Why does Kant think a moral theory based on happiness is ‘the euthanasia of all morals’? Is he right?

For Kant, happiness and morality are two disparate notions that are often mistakenly observed as compounded. The failure to acknowledge the disunity of happiness and morality helms various problems within moral theory, ergo Kant seeks to cast further light on this distinction to prove his proposition that a moral theory based on happiness is the ‘euthanasia of all morals’.

I aim to demonstrate that Kant is right in this proposal by laying bare some problems with theories such as Utilitarianism and Aristotelianism, and expounding ways in which a Kantian approach is preferable.

Before addressing why Kant holds this view, it is important to understand what is being said through the term ‘happiness’ which, for Kant, can be understood in two ways; sensible, and intelligible. He defines sensible happiness as the ‘consciousness of the agreeableness of life’ (as cited in Wike, 1994, p.2), and sees this as the highest physical good (ibid). We are motivated to sensible happiness through inclination, such as a striving to feel pleasure through the satisfaction of desires. This form of happiness can be paralleled with the happiness of animals; we loosely call a dog happy if its desires for play and care are satisfied.

Alternatively, intelligible happiness, or ‘moral happiness’, is not conjoined with inclination, but reason; the capacity that diametrically opposes inclination, with a constant ‘will to power’ (Nietzsche 1998, p.11) between them. In the Metaphysics he says, ‘When the thinking man has triumphed over temptations to vice and is conscious of having done his often difficult duty, he finds himself in a state of satisfaction and peace of mind which can well be called happiness’ (as cited in Wike, 1994 p.14): quite clearly explicating moral happiness.

It is happiness in both of these senses that Kant seeks to distance from morality, for having either of these as the basis for morality will ‘leave moral principles up to…contingent circumstances’ (as cited in Guyer, 2007, p.7). Viz. morality could not be objective as Kant believed. It would not be applicable to all rational beings at all times, in all places, for it would be dependant at least on ‘contingent circumstances’. If this were the case there could be no such thing as the fundamental keystone of Kant’s moral theory; the objective Categorical Imperative (CI). And should the CI be true, Kant is justified in believing that theories such as Hedonism and Utilitarianism fail to ‘adequately distinguish between virtue and happiness’ (ibid, p.8). They fail to appreciate that ‘the maxims of virtue and those of one’s own happiness are entirely heterogeneous as regard their highest practical principle’ (ibid).

To explain, consider Utilitarianism and Epicureanism. Both theories have as their highest practical principle ‘happiness’. These theories are based on this happiness, and their ideas of what happiness is, invariably overlap, as Epicurean Eudaimonia runs rather parallel to Mill’s higher pleasures (Mill, 1863). As Mill said, ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’ (ibid. p.9). This equating of rightness and happiness produced is the key point which Kantian thought runs counter to. Similarly, an Epicurean quote relating to the virtues, that steadfastly opposes Kant’s own view is:

We should prize the honourable and the virtues…if they bring about pleasure. If they do not bring it about, we should bid them goodbye. (Athenaeus, 1999, p.666)

These ideas epitomize the view of moral theories that recruit happiness as their basis. However, the moral theory of Aristotle seeks to go further, by reconciling the virtues with happiness (or Eudaimonia). He says that ‘happiness then is the best…most pleasant thing’, and ‘happiness is the highest good, being a realization and perfect practice of virtue’ (Ross 2000, p.10).

In a sense, for Aristotle happiness or Eudaimonia is the ultimate end that we are striving toward, but this is not an end that can be achieved through the pleasure seeking motives of a Hedonist or Utilitarian. Aristotle’s attack on these types of theories is similar to Kant’s. Both philosophers believe pleasure should not be the motivating force behind moral actions, for this completely disregards duty and virtue, thereby removing what is commonly called ‘moral’ or ‘good’ from those actions. Take choosing to force a highly depressed person to take pleasure-inducing drugs, or imagine a doctor abandoning a comatose patient to take his children to a theme park. Both actions will result in more ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’, but will commonly be seen as the antithesis of what we call ‘moral’, for various reasons, from disregarding the depressed persons freedom and autonomy, to disregarding the doctor’s duty to help patients.

Thus far, as Kant and Aristotle show, the Hedonist can achieve a sensible, more animalistic happiness, but this in no way equates to a good, moral life, thereby pointing toward happiness and virtue/morality as separate. Aristotle’s solution is a more complex theory that seeks to once again reconcile these notions. For Aristotle, it is not pleasure and pain that is the motivating force behind morality. It is happiness. And happiness for Aristotle is much removed from merely hedonistic conceptions. It involves highly rational aspects, from the gradual becoming of a virtuous man through habituation, to good fortune (NE Book2).

