Lessons from Western Philosophers- Kant, Mill and Durkhiem

Kant Mill Durkhiem

Emile Durkheim, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant represent the thinkers of the modern age who, not only changed the fate of several social sciences but also, changed the human perception towards Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude. The insights that these thinkers made in the universe of ethics, is very useful and rich for the contemporary society.

So, let’s discuss some of the important ideas of these thinkers:

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Kant was a German philosopher. He is seen as a pioneer among the philosophers of the modern times. He wrote many important works, like- ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’; ‘Critique of Practical Reason’; and ‘Metaphysics of Morals’. The contribution of Kant lies in providing a universal framework of ethics, which, according to him, is acceptable everywhere, and everytime.

Autonomous Will

Kant made a distinction between the Phenomena (things as they appear), and the Noumena (Things-in-themselves). These two are the modes of representation of the whole existing reality. While the things that appear in the world are called the ‘Physical’; things in themselves (Noumena) are called the ‘Metaphysical’.

We can experience and realize the metaphysical reality only when our rational self has been realized by us. Metaphysical world can be realized through speculation, based on rationality. Kant believed that Morality is based on free will and reason. The freedom of will lies in the metaphysical world, and is the true source of morality.

Thus, the concept of free will is central to Kant’s ethics. Only a free will can determine the moral basis of an action. An action can be moral only if it is done through a free mind, without any external or internal constraints. This ability to act autonomously has been referred to, by Kant, as Free Will.

Categorical Imperative

Human nature is a victim of a constant struggle between various desires of the man (Subjective) and the dictates of the reason (Objective). Kant uses the term- Categorical Imperative– to refer to-

the command of our Rationality.

It is command that orders us to do something unconditionally. Kant links the principles of morality to the categorical imperative. These commands are absolutely binding on us. These are binding because it guides us about how to do an act.

Kant also discusses a Hypothetical Imperative’, which is different from the categorical imperative because the latter does not put any condition for the performance of an act. It is simply the voice of the reason, that guides us on the right path. It is unconditional, binding and objective. A hypothetical imperative, on the other hand, is conditional on something. For instance, ‘we must not hurt others’ is a categorical imperative; while ‘we must not hurt others because others might also hurt us’ is a hypothetical imperative, as it is conditional.

A categorical imperative does not depend on any external source for its authority. It’s objective and rational basis makes enough ground for the performance of that act. Objective imperative flows from true reason.

Thus, ethics of Kant are universal and objective. It is not culture specific. Since every human has a rational faculty, the scope of categorical imperative extends to the humanity. Whatever a rational and free individual does is moral. Actions that are done under compulsion and force are generally unethical.

A moral duty needs to be performed because it is based on nothing but, true reason.


Kant’s ideas are deontologist. He believes that human actions can either be absolutely right, or absolutely wrong. Kant does not judge the moral base of an action by its consequences. The moral worth of an act is determined by its rationality and moral motivation. Considerations of self-interest and other concerns, only make an act hypothetical.

Similarly, an act, done under compulsion, force or greed cannot be claimed to be moral. Moral acts does not depend upon any external explanation. These are done by the virtue of their being based on reason. Moral worth of an action comes from the volition that precedes our actions. The means or ends of an action are not the parameters of judging an action.

We more rational and free we are in doing our actions, the more moral we become. Thus, Kant implies that it is the intention behind an act that makes our acts moral or immoral. Hence, the attainment of the good/free will should be the main aspiration of the individuals.

Goodness is objective. It does not depend on our desire and needs. Good will becomes good only through willing. Inclination towards irrational things only make our actions immoral.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

Mill came as a make-over for the utilitarian tradition. He made a radical change in the utilitarian doctrine, by expanding its scope to the whole of humanity. He realized the shortcomings of the quantitative utilitarian ideas, and thus, asserted the need to incorporate the qualitative concerns, and the concerns about every single member of the community.

Mill clarified that not every pleasure is same. There exists a qualitative difference in different types of pleasures. Maximization of pleasure cannot be pursued mindlessly. It is highly unethical to infringe the rights of the others to maximize the good of the others. Mill said that-

‘Even if the whole of humanity minus one, were to have of one opinion, then that whole of humanity would be no more justified to shut the last person, than that single individual would be justified to do so’.

Another contribution of Mill lies in expounding the ideas of feminism. Mill believed that women are no less capable than the men. By restricting the mobility and development of the women, we only do wrong to the development of the society, as a whole. Thus, Mill introduced a modern idea to his contemporary society, and broadened the male-dominated understanding of the ethics.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

Durkheim was an eminent French sociologist, and was greatly influenced by natural sciences. He attempted to a rational/scientific explanation of the religion, in human society. He believed that society is above the individual beings, and has its own identity. For him, society is ‘sui generic’, that means, even though it is composed and constituted by the individual beings, it still possesses an identity that is over and above those individuals. Thus, society plays a directive role in guiding the conduct and beliefs of the individuals. ‘God’ is nothing but a creation of man, to explain the things that can be explained by the existing levels of knowledge.

He believed that religious rites and tradition are nothing but various instrument of the society to control and regulate the actions of man. Similarly, moral laws are nothing but society’s way of ensuring its stability and continuity. Thus, he explained the moral-ethical rules in a positivist way.

Human moral development is linked to the collective consciousness of the society. An act contrary to the collective consciousness is decried and outlawed.

Let’s Conclude

So, what can we conclude from the above info:

Kant: Every Human Being is endowed with a Rational faculty. It is this Rational faculty of the humans that decide the ethical aspects of one’s action. Our action are ethical if we follow the dictates of the reason (inner self).

Now, you might question that the dictates (voice) of reason could be misleading or selfish, but Kant believed that the dictates of the reason are based on the highest of principles, and thus, can never be unethical.

Mill: Mill was a prolific writer, and brought significant changes to the Utilitarian thought. He sidelined the whole stress from the quantitativeness of the utility (value) and introduced the qualitative aspect. Another aspect of Mill that makes him stand apart from the mainstream philosophers is the rational perspective on feminism and human liberty. To some level, Mill could be seen as the torchbearer of the minority rights groups.

Durkheim: Durkheim is one of the early sociologists, who gave an organised form to the discipline of Sociology. His contribution in Ethics lies in underlining the importance and authority of the society and social consciousness over the individual. Durkheim did all this while maintaining his positivist stand, and ruled out the presence of supernatural elements. He refined the study of ethics and introduced the responsibility of human actions in the society.

More Coming Soon…

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