The meta-ethics of Kant, Mill and Moore directly address the question of what can goodness possibly mean. They therefore seek out, in this sense, from taking up the approach of meta-ethics to essentially argue whether this notion of goodness that makes any ethics possible is defined in itself, or rather, if such goodness is merely a consequence of our own ways living. To phrase it differently: do our conceptions of goodness mean that we determine what is good, or is there some type of objective goodness which does not vary according to our determinations? The first part of the question can be further more divided into two sub-categories. If our conceptions of goodness mean that we determine what is good, either such goodness varies across particular normativities of what it means to be good – this implies that human beings have varying conceptions of the good – or that there is a sense in which all our normativities, in so far as they are good, are necessarily good, meaning that we have an innate understanding of what goodness means. This differentiates from the second part of the question above, because such an idea of good now becomes either an innate part of the human being, in the first case, or, in the second case, something to which the human being must emulate because it is something that they cannot wholly understand, but nevertheless follow. The philosophers, Kant, Mill and Moore seem to follow this schema. Moore argues for the point that goodness essentially is dependent upon our normativities: what we consider to be normal is good. Mill, in contrast, suggests that our actions are innately good, because he is a utilitarianist, and therefore all our actions are inherently directed towards the good. Kant, however, argues that what is good is essentially not understandable by us, and therefore, there is simply a “categorical imperative” to follow this good that is the foundation of ethics. In the following paper, I will argue in favor of Kant’s position, based on the weaknesses of an ethical relativity that appears incisive for Moore’s position, and a failed understanding of the good in the case of utilitarianism and Mill. Kant, in contrast, gives us a transcendent, almost God-like good, which is beyond either relativity or the ethical desire for the good lying in the “means” of man.
Kant’s position on ethics seems to be consistent with his general philosophical system. Thus, Kant writes at the beginning of his work Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals the following: “if we attend to our experience of the behavior of human beings we meet frequent and, as we ourselves concede, just complaints that that no reliable example can be cited of the disposition to act from pure duty.” (4:406) In short, for Kant what is crucial is that we cannot formulate an ethics or understand how we should act by merely referring to human experience. This is clear because human experience shows just as many, if not more, non-ethical acts than ethical acts. Furthermore, experience, for Kant, in his greater philosophical system, does not provide any guarantor of truth, since he is not an empiricist – rather, we have to understand how is it possible for us to make rational knowledge claims and therefore we have to understand the conditions of possibility for empirically perceiving things. Kant takes much the same approach in his ethics: we have to forget the empirical question, which shows no given answer because of the variety of ways of human conducts, and instead ask the question: how is an ethical act even possible? For an ethical act to be possible, there must be some type of obligation that lies beyond us, that is not merely the product of our reasoning and our conventions. Kant is trying to combat ethical relativism: he does not want to say that ethics is merely the result of our own decisions, since this would mean individual interests or group interests would be asserted at the expense of others. There rather has to be an underlying ethical structure that informs our ways of acting, much like for Kant there is an underlying structure of rationality that does not vary from human being to human being. Therefore, to act ethically would be just like thinking rationally: it means following the rules and the duties of ethics and the duty, just like one follows the rules of rational discourse, for example. Unethical behavior is therefore the result of denying this underlying common structure, and trying to create one’s own example of what is good. With this definition, Kant avoids the pitfalls of an ethical relativism, as well as the notion that we think all our actions are necessarily good because they have some interest for us.
It is precisely these two pitfalls that are present in the theories of Mill and Moore. In the case of Mill, he argues for a meta-ethics based on utilitarianism. The centerpiece of Mill’s theory is a concept of “happiness”, which is consistent with an ethical notion of the good. Mill, however, defines this happiness as follows: “by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure…pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends.” (7) Now, therefore, all human beings naturally move towards this “utilitarian goal” of avoiding pain and accruing pleasure. However, the obvious objection here is as follows: what happens if one’s pleasure or pain is derivative of the opposite in another individual? This would mean that an ethical act for one individual is not an ethical act for another individual. To torture a terrorist may provide advantages of preventing a terrorist attack; yet the suspected terrorist is clearly harmed by this decision. Mill’s conception is simply put too individualist or too group focused to form a robust theory of ethics for a whole, and this nears him to an ethical relativism that fails to address the meta-ethical question of what is goodness or justice.
Moore on the other hand arguably develops a full-blown ethical relativism that ultimately undermines the possibility of any meta-ethics whatsoever. Whereas this ethical relativism is perhaps not explicit in his work, it does appear to surface upon a close interpretation. Consider, for example, Moore’s remarks from Principia Ethica: “it is plain that no moral law is self-evident…these judgments are not self-evident and cannot be taken as ethical premises, since, as has now been shown, they are capable of being confirmed or refuted by an investigation of causes and effects.” (90) Note here that Moore’s position is the exact opposite of Kant’s: it is the empirical judgment of reality that can ascertain what judgment is ethical or not, by investigating the causes and effects of a certain action. Why is this a relativism? Because the ethical act is now dependent upon how these causes and effects are interpreted. Consider, a political protestor who detonates a suicide bomb in the building of a corporation that wants to turn the poor slums where his family lives into an elite apartment complex, thus making them homeless. How can the causes and effects be determined? The political protestor, let us suggest, with this act forced the company to change its policy; but the protestor at once obviously killed many individuals. There are now two relativistic perspectives on this act, because Mill claims ethical acts are not self-evident.
In short, Kant gives us a way out of both relativism and a self-centered ethics because he locates the ethical dimension outside of human experience and life. This does not, however, mean that ethics has no bearing on life, but rather something that we must follow if we want to remain truly human. In this sense, Kant provides an account that is a robust meta-ethical account of what the individual should do in life.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Moore, G.E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1903.
Mill, J.S. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979.