For Aristotle, happiness is the highest end of our actions. It is the most unqualifiedly perfect thing we can attain, and ‘perfection [of man] is a…property which happiness much possess’ (Kenny, 1996, p.17), and perfection is something aligned with man’s function; ‘an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’ (1098a16). Thus, virtue is a necessary ingredient to our perfection and happiness. If virtuous action did not contribute toward happiness, it would not be recommended by Aristotle for it would serve no role in the Good Life as it would not contribute toward the ultimate end. Thus happiness and virtue are conjoined.

There is, however, a problem with this. Virtue, one of the primary basis for achieving happiness in Aristotle’s ethics, can be seen as quite unstable in his argument. Virtue stems from reason, which is the function of man. It is what makes man stand out from all other creatures. But if another creature could also reason, and had its function as acting virtuously, what would man’s function be? Via this thought experiment, the good life for man can be separated from virtue, as virtue is only related to the good life by coincidence, in that it is what separates us from all else. Thus it is not objective, because should we be in other circumstances, our function could be different, thereby changing the constituents of the Good Life; possibly removing virtue from its centre; something Kant greatly seeks to avoid, and contrary to the popular view that virtue does, and should always, play a role in morality; without this, morality loses its essence. In sum, Aristotle’s reconciliation of virtue and happiness seems to fail because happiness can still be seen as higher than, or independent of, virtue and morality.

To surmount this, Kant seeks to show the Moral Life as objective, that is, independent of any external circumstances as Aristotle’s theory is. Since happiness seems to be reliant on external conditions, in that luck plays a part, and that man’s function could change to remove virtue from happiness, it is more coherent to separate morality and happiness, thereby creating one objective notion (morality), and one dependant notion (happiness). Conflating the two unavoidably leads to both losing objectivity, as has been shown, thereby considerably reducing the force of any moral theory.

It is for these reasons that Kant is able to introduce the CI, irrespective of whether or not abiding by it directly increases happiness. The formulations of the CI provide us with laws by which to abide, that, should we do so, will maintain human freedom and autonomy; aspects of man that Kant held with especially high regard as it is through reason that we have the ability to be free.

By way of explanation, through merely chasing pleasures as the Hedonist proposes, all we are doing is enslaving ourselves to our sensual desires, leaving us on a par with animals. It is through using our reason, the capacity that pulls directly against desires, that we free ourselves from lower animal instincts and desires and enable ourselves to be truly autonomous; it is this that Kant encourages.

It is from here that many people misunderstand Kant, for there is no obvious connection with happiness. All we have is a rationally based set of rules by which we are told we should act to promote freedom and morality. Yet without addressing happiness at all, a moral theory seems somewhat empty. But through reading Kant’s texts, it is apparent that happiness does play an important role in his moral theory. What is important is that morality is not based on happiness. This in no way precludes happiness from playing a substantial roll in the theory, so long as the theory does not rest upon the attainment of this happiness, as this, as shown, euthanizes morals.

The way in which happiness is linked in with Kant’s Categorical Ethic is that he says ‘for practical reason to be indifferent to ends…would be a contradiction; for it would not determine the maxims of actions… and, consequently, would not be practical reason’ (as cited in Wike, 1994 p.63). ‘End’ for Kant means, ‘the material of the will’ (ibid. p.72). Viz. Rationality, the basis of Kantian morality, must take into account ends for it to be considered practical. If it does not, the theory will be too far removed from humanity, for we cannot be expected to constantly act in ways that pull contrary to our will.

Thus the reaching of these willed ends contributes toward ones happiness, because one wills to have ones desires satisfied. Therefore, so long as we abide by the CI, which adds the moral dimension to our lives, we are free to pursue the ends that lead to the happiness of oneself and those around us. This idea was built upon after Kant met Rousseau, who said that ‘obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom ‘ (Rousseau, 1968, p.65). In a Kantian sense, it is through our reason that we are able to lay down the law of the CI. Through this we are freed from blindly chasing desires and happiness, which for Kant is a higher state of being, thus liberating us to rationally pursue happiness.

In short, pursuing happiness is a rational activity. Actions must be rationally considered in light of the CI, and it seems this is Kant’s intellectual happiness, and more importantly this is what he sees as deserved happiness, for it is far from difficult for one to pursue happiness irrespective of morality, whereas pursuing happiness in line with morality is deserved and virtuous, and something one can appreciate as being a significant part of the ‘Good Life’.

Under this light, Kant’s theory seems preferable to Aristotle’s.

Firstly, for Aristotle, there is a single form of Eudaimonia/happiness that is the highest thing we can achieve; in the Ethics Aristotle defines this happiness extensively. However, he seems to overlook the variety in human character and desires by ascribing this single ultimate end to everyone. Kant recognises this and says that to impose a particular conception of happiness on citizens is for ‘the ruler to treat citizens as children, assuming that they are unable to understand what is truly useful or harmful to them’ (SEP, N.D). Kant accepts that people are varied, and people’s ideas of happiness are numerous, leading to incoherence, self-contradiction, and innumerable moral conflicts of interests should happiness be the basis for morality. Aristotle seems to have made a large blunder in tarring all of humanity with the same brush. Kant, more sympathetic to this variety, and in line with much common thought, believed the only universal principle of right is that;

‘Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law’ (as cited in SEP, N.D).

