Absolute Moral Rules
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One may believe that an absolute rule against killing humans is essential because killing is always evil and inhumane. Others believe that there are great exceptions to killing humans, such as self-defense, that need to be taken into account when making an absolute rule about killing humans. If someone tries to kill your family member or tries to kill you, should you stand there and die because you do not want to violate the absolute rule, even if your reason behind breaking the rule brings about more happiness and outweighs the consequences of breaking the rule? Immanuel Kant believes that good will, what he sees to be the ultimate intrinsic good, along with following the categorical imperative determine whether we are acting in the right way.
John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, believes that we should all think about the consequences of our actions, while also getting the most pleasure in all beings affected and the least amount of pain because of this action. Even though I agree with Immanuel Kant’s idea that humans should act according to the categorical imperative and that they should have good intentions behind their actions, I believe that John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian approach is better for society because utilitarianism states that the ultimate intrinsic good is happiness. Because exceptionless moral rules do not always follow the utilitarian approach, moral rules cannot exist due to the idea that humans should create the most happiness from their actions, while creating the least amount of pain.
In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant argues that humans should “act only on that maxim through which [they] can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, p. 542). According to Kant, the judgment of one’s action is his/her intention behind the action regardless of the consequences. The good will is human reason without consequences, without outside influences, such as emotions. In order for an act to be truly good, it needs to follow the categorical imperative. This imperative essentially states that one must do “such as such, period” (p. 542). This means that one must always abide by a certain rule, no matter the situation. This categorical imperative, according to Kant, creates the idea that we must do things that we would want to be universalized because it is our duty to act under this maxim. In other words, people must do to others what they would want done on themselves and the rest of society. However, Kant says that humans’ duty is to follow the absolute moral rules set for humans.
Since humans are moral and rational agents, they must follow these absolute rules established for them via the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative states that a moral rule must be universal, meaning that anyone at anytime can follow that rule. For example, if there were a rule that says it is bad to kill other human beings, everyone must follow this rule, no matter the circumstances (i.e. self-defense, etc). To follow these rules, a person must be rational because rationality rational beings are ends in themselves. In his Formula of the End in Itself, Kant argues that humans cannot treat others as merely a means to an end and humans cannot use each other to better themselves. As moral and rational people, humans must abide by the absolute rule. Humans must accept moral responsibility for their actions and are responsible for following the exceptionless rule. If humans obey the categorical imperative, humans will be obeying their duty and would be acting in good will- what Kant considers to be the intrinsic good.
The intention of the individual is the only thing that is examined and as long as the individual acts justly and with good will, he/she is following the categorical imperative, thus obeying the absolute moral rule. Let me go back to my initial question- can humans break an exceptionless moral rule prohibiting killing others if the they are acting out of self-defense or protecting someone in their family (like their children or spouse), or are exceptionless moral rules never to be broken? Kant argues that the right action is one that follows the categorical imperative, in this case, abiding by the moral rule not to kill anyone. Kant believes that no matter the circumstance, if humans violate the categorical imperative, and there are bad consequences, they are responsible for these consequences. If humans act under the categorical imperative and there are still bad consequences, they are not responsible because they abide by their duty- to follow the exceptionless moral rule. The only way to violate the moral rule is if the individual breaking the rule creates a new maxim, in which, for instance, it is always permissible to kill under self-defense. The issue with this new absolute rule is that by saying humans can kill in self-defense are the intentions of the humans good-willed or are their intentions faulty? Also, is killing under self-defense really going to bring
about a new universal maxim in which everyone can kill under self-defense, no matter the circumstance? It would be impossible to create this self-defense universal maim because creating this new maxim would just bring about new exceptions within that rule.
Utilitarians, on the other hand, go against Kant’s idea that there should be absolute moral rules. They believe that moral rules should be followed if the consequence for one’s action brings about the most happiness and the least amount of pain. In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill argues that morality is based on one’s consequences and that an individual must think about the consequences of his/her actions before he/she acts. The objective of utilitarianism is to achieve the greatest amount of good and happiness- what Mill considers the ultimate intrinsic good, for the greatest amount of people. Mill states that individuals can violate the absolute moral rules to make the greatest number of people happy and give the most amount of people pleasure.
