Kantian ethics and utilitarianism

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Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory is often considered the most important modern rival to utilitarianism. Both theories are products of the same era in that their foundations were laid during the final decades of the eighteenth century. Jeremy Bentham completed his manuscript of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780. It was published in 1789, shortly after Kant’s foundational ethical works, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which appeared in print in 1785, and the Critique of Practical Reason of 1788. A full statement of Kant’s legal and ethical theory, the Metaphysics of Morals, was to follow in 1797. Two facts about the emergence of Kantian and utilitarian ethics are particularly striking. First, while their proposals are (arguably) very different, Bentham and Kant are naturally understood as addressing the same philosophical question: What is the principle of morality, the highest standard of what human beings ought to do? Their candidates are the greatest happiness principle and the categorical imperative, respectively. Note that both moral theorists share an assumption that is by no means uncontroversial: that there is such a supreme principle. Second, even though both theories were developed during the same decade they emerged not only on opposite sides of the English Channel but completely independently of each other. Kant classified all other ethical theories known to him and dismissed them as incompatible with the autonomy of the human will, for him the only basis of an account of moral obligation, but he was oblivious of the existence of Bentham’s rival principle. Likewise, in developing his own ethical system, Bentham did not engage with Kant’s proposed categorical imperative.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Utilitarianism
EditorsBen Eggleston, Dale E. Miller
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139096737
ISBN (Print)9781107020139
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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