Much as philosophy and ethical beliefs differ as we ask different people, so too can we find variations amongst the philosophers themselves. This applies to ethical dilemmas and quandaries, as well. As we consider the Philippa Foot thought experiment, both Mill and Kant’s beliefs can be applied in order to glean a better understanding of the relevant morals.
Utilitarianism advocates a focus not solely on individual happiness but also the consideration of all happiness, of net happiness in any outcome. For Mill, such dilemmas are a basic calculus wherein the morality of an act is dependent upon the positivity of its results. One would therefore expect Mill’s advice in the Philippa Foot thought experiment to advocate the rescue of the five at the cost of the one in both the Rescue I and Rescue II hypotheticals. Such a decision is generally accepted by all in any circumstance for Rescue I, as saving the lone individual instead of the five is infeasible anyways. For Rescue II, Mill’s decision may seem more controversial, but it is perfectly in line with Mill’s belief that the greatest net positive should be the most morally correct option. In Mill’s own writing, he holds that “…the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 1). We can describe Mill’s beliefs by the Theory of Value and the Principle of Utility. This principle is responsible not only for governing morality in an individual’s belief system, but it exists as a meta-principle of practical reason, governing all areas of thought and behavior. Operating under the aforementioned principles, it is very likely that Mill would advocate such positions with regard to the Rescue hypotheticals in the Philippa Foot Thought Experiment.
It is important, however, to distinguish Mill’s utilitarianism and the Greatest Happiness Principle from normal, simple hedonistic pleasure-seeking, even though for Mill, utilitarians, by definition, are hedonists as it comes to moral theory. What makes Mill’s utilitarianism different from the common perception of hedonism is that Mill conceives of different types of pleasure, each more or less valuable compared to others by virtue of their qualities (Schefczyk, 11). For instance, pleasures that employ intellect or imagination are considered by Mill to be more valuable. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” he asserts (Mill, 3). This thinking can still be applied to the Philippa Foot experiment in support of the idea that Mill would advocate for the rescue of the five at the cost of the one in Rescue II. After all, is it not a higher pleasure, a higher satisfaction, to be responsible for the rescue of multiple, good lives even if another had to be sacrificed for that end result? It is likely that Mill would agree with such a position.
Alternatively, how would J.S. Mill’s chronological predecessor Immanuel Kant respond to such a hypothetical? Kant’s moral philosophy was distinguished by deontological theory and deontological ethics. The latter informs one to never act in opposition to the most moral method, and we can still conclude that the most morally correct course of action in Rescue I would be to save the five while abandoning the other individual. As such, Kant, like Mill or most any other individual, would choose to save the five in Rescue I. Rescue II is hypothetical that poses the most serious moral dilemmas, however, and it is in this hypothetical that Kant’s position would differ from Mill’s.
In the Rescue II hypothetical, Kant would most likely not advocate saving the five at the cost of the one. He would choose to spare the lone individual blocking the road, thereby waiving the opportunity to save the other five. This would make sense in the context of deontological ethics, as the moral obligation of an individual operating under this system is to act for the most moral and ethical outcome, not necessarily for the ‘best’ or greatest net positive. Of course, by subscribing to a system of ethics that obligates individuals to always act for the ‘most moral’ outcome, it naturally begs the question of how the ‘most moral course of action is defined and found.
Much as Plato viewed humans as ‘basically sane, rational beings, Kant believes that human beings possess the mental capacity and ability for rationality and for rationalization. This forms a primary focus of Kant’s moral theory. Humans are special because they are given thought and the freedom of choice; these are responsibilities that must not be taken lightly. In carrying out this responsibility, humans must act on morals. Further, not just the outcome, but the actions themselves hold moral value, and so must be judged separately. It may seem strange, for how could action be morally improper yet the outcome morally proper, or vice versa? To answer, consider one of Kant’s own examples, one of a shopkeeper who charges the same of his goods for both inexperienced and experienced customers. “This is in accord with duty. But here is also a prudential and not-duty-based motive that the shop-keeper might have for this course of conduct…” (Kant, 3). Just because the shopkeeper sells his goods at the same price to every customer, he doesn’t necessarily do so because of any moral obligation, but perhaps purely out of self-interest, acting to his own advantage. If the shopkeeper acts solely to gain an advantage later on, indirectly, can his action truly be described as moral, even if in the moment, the outcome was moral? These are questions important in considering the moral appropriateness of an action.