Mill makes two different types of utilitarianism to distinguish between making rules to abide by and the decisions we make. Act utilitarianism states that the morally right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Rule utilitarianism states that a rule is morally correct based on the amount of good it brings about when it is followed. Both types agree that there should not be any exceptionless moral rules because exceptionless moral rules do not always bring about the greatest happiness and do not always take consequences into account. Happiness comes when you receive the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain. Mill believes that absolute rules can be broken as long as the consequences for the action cause the greatest amount of happiness. It does not matter whether the rule is exceptionless or not- all that matters is that breaking the rule benefits more people than not breaking the rule. Mill believes that human beings are born with the ability to think rationally, as well, but that humans are never satisfied with physical pleasures because they always seek more pleasure.
Let me go back to the initial example one more time- can humans violate an absolute moral rule if it were to bring about less pain and more happiness and pleasure, or must it always be followed? Killing, in self-defense, in this case, is not immoral or unjust because killing the criminal would benefit the individual and his/her child. This means that the greatest number of people find pleasure and happiness out of killing the individual, and the consequence of killing the criminal benefited two out of the three people involved. Yes, Kant would say that this is violating an exceptionless moral rule that humans should not kill other humans, but the circumstances called for the killing of the criminal.
I believe that absolute moral rules cannot be formulated and that they do not exist. Let us use the killing example one more time. There are no exceptions in this rule as it stands. Now if humans were to add exceptions to the rule, it would go like this- it is never right to kill unless acting in self-defense. The issue that arises is how would it be self-defense and is it absolutely necessary to kill someone out of self-defense. Yes if someone threatens another person’s life, it is perfectly normal to feel as if he/she should protect themselves, but what if the person threatening him/her has no weapon? Would it be moral for a person to kill someone else because they felt threatened- no. The exceptions have to depend on the context of the situation because how can humans judge the consequences, let alone the intentions of an action if they do not know the context behind the action?
Another example is that of the death penalty. Many people believe that the death penalty is moral and necessary, thus want an exceptionless rule making the death penalty moral. Now the rule discussed previously becomes “it is always wrong to kill, unless the individual deserves the death penalty.” Now the exceptionless rule does not sound solid because it sounds like this: “It is always wrong to kill, but sometimes it is not.” Now humans will have to base a judgment on the death penalty based on the context behind the action. Therefore, adding exceptions to an absolute moral rule creates an unstable rule, in which many people can violate.
Moreover, there is a criticism involving absolute moral rules that conflict.
What if you have the rule that says it is always wrong to kill and have another rule that says it is always wrong to lie. A murderer comes looking for your child and asks you where your child is- do you tell him where your child is (following the it is always wrong to lie rule but knowingly going against the it is always wrong to kill rule) or do you lie to the murder (following the it is always wrong to kill rule but violating the it is always wrong to lie rule)? The answer is neither, because you must choose one moral over another. This conflict between absolute rules makes it impossible to follow one rule without breaking another.
I believe that John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian approach is more beneficial to today’s society because it goes against the idea that there should be absolute moral rules. The consequences of one’s actions are what need to be examined, not the intention (what Kant argues to be the categorical imperative). The categorical imperative, although very ideal, makes it impossible for there to be a functional society, because even though it creates absolute moral rules, it makes people violate their personal morals. People must act under a universal maxim and must always have good intentions, while also having the right to ignore the consequences of their actions. Exceptionless moral rules cannot exist due to the idea that humans should create the most happiness from their actions, while creating the least amount of pain. Rules with exceptions instilled in them still violate human happiness and have the ability to create some pain, while taking away some pleasure. The only way absolute moral rules can exist is if we live in a society where everyone is born equal and everyone lives on an equal basis. Because we do not live in that kind of world, exceptionless moral rules cannot and do not exist, nor can they be created.