Ethical Perspectives

March 2001

Kant and the Utilitarians

Tore Nordenstam


One of the standard manoeuvres in contemporary moral philosophy is to present Kant's ethics and utilitarianism as alternative ethical theories. New students learn that there are two main types of ethical theory, those which are consequence-based and those which are not. The first type is called teleological ethics, the second one is called deontological ethics. As typical examples of teleological ethical theories, one refers to classical utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) and such 20th-century developments as rule utilitarianism (R.B. Brandt and others) and preference utilitarianism (R.M. Hare). As typical examples of deontological ethical theorists, one refers to Immanuel Kant and W.D. Ross.

To illustrate and clarify the difference between teleological and deontological ethics, students are often submitted to exercises which ask for Kantian and utilitarian solutions to philosophical dilemmas of various sorts, drawn both from literary classics like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and from other sources. A typical example will run along the following lines. There is unrest in the population. The government authorities think that order can be restored if a certain person is condemned for things which he hasn't done.

But the people believe he is the culprit. Would it be morally right to sacrifice a human scapegoat in such a case? What would a utilitarian say to this, and what would a Kantian say? Usually, the exercises are presented in such a way that the students will tend to think that Kantians would always condemn punishing the innocent, whilst utilitarians might come to different conclusions, depending on how they estimate the long-term consequences of punishing the innocent.

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To  Ethical Perspectives 1/2001