Kant and Mill on Ethics – Mortimer J. Adler

Adler briefly discusses Immanuel Kant & J.S. Mill on ethics, applies it to moral obligation, rights, the general welfare, and the pursuit of happiness.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Though the ethics of common sense is both teleological and deontological, it is primarily teleological because the totum bonum as ultimate end is its first principle and the object of the one basic moral obligation — the obligation to make a life that is really good as a whole. Every other good is a means to this end; every other moral obligation, either in regard to the goods one ought to seek for oneself or in regard to rights of others, derives from the one basic moral obligation that relates to the ultimate normative end of all our actions.

In order to be both teleological and deontological, and, more than that, in order properly to subordinate the deontological to the teleological, deriving categorical oughts from the consideration of end and means, an ethics must (a) affirm the primacy of the good and (b) distinguish between real and apparent goods.

That is why the ethics of Kant and of Mill only appear to be both, but under careful scrutiny are not. While Kant appears to be concerned with ends as well as duties, he makes duties — or the right, not the good — primary. And while Mill appears to be concerned with duties as well as with ends and means, his failure to recognize the distinction between real and apparent goods prevents him from making ends and means objects of categorical obligation.

It would be impossible for organized society to do justice by securing, both positively and negatively, the fundamental right of all its members — the right to the pursuit of happiness — unless happiness were a common good, a totum bonum that is the same for all men. Let it be, as Kant and Mill conceive it, nothing but the satisfaction of conscious desires, whatever they may be, without regard to the distinction between real and apparent goods; the variety of goals that men would then pursue in the name of happiness, many of them bringing individuals into serious conflict with one another, could not constitute all together the common objective of a government’s efforts to promote the general welfare. It would be under conflicting obligations that it could not discharge.

Only if happiness is the same for all men, and involves them in the pursuit of real goods that are common goods, does the pursuit of happiness not bring individuals into conflict with one another, and make it possible for a government to secure, equally, for each and every one of them, their natural rights.


Return to Mortimer J. Adler archive page.


Mortimer J. Adler archive courtesy of The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. Please visit The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas and them them for providing these great materials for your learning and enjoyment.


Policy on Intellectual Property Rights, Copyrights, & Free Use Citing Articles



Your comments