Kant and Mill on the golden rule

Bill asked:

What is the philosophy that teaches:

‘Do what you like without impacting others’?

I heard of this theory recently but i would like to learn more about it. It seems like a better version of the biblical ‘Do unto others’.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

These are ostensibly two different principles, and not different versions of the same principle.

The first, ‘Do what you like without impacting others’ is a version of J.S. Mill’s Liberty Principle expounded in his book On Liberty (1869).

The second, ‘Do unto others as you would them do unto you’ is known as the Golden Rule, taken from the New Testament, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant noted that his Categorical Imperative — in the first formulation, ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’ — is an improved version of the idea underlying the Golden Rule beause it takes away any suggestion of a merely ’empirical’ motivation. Someone who just doesn’t care about what others ‘do unto them’ would be capable of any action, if the only rule governing ethics was the Golden Rule. It can’t be a merely empirical matter of fact, whether you ‘care’ or not. Reason alone determines the right action, according to Kant.

Mill was consciously adding to Kant, in enunciating his Liberty Principle. Mill is concerned with actions which we are tempted to do for the betterment of others. It is said that people don’t always know what is in their best interests, and in that case we have to make decisions for them — using the law, if necessary. This is the seemingly altruistic notion that Mill is concerned to contest.

On a possible reading of Kant, using the law to enforce behaviour which is in a person’s own best interests — for example, a law against marijuana, or a law which requires the wearing of seat belts — is consistent with the Categorical Imperative, but inconsistent with Mill’s Liberty Principle.

As is often the case in philosophy, things are not so simple. Mill stated in his essay Utilitarianism (1863) that he was following Kant’s idea of the Categorical Imperative in enunciating the Greatest Happiness Principle, and there is insufficient evidence that he fundamentally changed his view in the six years between the two essays. It could be argued that restricting another person’s freedom, even for benevolent motives, goes against the Categorical Imperative. On the other hand, it is not at all clear that examples like probibited drugs, or seat belts, are cases where people only hurt themselves. Drug use does impact non-drug users, and drivers or passengers injured because they didn’t wear seat belts divert the valuable resources of hospitals and medical services.

The key point for Mill is that individuality is an essential ingredient in human happiness, and must be protected at all costs, even at the price of allowing people to sometimes make bad judgements which cause harm to themselves. You can argue with someone, but you can’t physically interfere. A human being must be free to attempt ‘experiments in living’ as Mill calls it. It is in making a unique life for ourselves that we exercise our highest capacities.

For Kant, the most important thing about a human being is the faculty of
rationality. In another formulation of the Categorical Imperative, human beings ought to act ‘as law making members of the Kingdom of Ends’. The moral laws we live by are discovered by reason, and reason alone.

It could be argued that these ideas, when pursued to the limit, are inconsistent. If the capacity for reason alone constitutes the human essence, then we are all somehow ‘the same’. If our essence is individuality, then we are each of us uniquely different, and the better for it. But perhaps both can be true: for it is our very capacity to create an individual life that defines what all human beings — or indeed all rational beings — have in common.


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