Under deontological ethics, one must choose the course of action most in accordance with the moral principles they operate under with a genuine intent to fulfill one’s duty to uphold those moral principles. Considering the Rescue hypotheticals in the Philippa Foot experiment once again, we can see why Kant, in Rescue I, would consider there to be an existing moral obligation to save the five people instead of the other individual. You, in the thought experiment, were already heading towards the five and were readily capable of saving them; it would be morally wrong to abandon that quest and risk their deaths for only an unlikely chance of saving the other. What trumps the calculus that is used in Rescue I when instead considering Rescue II from Kant’s perspective is that to rescue the five would require the literal, intentional murder of another individual. Whereas in Rescue I, an individual would be continuing to carry out an existing moral obligation, making no violations of their moral principles in so doing, Rescue II would instead require an individual to commit an immoral act to continue their mission. This immoral act would not hold with deontological ethics, and so even though a moral obligation exists to save the five people, there is a greater moral obligation to not kill the lone individual blocking the road. By the moral principles that govern our society, the more ‘morally appropriate’ act would be to spare one individual, even though this means five would die.
This can be further explained by the categorical imperative, the rationally necessary and unconditional objective humans must follow in all circumstances, regardless of individual inclination (Johnson, 1). Kant himself describes the categorical imperative thusly: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 8). To apply this to the thought experiment, we must avoid contradiction. That choice that allows us to follow this maxim and avoid contradicting moral principles and moral obligations is the best course of action.
Also in both Rescues, we must operate according to the maxim Kant provides in his writing: “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means” (Kant, 11). This is the second version of the categorical imperative. In other words, we must never use people solely as a tool or stepstool to attain an end result. In Kant’s estimation, there are several duties derived from the categorical imperative, those being a perfect duty and one of two imperfect duties. The first imperfect duty is the duty of self-improvement, and the other is the duty to aid others. What differentiates imperfect duties from perfect duties is that the former is a duty that must not be ignored, but may be fulfilled in multiple ways. There is a duty in Rescue I to aid others, and this is an imperfect duty. The perfect duty present in both Rescues is to uphold the moral maxim and to prevent contradiction; we cannot use anyone as a means to an end. In Rescue I, this is not an issue, as we may simply continue on and rescue the five innocent people, thus fulfilling our duty. In Rescue II, however, fulfilling the imperfect duty to aid others by aiding the five cannot be achieved without contradicting moral principles and the aforementioned maxim, failing the perfect duty that exists. As such, by the categorical imperative, Kant would advocate sparing the individual blocking the road. Have we not, at the least, aided one other, in so doing? And even though we leave the five others to their fate, we fulfill our moral duty.
When it comes to such dilemmas, many obviously wonder who is right, and why. Such a query is a difficult one to answer, and so it is best to examine Mill’s and Kant’s philosophies fairly and equally, finding what faults exist in each and determining which of those we are most averse to accepting. While Mill’s utilitarianism provides a basic, easy-to-understand path for us to follow, it risks being subverted by utter pragmatism. If consequences are true all that matters, what is to stop society from encouraging unjust acts. Consider, for instance, a town wracked with riots and social unrest after an unknown criminal killed a beloved citizen. Taking the position of a judge in this town, you know that you have the power to restore calm and peace if only you could satisfy the mob; the easiest, fastest, best way to satisfy the mob without having to wait for a drawn-out investigation to hopefully pan out is to sentence an innocent man to death (Austin, 4). Should utilitarianism be considered the correct moral philosophy, should the principle of utility trump all, and should consequences matter more than the action, then it would be the right thing to sentence an innocent man for the sake of the town, would it not? Mill, if presented with this dilemma, may offer a rebuttal, but what matters is that he is no longer present to offer that rebuttal, and utilitarianism, as it is so often interpreted and utilized by humans of the modern age, provides justification for unjust acts so long as the ends are justifiable. Most people who do not subscribe to utilitarian belief would contend that it is wrong to punish the innocent purely on the grounds that his individual rights are violated unjustly, and by the moral principles of society, this would be a heinous act. Generally, utilitarianism’s greatest issue is that it provides a means to justify unjust acts, and we have already seen throughout our history how providing such rationale can be harmful to our societies (Austin, 6). Mill’s moral philosophy may have its benefits, but this is a serious fault, indeed.
