Instigator / Pro

On balance, John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism is superior to Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative


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R1. Pro's Case; Con's Case
R2. Pro Rebuttal; Con Rebuttal
R3. Pro Rebuttal & Summary ; Con Rebuttal & Summary

- No "kritiks" -

Round 1
Mill’s utilitarianism is a teleological ethical theory (based on the probable outcome of actions), whereas Kant’s categorical imperative (CI) is a deontological theory (based on duty, independent of outcome) and both of them are normative ethical theories (concerned with what one ought to do). Mill adopted Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility, which states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”. Mill based the standard of morality on the principle of utility and argued that the rules and precepts of human conduct are to bring about a state of affairs that is “exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality” “to the whole sentient creation”, that is the entire community of beings that are able to perceive and experience subjectively.
Mill based the judgement of the quantity of pleasure on Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus whereby every action’s utility is judged based on the seven components of the calculus (intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity, purity, extent) and he made a distinction between higher (intellectual pleasures) and lower (bodily pleasures; pleasures of the senses) pleasures, he justified this distinction by arguing that “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites” and that “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures.” from which it follows that the typical intellectual pleasures of humans (such as poetry or debating) are superior to bodily pleasures that are also available to less complex animals (such as binge eating and playing simple games alone).
I believe this concise, yet hopefully coherent, explanation of Mill’s views to help the reader emphasize with the justification behind Mill’s beliefs. To make my case in this round, I will illustrate the application of utilitarianism to some issues and compare it in some cases with the application of the CI to showcase the areas in which I perceive utilitarianism to be superior to the CI and will leave the more direct criticisms of the CI for my second and third round till my opponent has presented his interpretation of the CI and made his case in favour of it. Lastly, before moving on to my case I shall emphasise a quote from Mill which succinctly illustrates his ethics:
“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Example 1 – Homosexual acts:
In the first part of his Metaphysics of Morals (independently published as “The Science of Right”) and in one of his transcribed lectures on ethics, Kant applies his categorical imperative to homosexuality to the following effect:
"Second among the crimina carnis contra naturam is intercourse sexus homogenii/ where the object of sexual inclination continues, indeed, to be human, but is changed since the sexual congress is not heterogeneous but homogeneous, i.e., when a woman satisfies her impulse on a woman, or a man on a man." [1]
"All crimina carnis contra naturam debase the human condition below that of the animal, and make man unworthy of his humanity; he then no longer deserves to be a person, and such conduct is the most ignoble and degraded that a man can engage in, with regard to the duties he has towards himself. Suicide is certainly the most dreadful thing that a man can do to himself, but is not so base and ignoble as these crimina carnis contra naturam which are the most contemptible acts a man can commit." [2]
- Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics
Kant argued that homosexual acts are a “crimina carnis contra naturam” (crimes of the flesh against nature) and that this is not only the most immoral and most contemptible act a man can possibly commit but that it also degrades a man below the level of animals and thereby removes his humanity.
John Stuart Mill on the other hand applied his utilitarianism to formulate the harm principle “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” by arguing that to judge which pleasures one prefers, one must be permitted to explore one’s pleasures to the freest extent as long as one is not actively interfering with another person’s rights and that because oneself is the person that is most interested in their own wellbeing, they are the most competent judge of what is pleasurable to themselves and thus Mill poses the question:
“Why then should tolerance, as far as the public sentiment is concerned, extend only to tastes and modes of life which extort acquiescence by the multitude of their adherents?” [3].
 - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Summary – Example 1:
Mill’s utilitarianism is superior to Kant’s CI as it encourages tolerance of other’s views and ‘unconventional’ lifestyles (such as homosexuality), while Kant judges homosexuals to be committing acts that are “the most contemptible a man can commit” and claims that this makes them unworthy of their humanity, which (judgmental attitudes and social stigma) according to a 2009 report by the American Psychological Association is a leading cause of mental health issues in homosexuals [4]. Thus, Mill’s utilitarianism is objectively better as its application leads to superior outcomes for society as a whole (as mental health issues are decreased) and is subjectively superior to the CI as it is consistent with our contemporary views that have developed over the past centuries, whereas the application of Kant’s CI would be judged by many to be cruel and morally flawed.
Example 2 – Lying:
Kant applied the CI to lying and as lying can not be universalised without entailing a logical contradiction (the purpose of lying, to mislead, becomes annulled if it is universalised and thus lying becomes pointless), it is our perfect duty to always, without exception, tell the truth.
“To be truthful (honest) in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency.” [5]
- Kant, The Supposed Right to Lie
According to Kant’s CI we would thus be compelled to tell the truth to an SS soldier that is enquiring whether we are aware of Anne Frank’s location and if we were being held hostage by terrorists and we had just called the police, we would be obliged to tell the terrorists the truth if they asked us whether we have called the police.
On the other hand, when Mill’s utilitarianism is applied to lying, we find that there are certain exceptions:

“Yet even this rule [to not deviate from truth], sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions, is acknowledged by all moralists; the chief of which is when the withholding of some fact … would preserve some one from great and unmerited evil, and when the withholding can only be effected
by denial.”
- Mill, On Liberty
An application of Mill’s utilitarianism would thus permit lying when an SS soldier asked us whether we are aware of Anne Frank’s location or when a terrorist asked us whether we have called the police.
Summary – Example 2:
While Kant’s CI when applied to lying leads to the conclusion that it is always, without exception, wrong, Mill’s utilitarianism when applied to lying prohibits it in most circumstances, except for those were greater good would be expected if one were to tell a lie. This shows that Mill’s utilitarianism is objectively superior to Kant’s CI as it would be better for society as a whole if exceptions for lying were made (e.g. our hypothetical Anne Frank would have had a much greater chance of survival) and Mill’s utilitarianism is also subjectively superior as most people would feel morally responsible if they actively helped someone do evil (as in the Anne Frank example).

- All references to Bentham refer to information from his book “The Principles of Morals and Legislation” (1789) and all references to Mill refer to his work "Utilitarianism" (1861), unless otherwise specified.

“A building is only as strong as its foundation”
This same truth applies to moral systems, with Mill’s Utilitarianism being founded upon happiness, an emotion vulnerable to change. An action that causes happiness to a person can later make the same person sad, the same is true with an action that causes sadness later making the same person happy. Current suffering can lead to future gain, current bliss can lead to regret, or the opposite could be true, both suffering and bliss can be sustained long term. Mill states that a moral act should be “exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality” (“to the whole of sentient creation”). Happiness, both in quantity and quality, changes with time, so it is not possible to to base an action on the quantity and quality of happiness produced because the quantity and quality of happiness cannot be known.  

“As critical as consciousness is to being human, the vast majority of what the brain does is accomplished through unconscious processes that often affect the course this consciousness will take. This has been a major theme of neuroscience and of this chapter. According to Gazzaniga (1998a) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999), more than 95% of what the brain does is below consciousness and shapes conscious thought. “ -(The Neuroscience of Emotion.) This 95% of what the brain does includes emotion, happiness being one of them, making what makes people happy to be unknown.

At best, one can make an educated guess of what action will make oneself happy, but even this can’t be known until the action is already done. This unknown is applied to the individual level, and only magnified when applied “to the whole of sentient creation.” It’s impossible to know the quality and quantity of happiness that an act will produce to everyone because even at an individual level it cannot be known. This makes utilitarianism, as proposed by Mill, more of a guideline to consider the consequences of one’s actions rather than a moral law that can be truly followed, due to the quality and quantity of happiness of an action being unknown throughout.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative, however, has a solid foundation and thus can be followed, its 4 main components are:
  1. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
  2. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
  3. “Thus the third practical principle follows [from the first two] as the ultimate condition of their harmony with practical reason: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will.”
  4. “Act according to maxims of a universally legislating member of a merely possible kingdom of ends”
At its most basic, Kant’s CI is stating to abide by a moral obligation no matter the time, place,or situation, and to treat people as ends, not means. It is possible, (even if difficult) to both abide by a moral principle and to treat people as ends. Since the tenants of Kant’s CI are achievable, it is a sound moral system on its own merits, while Mill’s Utilitarianism is unsound due to the unknowns of happiness production via an action. Utilitarianism is based on what is unknown, the Categorical Imperative is based on what is achievable. Because of this unknown of happiness, Utilitarianism cannot be truly followed, thus it is not superior to the Categorical Imperative.

