Threading the Needle Attempting a Synthesis of Kant and Mill

Josh Clark

*1st Place Winner of the Prestigious Bassen Prize*

“Three” by Pat McKeon art work

In March of 2003, the US military, at the direction of then-president George W. Bush, invaded Iraq. This invasion created many problems of a tactical and humanitarian nature, but for me, perhaps the most troubling difficulties it presented were of an ethical nature. For you see, I believe strongly that the invasion of Iraq is one of the defining moral failures of our time, and that neither Kantian nor Utilitarian Ethics, the dominant ethical systems of the western world, are able to seriously address the invasion’s moral consequences.

Immanuel Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, puts intention in a place of primacy, and applies a test of universality when evaluating the moral worth of actions … if the intentions of the moral agent are to obey his duty, and the general rule formed from his action (the maxim) can be applied universally, then the action is moral.

In a move certain to please the watching ghost of Kant, the invasion’s defenders have consistently cited President Bush’s intentions as a defense of the invasion … his purported intent, you see, was to free the people of Iraq from tyranny, and if the maxim we derive is “everyone ought to do everything in his power to free others from tyranny,” that certainly passes the universality test. Even if we examine Kant’s discussions of preemptive war specifically, we find refuge there for the invasion’s defenders, as Kant theorized that preemptive invasion of a lawless nation, one that positioned itself “in a state of nature” with other nations was permissible (Scruton).

Certainly, once the ethics of Kant have failed to sufficiently condemn the invasion of Iraq, it is worth asking whether Utilitarian ethics may be able to offer us an alternative that is more in line with our moral intuition. The answer, sadly, is “not really.”

John Stuart Mill’s ethical principles, as he articulated in Utilitarianism, are the mirrored opposite of Kantian Ethics. He sets the consequences of our actions as the guide to what is moral, and offers a more simple and instinctively appealing standard by which to judge actions than Kant’s ethics does: take actions which increase pleasure and reduce pain. The rule of Utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number. Surely, from this standpoint, we are able to say solidly that the invasion of Iraq was immoral?

Well … yes and no. Utilitarian ethics, from our standpoint, 6 years post-invasion, is able to condemn the invasion as leading to more suffering than happiness, but it is sadly unable to offer a similar condemnation from the pre-war standpoint, since the claims of the proponents of invasion at the time were essentially that this would not occur. A moral system that cannot provide a guide to behavior before the fact (or counsels one thing before the fact and another after) but only judge its rightness in hindsight seems to lack an essence of what we turn to moral philosophy for.

More troubling still, if through some fluke of fate, the invasion had produced good results, then Utilitarian ethics would judge it moral. This seems wrong to me, like hurling a knife, blindfolded, into a crowd. Even if that knife happens, against all odds, to somehow knock a gun from an unseen mugger’s hand, and even if the blindfolded performer predicted some good result beforehand, my mind the act remains immoral, for the great probability was that this would not have happened. As Aristotle wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics, just happening to do the right thing is not a moral act.

Mill’s condemnation, then, is weak, and Kant offers no condemnation at all … and yet to my mind, this invasion seems to have been clearly and obviously wrong, and any ethical system unable to address that seems to be lacking. But on what grounds do I call these ethical systems wrong? They are certainly internally consistent, so my objection seems to be that they do not lie in accord with my innate moral sense. My innate moral sense says that taking extremely serious risks that are unlikely to produce good results … even if you do it with the best of intentions, and even ifthat risk does, in fact, produce good results, is immoral.

Upon reflection, we can see that many of the historic objections to both Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism are similarly grounded in the innate moral sense, and that these objections are some of the most difficult to answer, since they say simply that the ethical system just doesn’t “feel” right or fair or just. Obviously, we might simply reject the intuitive moral sense as a reasonable source of objection. After all, saying “it feels wrong” is hardly a devastating logical broadside.

The difficulty, though, is that in rejecting the intuitive moral sense, we find that we are left with precious few grounds to discriminate between moral systems. There is the aforementioned internal consistency, but both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics can lay claim to that, or at the very least neither has a clear advantage over the other. One might appeal to consequences, and tend towards the ethical system that brings about the best results, but when comparing a deontological system to a consequentialist one, this seems to beg the question unfairly.

Furthermore, there is a practicality to take into account when discussing ethical systems … a sense in which we recognize that in order to be accepted and practiced, they must be both be both descriptive and prescriptive, attempting to recognize our inherent sense of fairness and morality as well as set out ordered procedures for ethical behavior beyond that. It’s as if we all have a moral code already and ethics has been trying to codify and describe it in a useful way. In fact, it seems plausible that any moral system, no matter how well argued, that habitually contradicts our instinctive sense of right and wrong is a moral system that will be soundly ignored.