This is not to say, however, that Kant’s deontological ethics, as an alternative, are without fault. Deontology has its own detriments that need to be acknowledged. The biggest issue with deontological ethics is that it is inflexible, thereby rendering it difficult to use as we scale moral dilemmas or apply it to less than rational contexts. For instance, taking the Philippa Foot Rescue II thought experiment, what if we changed the number of people we could rescue from five to five hundred? That is no small number of people who would perish should we refuse to run down one innocent man blocking the road, but by Kantian deontology, to commit the murder of one man is wrong under any circumstances, as it would contradict our moral principles and violate the second version of the categorical imperative. As humans face more and more complex moral dilemmas where arithmetic becomes more difficult to manage, Kantian deontology, frankly, will struggle with providing what would otherwise be deemed a reasonable solution. Simply because the categorical imperative must be universally followed, the blameless course of action would always be to avoid killing one individual, even at the cost of perhaps hundreds to thousands of innocent lives (Studebaker, 3). Further, Kantian deontology struggles with dilemmas concerning controversial moral principles. For instance, if society generally held that homosexuality was morally wrong and harmful to society, how would a homosexual individual go about living under a system of deontological ethics? If there is a duty to uphold the moral principles of the society, to maintain the categorical imperative, it would be rather difficult to go about the issue. Deontological ethics has merit in weighing not just the outcome of an action, but the morality of the act itself, yet it is also flawed in how strict it can be in requiring adherence to Kant’s categorical imperative and other principles.
Personally, while I would prefer to also weigh the morality of acts themselves when considering various courses of action, I find utilitarianism to be the superior system. Even though it risks causing humans to behave in unjust ways, I still hold that it provides a better means of meeting moral dilemmas. When the stakes are great enough, I cannot rely on Kantian deontology to provide what I think is a reasonable solution, but I can typically rely on Mill’s utilitarianism. The aforementioned issues with Kantian deontology are simply too difficult for me to reconcile without contradicting a portion of that moral philosophy, whereas utilitarianism, I think, is more flexible in allowing certain actions. Under Mill’s moral philosophy, every individual’s happiness is supposed to be weighed equally, but the fact that he proposes there are varying degrees of pleasure that are more desirable than others means to me that the arithmetic and calculations involved in utilitarian moral dilemmas is not so simple. I would normally choose to save the five while sacrificing the one in Rescue II of the thought experiment, but I think it is possible as well to rationalize sparing the one at the cost of the five if I consider my happiness and the happiness of others who could somehow relate to the situation down the line. What if all five of those who would perish were drunken ex-convicts, finding themselves in their dilemma only through their own fault? And what if also the man I would have to run down was the responsible caretaker of a family of five? Then the math is not so easy, and I would hold that by utilitarianism, the greatest net positive may actually come from sparing the man and letting the other five die. And even were I to be uncertain of the veracity of the previous claims, were I to operate under those assumptions, could I be faulted for doing what I believed at the time to be the most utilitarian behavior? In any case, utilitarianism, I think, provides a reasonable moral philosophy, as well as one that is flexible and adaptable enough for most purposes. For those reasons, and considering the faults I find with Kantian deontology, I consider Mill’s utilitarianism the superior moral philosophy.
To each their own, however. The great thing about such belief systems in a free world is that not all are required to subscribe to only one. Those who prefer another may choose another, and so on. Both Mill and Kant were veritable intellectual titans who provided invaluable writings for generations to inform their moral frameworks, and there remain merits attributable to both.