Sources: CHAPTER 2 The Neuroscience of Emotions DAVID D . FRANKS
The Neuroscience of Emotions - Springer

Round 2

My opponent’s main and sole criticism of Mill’s utilitarianism is that utilitarianism
can not be followed as it is impossible to know whether an action will result in happiness:
“the quantity and quality of happiness cannot be known.”
“Because of this unknown of happiness, Utilitarianism cannot be truly followed, thus it is not superior to the Categorical Imperative. “
- Con, Round 1
However, my opponent has to consider that Mill provided several methods for determining the expected outcome of an action, such as the hedonic calculus (every action’s utility is judged based on the seven components of the calculus: intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity, purity, extent) which can be applied to judge whether an action can be justified. In his book The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill applied the hedonic calculus to whether women should be given the right to stand as Members of Parliament in the UK and found that the possible intensity would be significant as there would "a real loss" if a qualified woman would not gain the chance to become a MP, that the duration would be long-lasting as the changes to the law and politics that a woman could make would be significant long after her death, it is quite certain that there are qualified women that could become MPs as there seems to be no basis for assuming that women are born inherently incapable of being valuable MPs, permitting women to stand as MPs could have positive effects right after the next election and is thus moderately remote, permitting MP would not only prevent injustice towards women but could also lead to an abundance of future positive outcomes through the female MPs' actions and a general reduction in sexism, it would furthermore be quite pure as Mill argued that "If only once in a dozen years the conditions of eligibility exclude a fit person, there is a real loss, while the exclusion of thousands of unfit persons is no gain..." and the extent would, at the very least, be half of Britain (the entire female population), presumably all of Britain (as the whole British society would benefit from additional competent MPs) and perhaps even people beyond Britain (as the British political influence goes beyond its own border). Mill, therefore, applied the hedonic calculus to whether women should be permitted to stand as MPs and found that there is a strong justification for permitting women to stand as MPs as the expected outcome seemed to be good, which shows that it is not impossible to apply Mill's utilitarianism.

Mill furthermore argued that humanity has overtime gained experience about which actions tend to promote happiness and which do the opposite and praised Jesus' teachings which are examples of the application of utilitarianism:
"...mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better."
-Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism (Kindle Locations 391-393). Kindle Edition.

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Con claims that utilitarianism can not be followed as it is impossible to know which action will produce happiness and which will produce the opposite, Con thereby ignores that Mill maintained that one should carry out the action that is expected to result in the best outcome and that Bentham's hedonic calculus, human experience and to a certain extent the golden rule can all aid in determining which action is expected to have the best outcome, thereby Con's sole criticism has been shown to be unsound as it is based on the flawed premise that it is impossible to determine which action one should perform.

Hegel's and Mill's criticism:
I have already shown two examples (lying to save an innocent person and homosexuality) where the CI leads to conclusions that seem subjectively wrong to many and decrease human flourishing and well-being, the Australian Philosopher Peter Singer presented two further criticisms (which were originally conceived by Georg Hegel) that highlight the flaws of Kant's CI:
  • Hegel argued that charity towards the poor is not universalisable, as if everyone helped the poor, there would be no poor left to help, which would make charity towards the poor impossible and thereby according to Kant's CI immoral.
The rule that there should be no private property contains of itself no contradiction, nor does the proposition that this or that particular nation or family should not exist, or that no one should live at all. Only if it is really fixed and assumed that private property and human life should exist and be respected, is it a contradiction to commit theft or murder.
- Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (1820), Sect. 135 [1]

But when he [Kant] begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism (Kindle Locations 64-67). Kindle Edition.
  • Furthermore, Hegel recognised that the universalisation of lying would entail a logical contradiction and that it is thus our duty to never lie according to the CI but Hegel also pointed out that murder would not entail a logical contradiction, merely what Kant referred to as a "contradiction of the will" which reduces down to an action (such as murder) contradicting our will (e.g. the desire to remain alive and to not have friends/family die). Mill also recognised this and pointed out that Kant's contradictions of the will, are not objective anymore but rather subjective (as they are dependent on the will of the people) and thereby, Mill argued, Kant had to appeal to utilitarianism to explain why certain actions (e.g. murder) are wrong. The actions that the CI alone can explain to be wrong, such as lying which Kant argues to always be wrong, however pose other problems (e.g. Anne Frank example in round 1). Kant's presumption that the CI is entirely objective is a limitation of the CI, as it means that it can not evolve, reform and adapt to progressive values. Mill, for example, was one of the first influential philosophers to argue, based on his utilitarianism, for progressive values such as the right of women to vote, perfect equality [of opportunity] between the sexes, animal rights, the right of thought an expression, etc., while Kant maintained that women are not fit for serious employment [2], are inferior in reason to men [2] and act virtuously, not because they recognise the morality of their actions but merely because moral actions seem more beautiful to them [2].