My endeavor, then, will be to attempt to build a synthesis of Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism … one that rejects the all-or-nothing approach of both and recognizes the proper place of both intentions and outcomes in constructing a moral sense. Though the invasion of Iraq was my impetus for these moral considerations, it does not represent the ultimate goal, so though I will return to discussion of the question of invasion from time to time, my purpose is now an examination of the flaws in Kant’s deontology and Mill’s consequentialism and the construction of a moral system that does not contradict our innate moral sensibility.

First, we must address the question of intent. Positioning intent in a place of primary importance, as Kant does, can lead to some morally counterintuitive results. The classic example is Benjamin Constant’s “The Inquiring Murderer” (Observation Deck). In essence, an armed serial killer comes to your door, asking you where his next victim happens to be. You know his victim is inside your house, and you know that since the murderer is well-armed and violent, there’s no way for you to stop him from killing his victim if you tell him the truth. According to Kant’s categorical imperative, you ought to tell the truth, but it does not seem unreasonable to ask if a lie of this nature is justified if it prevents a murder.

Fascinatingly, we are spared the need to speculate as to Kant’s explanation, as this particular objection was actually raised during his lifetime, and thus he was able to address it himself, in his essay, “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives.” In this essay, he argues that, indeed, our interpretation of the categorical imperative is correct, and, “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency” (Kant). In other words … yes, tell the murderer where his victim is. Intention, it seems to me, is important primarily because it will tend to lead to positive outcomes. Kant places a good will as the only truly good thing, and I have no argument with him, as far as he goes, but his statement is incomplete. A good will is the only truly good thing simply because it is the only thing that can be relied upon to unerringly seek good consequences. The same is true of moral principles. I hold that there is no moral principle that might be held to be generally true that does not tend to lead to more desirable outcomes. Furthermore, there can be no generally held moral principles that tend to lead to undesirable outcomes.

In the construction of the categorical imperative, then, Kant embraces an intent that seeks good general consequences and embraces moral principles that seek good general consequences. It is unfortunate, then, that he finally refuses to pause when those same general moral principles lead to a negative specific consequence.

If Kant’s conception of the relative importance of intention is flawed, then Mill’s conception of the importance of consequence is no less so. I’ve already detailed some of the problems presented by his embrace of what amounts to “accidental” morality, but Mill’s conception of the importance of intent as relative to consequences seems muddled. He discusses the difference between intention and motive in footnote B to Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism, in which he makes it clear that saving a man from drowning in order to torture him cannot be considered a moral act, because the intention of the actor in that case is to commit torture, which is a bad consequence, increases pain, & etc (Mill, 18-19).

Motive, however, Mill calls irrelevant, since saving a man from drowning and restoring him to full health is a moral act whether you do it willingly, grudgingly, out of hope of reward, or with hate in your heart. It seems odd, then, that this moral act would turn immoral were the drowning man to turn out to be a murderer or tyrant of some sort, yet that is the natural consequence of Mill’s ethical philosophy. To him, seeking good general consequences is not enough if those good consequences turn bad through no fault of the actor. This seems intuitively unfair.

So taking into account that neither Utilitarian nor Kantian ethics seems to recognize at both intentions and consequences have value, our proposed rule for the synthesis of these two systems is: You are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. This accepts that the basic moral calculus for determining the rightness of actions is a utilitarian one, while recognizing that the consequences of an act can often be unpredictable. It credits the good intentions of the moral actor, which recognizing that intent only has worth in that it may lead to a worthwhile outcome. Moreover, it does what neither purely Kantian nor purely Utilitarian ethics does, in that it is able to soundly condemn the invasion of Iraq, and do so without countering our innate moral sense.

According to this rule, the invasion of Iraq was immoral, quite simply because the predictable consequences of invasion were not a flourishing western-style democracy. But rather precisely what we got … civil war, chaos, and ethnic strife. Now, the natural objection is that these consequences were not predictable (and indeed, honing the skill of judgment plays a large part in this moral system, which we’ll discuss later), but a May 2007 article by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post makes clear that the National Intelligence Council released two reports in early 2003, before the invasion, warning of ethnic civil war, and the probability that a US invasion would boost terrorism and attract religiously motivated foreign fighters to Iraq (Pincus). It’s clear that there were people … people within our government … who were making precisely the predictions that have turned out to be subsequently accurate.

