exist, but the strength of those exemptions may be somewhat diminished by looking at the way the actual circumstances are presented and the way in which they are dealt with. In determining one's duty in a moral situation, his theory of morality seems to function as the most feasible.

Immanuel Kant was a famous philosopher during the 18th century Enlightenment era. His ethical system formed as a reaction to David Hume’s view of ethics. Hume believed that moral judgments express our feelings and that morality was based upon the sympathy we have for our fellow human beings (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.1). If humans have the proper sentiments, they were moral; if they lack these sympathies, they were immoral. Kant opposed of this view and thought that ethics must be taken from a sense of duty dictated by reason. His view emphasizes the importance of rationality, consistency, impartiality, and respect for persons in the way we live our lives. This approach to ethics is known as deontological as it considers the actions themselves instead of the outcomes.

Kantian philosophy is complex but, the basic ideas are surprisingly simple. His most basic belief was human freedom. In virtue of being a human being, you have rights, dignity, and intrinsic moral worth/value according to Kant (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.5). These moral rights and duties cover all societies and all contexts, so Kant’s view doesn’t have the problems that cultural relativism does. He also says that a person is good or bad depending on the intentions of their actions and not on the consequences that follow. One can have moral worth only if they are motivated by morality (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.5). This means that if a person's emotions or desires cause them to do something, then that action can’t give them moral worth. Moral worth only comes when you do something because you know that it is your duty.

Kant described two types of common commands given by reason; the hypothetical imperative and the categorical imperative. The hypothetical imperative dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end. The categorical imperative however, dictates a course of action that must be followed because of its rightness and necessity (Hill, Kant’s Ethical Theory, Slide 5). The categorical imperative has two different formulations which he claims both say the same thing.

The first formulation states 'Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature. (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.9)' This means you are not allowed to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to allow everyone else to do. You are not allowed to make exceptions for yourself either. For example, if you expect other people to keep their promises, then you have to keep your own promises. The second formulation states, “Act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means” (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.9). This formulation introduces the idea of respect for people. Individuals are not a means to an end, instead they are ends in themselves with their own goals and purposes.

Kant provided a few examples to test the categorical imperative. Consider one example, making a false promise. The question that has to be asked is if we can consistently will the principle, “whenever in need of money make a false promise to get it?” We can’t, since a world where everyone acts according to this would be impossible. This is easy to demonstrate. In such a world:

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False promises would be useful because there would be persons to believe them

False promises would not be useful because, in a short time, nobody would believe them.

On the one hand, we need the necessary conditions for false promises to be successful, people believing in our lies. On the other hand, the result of universal false promising would be that no lies would be believed. Such a world is not even possible.

The categorical imperative commands actions in two different ways. It specifically forbids or requires certain actions, which are called perfect duties. Some examples of these would be do not lie, do not steal, etc. It also commands that certain goals be pursued which are called imperfect duties. These include helping others, developing our talents, and treating others with respect. When we universalize a maxim that violates a perfect duty, we will have an inconsistent world. When we universalize a maxim that violates an imperfect duty, we will have an unpleasant world (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.12).

Now that we’ve explored the basics of Kantianism, let's compare it to other ethical theories such as Utilitarianism. Though both attempt to answer questions about morality and behavior, the two theories have many fundamental differences. According to Kant, we should look at our intentions. On the other hand, Utilitarian's believe that we should do actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness. The issue with this, however, is that it could potentially use people as mere means. This may lead to the sacrifice of lives for the greater good. Utilitarianism sometimes involves the sacrifice of an individual’s happiness or life in order to promote the greatest amount of happiness and the least amount of misery (Hill, Utilitarianism PowerPoint, Slide 5).

It is also easier to calculate an action as morally right in Kantian ethics than in utilitarian ethics. Kantian theory offers more precision than utilitarianism. It says one can generally determine if somebody is being used as a mere means, even if the impact on human happiness is inconclusive. Kantians consider only the proposals for an action that occur to them and check that these proposals use no other as mere means. Utilitarian's however compare all available acts to see which has the best effects (Hill, Utilitarianism PowerPoint, Slide 7). Although utilitarianism have a larger scope than Kantianism, it is a timelier process. The decision-making method of calculating all the potential costs and benefits of an action is extremely time consuming and leaves little time for promoting happiness, which is the Utilitarian’s goal.

Another ethical theory that I will contrast to Kantianism is Cultural Relativism. This theory states that every culture’s moral beliefs and rituals are no more true or false, better or worse than anyone else’s (Hill, Ethical Relativism PowerPoint, Slide 7). Some of the main issues include social behaviors that must be understood in their cultural frame and, therefore, can be justified as legitimate in their own culture. This justifies all forms of evil: dehumanization, rape, slavery, and genocide. Different people in different contexts need different moral codes. We can’t all have the same moral code because everyone lives in a different world with different demands, expectations, histories, symbols, and problems to overcome.

Another popular ethical theory is the Social Contract Theory. Some believe that social contract is a useful tool to understand the limits of political power and the scope of human rights. However, the process used in making this claim is seriously flawed. The theory says that morality exists only as the product of social contracts, yet we are left with no basis to assert that a contract or law is immoral (Hill, Social Contract Theory PowerPoint, Slide 7). The scope that the contracts reach is not clear. Social contracts also exclude certain parties from the moral community, thereby leaving out the rights of handicapped people, people in other societies, and animals. According to Kant, cruelty to animals leads to cruelty to humans. This means that it’s in the self-interest of humanity to treat animals humanely and refrain from pointless cruelty to animals (Hill, Kantian Ethics, p.13).

There are, however, a few objections against Kantianism that have emerged. The objection comes from Kant’s persistence that telling the truth must be universal, and that lying cannot be considered moral in any circumstance. I’ll use an example to help demonstrate this. “Imagine you notice a madman chasing someone and that someone hides from the madman without him noticing. The madman comes up to you and asks if you saw anyone else around” (Hill, Kant’s Ethical Theory PowerPoint, Slide 19). The categorical imperative would make us tell the truth even if it risks the life of an innocent person. However, this apparent contradiction doesn’t prove any inconsistency with his original formulation of the ‘moral law’. According to him, moral actions do not derive their value from the expected consequences. If we lie for any reason, or for any expected outcome, we are only treating the receiver of the lie as a ‘means’ to another ‘end’, which denies the rationality of the other person.

As described above, it's evident that Kant’s view towards duty, good will, and moral worth are critical aspects in determining ethical decisions. In his view, each human has inherent worth and intrinsic value. Therefore, we should have the ability to reason and choose the right behavior. The categorical imperative further enforces the idea that we shouldn’t do what we wouldn’t want others to do to us. Compared to other theories, Kantianism is the best. The issue with Utilitarianism is that it doesn’t consider whether an act is carried out with good or bad intentions. Kant’s focus is on the intentions rather than the outcome, so it bypasses this problem easily. Cultural Relativism has good qualities, but it ends up contradicting itself. This becomes an issue because if everyone's doing what they think is right because of their culture than no one's wrong. Kant’s use of the categorical imperative could help this because you would have to ask yourself if everyone did the action, would it be possible? The Social Contract Theory also shows flaws when the political authority itself does not require a contract for its legitimacy. For these reasons, I conclude that Kantianism is the most suitable ethical theory.

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Utilitarianism, Cultural Relativism, Social Contract Theory, and Kantianism: Comparative Analysis. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
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