- John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869)
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1859)
- Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (1983)

"However, my opponent has to consider that Mill provided several methods for determining the expected outcome of an action"

Central to Pro's defense of Utilitarianism is the expected outcome of what will produce the most happiness. Expectations are only that, what is expected to happen, and what's expected to happen often does not happen, there's a disconnect between what is expected to happen and what actually does happen. 

 “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
"Con thereby ignores that Mill maintained that one should carry out the action that is expected to result in the best outcome "

These two measurements of morality, that what is moral should be defined by what produces happiness and one should act based on what is expected to produce happiness is contradictory when what expected to cause happiness causes unhappiness. The action would be immoral on the basis of producing unhappiness despite the happiness expected from the action, which is also a measurement of morality, a measurement of morality that in this case, is contradictory to the first. This contradiction between expected outcome and actual outcome of happiness makes Pro's defense invalid. Since Pro's defense is invalid, the argument that utilitarianism cannot be truly followed because of the unknown of happiness is still sound, because it is still based on an expectation of happiness that can be wrong.
Round 3
My opponent's argument seems to be that Mill judges actions retrospectively based on whether they have produced happiness or not and that therefore the expected outcome of an action can not be an adequate judge of the morality of an action as it could promote unhappiness which should thus according to his understanding of Mill's utilitarianism be immoral rather than moral even though the expected outcome may have been positive:
"These two measurements of morality, that what is moral should be defined by what produces happiness and one should act based on what is expected to produce happiness is contradictory when what expected to cause happiness causes unhappiness."
-Con, round 2

Interestingly, the quote from Mill that Con uses to support his assertion that according to Mill "that what is moral should be defined by what produces happiness" directly contradicts his understanding of Mill's position as Mill clearly states that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness".
“actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
-The quote that Con claims supports his understanding of Mill's utilitarianism.
Mill thus clearly states that the morality of an action is to be judged based on whether the action is expected to have a positive outcome, or a negative one.

This evidently shows that Mill's utilitarianism is dependent on the tendency of actions, rather than the outcomes which tend to be as Con pointed out not perfectly determinable beforehand. G. E. Moore in his work "Principia Ethica" described such an ethical law as having the nature of a scientific prediction, rather than a scientific law. Con's so far only criticism of utilitarianism is therefore based on a misconception and misrepresentation of Mill's utilitarianism and therefore his criticism is unsuccessful. Consequently, Mill's utilitarianism stands uncontested, and will hopefully not be flooded with further criticisms that I cannot respond to in Con's final round, in contrast to Kant's CI which has been extensively criticised by myself in rounds 1 and 2 (e.g. appeal to it producing actions that reduce human flourishing in the cases of my hypothetical Anne Frank or homosexuality, Hegel's criticism that according to the CI charity would be immoral and Hegel's and Mill's criticisms of the subjectivity of the contradictions of the will of the CI which Kant abused to justify homophobia and sexism, whereas Mill's utilitarianism provided a sound basis for much of modern political philosophy, gender equality and tolerance.), all of which Con has dropped by not offering a single sentence in defence of the CI. Therefore, I believe to have shown that on balance, Mill's utilitarianism is superior to Kant's categorical imperative.

Thank you for having this enjoyable debate with me Con and thank you to those who have read this debate and especially to those who have voted. 


The basis for Pro's case is that Utilitarianism is a scientific predication of what will produce happiness. This is hardly a strong foundation for a moral system, as there is no guarantee that such a predication will come true and produce happiness and what makes happiness is ultimately built on subjective experiences and personal bias, hardly scientific at all. This reduction of outcome to predication of outcome of happiness compromises the foundation of Utilitarianism, reducing it to a guessing game of what makes people happy rather than a solid moral system. Never once I have argued that CL is superior to Utilitarianism, just that Utilitarianism is not superior to Cl. At least Cl can be followed on principle, while Utilitarianism's prediction of outcome can contradict the actual outcome, therefore, Utilitarianism is not superior to to the Categorical Imperative.