The question, then, is how to determine what a predictable consequence is, before the fact. After all, Mill’s utilitarianism, unmodified, is perfectly capable of hindsight, so hindsight, however perfect, is not really an improvement. I think this, determining what is predictable and what is not, is where a more pragmatic approach to decision making comes in. The key is that under this ethical rule, there is a moral (rather than merely practical) obligation to engage with your critics, to recognize opposing evidence, and consider and address these factors in making decisions.

If critics and opposing evidence are not addressed, or are addressed in a slipshod or disingenuous manner, that is a moral failing, as their criticisms must be taken into account when considering the predictable consequences of an action. Taking seriously the possibility that you’re mistaken in your position, and addressing it, is crucial. However, through the repeated application of this process … prediction of future outcome, engagement with critics, consideration of opposing evidence, result … a sense of good judgment will naturally result over time, which is essential to making future predictions flow more smoothly.

Now, of course, Kant’s objection would be that this sort of case-by-case decision-making simply lends itself to a morality of convenience, changing what is right to fit your particular circumstance, while his ethics, by contrast offers simple, solid, consistent ethical rules. My response to this is twofold.

First, Kant is mistaken in believing that the simple consistency of ignoring circumstances is a virtue in ethics. H. L. Mencken said, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong" Ignoring circumstances in considering ethical dilemmas is neat, it’s plausible, and yes, it’s wrong. We would do well to recognize that ethical problems are hard. They’re difficult to puzzle out. Sometimes there are competing goods in play. Sometimes there is no good answer, and we must find the least bad. Hard cases exist. Attempting to solve all of this with one rule is like offering one equation to explain all of physics … tempting, certainly, but unlikely.

This is why adherents of this ethical system must build their sense of judgment. In any given situation there is a “best” answer, and it is immoral to accept a worse one out of what Emerson called “a foolish consistency”.

My second response is that Kant is mistaken in believing that the simple consistency of ignoring circumstances is even a virtue of his ethics. His categorical imperative is one simple, solid rule, certainly, but the situational quality of his ethics lies not in the categorical imperative, but in the formation of maxims. Kant wrote on the ethics of warfare, and so we know that he did not consider killing in wartime universally wrong. In The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, he explained that he considered killing in self defense to be justifiable as well, and that anyone who has committed murder must himself be put to death … yet what are each of these three if not circumstances surrounding the act of taking life? To call this taking of life “murder”, that taking of life “justice”, and a third taking of life “self defense” is to embrace the very situational ethics that Kant opposed.

The very same process can be applied to the inquiring murderer, of course. If the maxim is “lie to the murderer”, then lying is certainly not universifiable, but if the maxim is “protect the innocent from persecution?” Well, that’s another matter. Kant’s ethics are just as subject to situationalism as any, but since he believed that they were not, he did not account for how to handle it very well.

A second objection to this new ethical system is that there are many times when our moral intuition gives us contradictory or unclear guidelines. My moral intuition may tell me one thing, while yours tells you another. Isn’t it foolish to attempt to design a moral system that lies in accord with such capriciousness? Once again, I have two responses.

My first response is that, yes, there are issues in which moral intuition does not prove a flawless guide. Abortion is one. Some people find their moral intuition tells them it’s the moral equivalent of murder, others find that it untroubling. The presence of these hard cases doesn’t mean that they’re all hard cases, though. In the case of the inquiring murderer, for example, I think that there is fairly broad agreement among most people that protecting an innocent person from a violent death is morally superior to giving him up. The virtue of protecting an innocent life is more important than the virtue of telling a murderer the truth. This moral system tries to address the issues on which this broad agreement exists. We accept that there are hard cases, and try to offer guidelines to address them. Moral intuition is not clear about abortion, but that’s fine. We’ll be unclear about it.

Furthermore, recognition that there can be legitimately competing moral claims is a prerequisite for properly addressing them. The conflict that tends to arise from differing moral intuitions is a feature, not a bug. Examining abortion, once again, the moral intuition of many people leads them to value the life of the fetus over the bodily autonomy of the pregnant woman. Others value the woman’s bodily autonomy more. If we were dealing with a situation where either the life of the fetus or the woman’s bodily autonomy was instinctively more valuable to all people, we would run the risk of undervaluing the other. Most of our really hard-fought moral battles are not between good and evil, but between competing goods, and though there are times when one good must override another, that doesn’t mean that the lesser is “not a good.”

Indeed, one suspects that much of the historic argument with both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics comes from precisely this weighing of competing goods … the goods of intent and consequence. It is my sincere hope that by recognizing the inherent worth of both inasmuch as they both relate to the predictive aspect of an act, this age-old battle may find a final end, in a truce.

Featured Art 

  • “Three” by Pat McKeon

Works Cited