This enables Kant to promote the variety that often makes the world such a wonderful place, and to stifle this as Aristotle’s theory seems to is a great disadvantage that Kant evades.

Secondly, looking at the basis for Aristotle’s virtues, such as temperance and patience (NE Appendix1), it can be seen that the motivation for acting virtuously is the achievement of Eudaimonia. Loosely speaking, Aristotle would disagree with this. He held that an act was not virtuous unless it was done as an end in itself, and that pleasure is a consequence of virtue, not a reason for it. But, as mentioned previously, if these virtues in no way contribute toward Eudaimonia, Aristotle has no reason to promote them for they serve no real use in the Good Life, or in achieving the perfect end. If our function was not to act in accord with virtue, but in accord with scientific progress, we could label our lives ‘good’ without being virtuous, provided we advanced science. Along with this, the whole concept of the underlying motivation for acting virtuously being the achievement of some personal, ultimate end- Eudaimonia– seems largely self-centred, leaving one feeling uncomfortable with calling this prudence ‘morality’. These seem to be the main problems with Aristotle’s theory.

For Kant, however, these are less problematic, firstly, what is moral or virtuous in his theory is to abide by the ‘universal principle of right’, which is rational and non-changing, yet respects the variety in humankind, therefore is preferable to Aristotle’s stringent, single view of happiness. This gives us a solid framework by which to assess our actions.

The main question now facing Kant is why one should act morally. Aristotle’s problem was that his theory was motivated by a self-centred end, yet if basing morality on happiness removes what we commonly call ‘moral’ from the equation, removing happiness from its basis seems also to remove any obvious motivation for why we should act as such without introducing other self-regarding ends.

I believe Kant would answer thus. We are motivated to act morally out of a sense of moral duty (as opposed to a non-moral motivation such as happiness). For example, any respectable doctor will feel a sense of duty to help his patients. The motivation is not born of some desire to acquire happiness or pleasure from the act (although this may come about also), because a good/virtuous doctor is one who will treats patients out of duty even if this will be of detriment to his own happiness. Similarly, being a member of humankind, most people intuitively feel a sense of moral or social duty toward others. But just as though a doctor’s conduct must be regulated as not all doctors will act fundamentally out of duty, man’s conduct must also be regulated as not everyone will always act out of moral duty. What Kant has done is set forth this duty in a way that can be understood and that respects autonomy and freedom of others so that, looking at it from a distance, mankind as a whole will be more free to pursue personal ends. Kant has much respect and faith in human reason, and believes that, should we reason properly, we will come to understand and be motivated by these rationally based duties, and this is where moral motivation is borne and on what his moral theory is based.

In sum, the basis of Hedonist and Utilitarian theories seems problematic. Although they respect the variety within humankind, they do nothing about the conflicts of interests of different parties within society. Aristotelianism, on the other hand, is an attempt to bring in a nobler, virtuous ethic, but to a degree disregards the variety in humankind. Furthermore, all of these theories have as their motivating factor self-interested ends, leaving us questioning whether or not a person acting out of these motivations is truly moral. In response, I hope to have shown that a Kantian line of thought is preferable. Firstly, the motivation behind moral action is in no way self-interest, it is a sense of duty. Secondly, for Kant there is a firm set of rules that guide moral action which the other theories lack. Thirdly, these rules do not reduce human freedom. These rules are there to maintain freedom. Finally, this theory leaves much scope for people to pursue happiness, which is protected by the CI, thereby making a Kantian ethic more coherent than alternatives, in turn reintroducing true morality back into the picture, rather than a loose form of egoism.

Aristotle (2004) Nicomachean Ethics (Trans. J. A. K. Thomson), London: Penguin

Aristotle (2000), Nicomachean Ethics) (Trans W. D. Ross), Kindle Ebook

Athenaeus (1999) Deipnosophistae. In Algra, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J., Schofield, M., eds. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 642-675

Guyer, P (2007) Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, London: Continuum

Hill T (2002), Happiness and Human Flourishing in Human Welfare and Human Worth, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Kenny A (1996) Aristotle on the Perfect Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter 2, Perfection and Happiness (pp. 16-22)

Kant, I Critique of Practical Reason,[excerpts from coursepack]

Kant, I The Metaphysics of Morals, [excerpts from coursepack]

Mill J S (1863) Utilitarianism,, London: Parker, Son and Bourn

Nietzsche, F (1998) Beyond Good and Evil, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Pogge T (2007), Fundamental Interests versus Happiness in John Rawls, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rousseau J J (1968), The Social Contract (trans. Mourice Cranston), London: Penguin

Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (N.D) Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy. Available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-social-political/ [Accessed on 14.09.09]

Wike, V (1994) Kant on Happiness in Ethics, New York; State University of New York Press

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