Take this ethical belief:

"People should act such that they, upon considering with a reasonable amount of effort related to the significance of the decision, believe that they will maximize the good of everyone by performing that action."

Is this a Kantian idea? A utilitarian idea? Neither? Both? Does it better fit some other scheme?

I don't have a philosophy background but this is something I've been thinking about for a while. In this, we ignore ACTUAL effects and consequences; they are entirely irrelevant to if we call an action "good" or "bad" or "moral" or "immoral." However, we still have that utilitarian idea of maximizing happiness.

An interesting effect of this statement is that in the same situation, the same action by two different people might be "good" for one person and "bad" for another. I don't know if I've ever seen a philosophical system with that consequence.


4 Answers 4


What you're describing is a fairly standard form of utilitarianism that works with "expected utility" instead of "actual utility". See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#WhiConActVsExpCon

For Kant, all consequences (actual or expected) are to be set aside in one's decision to perform an act: you are supposed to do it from respect for the moral law, not for the sake of some good consequence. Similarly, the fact that an action is one's duty has nothing to do with the consequences of that action: it is one's duty only if and because the action treats rational nature (humanity) as an end in itself.


The evaluation criteria of morality is the intention. – Kantian ethics.

NB: The distinction between good and evil is inherent to human reason.

In science, we know the justification process of an assertion: logical coherence, systematical coordination of experimental results, predictive capacity; there is nothing such in ethics because there are no “experimental results”; because ethics has nothing to do with facts as facts. Should there be myriads of liars and a high enough number of murderers, this tells us nothing on the moral values of lying or murder.

The “moral justification” always connects with a certain moral doctrine that is presupposed. There are utilitarian justifications of falsehood or murder, but these same acts do not have any justification in Kantian morals. Therefore, we cannot say utilitarianism stands on moral justifications since these justifications presuppose themselves the acceptance of utilitarianism.

The ends can justify the means. – Utilitarian ethics.

The evaluation criteria of morality is the utility of the action. – Utilitarian ethics.

NB: Moral principles can never justify themselves rationally, but are justified in accordance with the desires of man.

The foundation of morality is fidelity to the principle of the pursuit of happiness of the majority. – Utilitarian ethics.

NB: We should follow the morals of established rules without forgetting that they are generalizations that can be distributed in exceptional cases, because they are not restrictive principles of conduct. Man has the right to be happy.

In his answer to Benjamin Constant, On the Supposed Right to Tell a Lie from Altruistic Motives, the argumentation of Kant is in fact very utilitarian, despite refusal of any consequentialist criteria in the Kantian doctrine. Why should the right to lie be refused even in the case where a lie would save a human life? Kant gives two arguments:

  1. Any lie, whatsoever its reasons are, constitutes an injustice towards humanity in its entirety, because in allowing ourselves to lie, this action results that statements in general do not find credibility, and that, consequently, all rights that are founded on understanding fall equally.

  2. The second argument is more singular, because it consists in warning temptation to accept the “well-intentioned” lie against detrimental consequences that may result from it: If you have, for example, prevented by a lie someone with murderous intentions to act, you are responsible on a legal standpoint of all consequences of the outcome. But if you held yourself strictly to the truth, public justice can do nothing to you whatsoever the unforeseen consequences be.

This is an utilitarian type of argumentation: it’s good for humanity in its entirety that the principle of word given can be held as valid; it’s always preferable for me not to lie, it’s the strategy that will spare the troubles in which we fall inescapably as soon as we start lying.

The foundation of morality is the respect of the moral law written in the heart of conscience. – Kantian ethics.

NB: Moral ethic of intention to act freely, by respect of moral law and not by desires or dispositions. Moral value is not placed in the goal to attain, but higher, on a principle that determines the work in question. An individual act is moral when it’s determined to act by respect of the practice of moral law.

Moral laws are hypothetical, conditional imperatives. – Utilitarian ethics.

NB: Reasons are not important, only consequences. You cannot see or measure the motives of people, but only the consequences of their actions.

Moral laws are categorical imperatives. – Kantian ethics.

NB: Duty to always obey morality.

Kant virtually acknowledges that the interest of mankind collectively, or at least of mankind indiscriminately, must be in the mind of the agent when conscientiously deciding on the morality of the act.

  • Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill.


To give any meaning to Kant's principle, the sense put upon it must be, that we ought to shape our conduct by a rule which all rational beings might adopt with benefit to their collective interest.

  • Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill.

As close to the categorical imperative this formulation may seem, it’s still reductive and leads finally to misreading what constitutes the nerve in the metaphysics of morals. The collective interest of humanity does not suffice in defining moral duty. Kant explains it clearly:

A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: 'What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be as happy as Heaven pleases, or as be can make himself; I will take nothing from him nor even envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in distress!' Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature, sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.

  • Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, Immanuel Kant

This fourth who is in prosperity is described by Marx. It’s the selfish bourgeois that puts forward that everyone follows his own ends and that it’s the least harm we can do for the entirety of humanity. On the factual map, Kant admits the premises of this reasoning. Rational selfishness is without doubt a good move and could even be profitable to humanity. But we cannot want it without contradicting ourselves. Therefore, an applicable and advantageous principle to the entirety of humanity is not sufficient; it still has that I may want it as I am a rational-reasonable being.

Fourthly, as regards meritorious duties towards others: The natural end which all men have is their own happiness. Now humanity might indeed subsist, although no one should contribute anything to the happiness of others, provided he did not intentionally withdraw anything from it; but after all this would only harmonize negatively not positively with humanity as an end in itself, if every one does not also endeavour, as far as in him lies, to forward the ends of others. For the ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if that conception is to have its full effect with me.

  • Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, Immanuel Kant

Utilitarians place themselves on the map of our spontaneous tendencies and what is feasible without contradiction whereas Kant breaks radically with this conception in placing himself from the human will perspective.

I can so I want, says the utilitarian. I must, so I can, replies Kant.

At the same time, this shows how much utilitarians are far from having the depth and amplitude of sight required by moral philosophy.


I think that a great many radically different ethical theories could be consistent with the statement you've given, primarily because you haven't offered a definition of what it means to "maximize the good of everyone". The "maximization of the good" seems to be another name for the "best". A Kantian would argue that the "best" course of action (for everyone involved) is determined by considering the universal applicability and rationality of the imperatives and duties involved, while a Utilitarian will define the "best" action as that which minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure according to some calculation scheme.

So long as you refuse to define or clarify what constitutes goodness and badness, I think your principle falls somewhat short of being ethically meaningful. After all, an answer to the question "What is the Good?" may be the starting point of ethical inquiry.

However, you do mention "maximizing happiness". If by "happiness" you mean pleasure of some variety, this view may be Utilitarian, but I still think more clarification is needed to achieve coherence.

  • Good point. I did indeed mean "happiness" or "pleasure" (as long as the pleasure is considered of everyone, until the end of time.)
    – Jeremy
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 13:21
  • 1
    @Jeremy In that case, the ethical principle sounds like straight-up Utilitarianism to me. An action is good if it maximizes pleasure. Your principle just asserts that an individual ought to make decisions by doing a utilitarian calculation.
    – user461
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 13:54
  • However what causes the most happiness and pleasure is not necessarily what is the most moral(According to Kant). And what causes happiness in some people causes pain in others.
    – Chad
    Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 13:56
  • Nothing wrong with the answer, but it always seems like the Utilitarian view is surprisingly impractical. How do you go about measuring pleasure and pain? If you could give everyone on earth an ice cream at the cost of cutting off your dominate hand, would that be a good action? What if the cost were cutting off the hands of 100 other people? And so on. Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:42

Your quote alludes to the most prevalent philosophy unwittingly taught by professors of introductory econ courses: rational choice. It's had an incredible impact on social science, though it might be a bit out of style now with the move toward acknowledging some irrationality and the advent of 'behavioralist' insert discipline here.

I worry that you're skipping over the hardest part of the argument, 'what is this all-important utility then?' Surely you wouldn't simplify to 'pleasure' or 'happiness' as you did in a passing comment. If I lived my life to make myself as happy as possible, I'd be miserable, and if I can't maximize my own happiness, how on earth can I maximize yours?

If there are practical applications of this sort of ethical thought, they're probably best applied narrowly within some context like "consumers of family-sized snack products." In this simplified world, society has a production constraint (we can only make so many doritos) and an aggregate utility curve (we can only be so pleasured).

If we give all the Doritos to you, by this theory, you will be as happy as you can be, but your marginal happiness-pleasure-utility from Dorito infinity-plus-one will be far less than the near orgasm I would have obtained from dorito not-plus-one. So we can allude to 'Pareto' optimality and argue that it'd be great if your last Dorito went to me, following the logic until we get to something like, 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his appetite for family-sized dorito megapacks.'

Rather than asking you, 'what is happiness?,' maybe it's more interesting to ask, 'how much context is necessary to talk about any person's pleasure/utility/happiness?' Is there non-contextual happiness or even happiness-as-a-state? If happiness is related to pleasure, I think your 'happiness' now has everything to do with your happiness yesterday. Since you got all those dorito packs yesterday, today you'd need an unbelievable quantity to 'have a good day.' Essentially, you've developed a tolerance for doritos, and by doritos I mean utility.

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