Ethical Principles in Philosophy: Mill and Kant vs. The Golden Rule

Both Mill and Kant say that their ethics are essentially the same as the golden rule. Are they? Can they be the same? I will start off by declaring a few key terms relating to the topic. This leads to the first question: what are ethics? Stated in the Cambridge English Dictionary, ethics are ‘a system of accepted beliefs that control behaviour’ or ‘ the study of what is morally right and what is not.’ And moral, also stated in the Cambridge English Dictionary, is ‘relating to the standards of good or bad behaviour, fairness, honesty, etc. that each person believes in, rather than to laws’ or ‘ behaving in ways considered by most people to be correct and honest.’ Morals came before the law in existence to keep order in society with a goal to make living together a pleasant experience for the majority which makes ethics a very crucial quality for, ideally, everyone to possess as part of their character. How can so many people live together nicely without conflict? How should we behave in a way that is morally acceptable to everyone else and would lead to and keep society a pleasant living environment? This leads to the Golden Rule, the key action for maintaining peace in society for everyone to follow for the benefit of the majority. The Golden Rule, according to Powered by Oxford Dictionaries ), states ‘ a basic principle that should always be followed to ensure success in general or in a particular activity’ or a more familiar version in the subject of philosophy states, ‘ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Puka, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Theoretically speaking, if everyone agrees to the same perspectives as you do, there would be no more conflict of interests thus no more problems. If philosopher Immanual Kant and John Stuart Mill believes in their philosophy of ethics are the golden rule and should be treated as such, they are wrong. The ethics of Mill and Kant are not the same as the golden rule nor are they the same to each other due to the natural differences in method, and outcome.

The Greatest Happiness Principle vs. the Golden Rule

British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)was one of the most influential utilitarian with a mindset of a consequentialist. He weights action right and wrong based on the effects caused by the act. In the text Utilitarianism, the most detailed work on Ethics by Mill, he explains his original principles of Utilitarianism called the Greatest Happiness Principle with regards to moral justifications.

‘The Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure’ (Schefczyk, ‘John Stuart Mill: Ethics’).

The utilitarian perspective aims to create the most amount of pleasure and happiness as result. For instance, cheating (the example brought up during lecture) would be promoted in the perspective of the Greatest Happiness Principle as it would generate the most overall happiness. The view can be simplified by a mathematic visual representation:

cheating without being caught (the happiness of husband(1) + mistress(1))+wife(1) > not cheating( the happiness of husband(1) + wife (1) = 3>2 So, cheating is recommended to create the most happiness in the overall outcome.

With this method, if everyone were to cheat(if cheating were to always be done), then cheating becomes non-cheating thus rendering the idea of cheating non. How can happiness be accurately calculated if people are not able to measure their happiness, if happiness differs from person to person, or the bias to not just include the happiness of some people or things(Pecorino, ‘Utilitarianism’). This is a prime example of things wrong with taking this principle as the golden rule. The intention of utilitarianism can be said to be similar to the Golden Rule as they both want to bring in happiness. However, the part of the Greatest Principle that disregards moral correctness goes against the believes of the golden rule. The outcome of this would create more chaos between people with conflict of interest. For the example, if the wife were to find out or what if the wife deem cheating immoral? The relationship between people would disastrous making cohabitation difficult just like oil and water if everyone were to assume the utilitarian view of the Greatest Principle as their ‘golden rule.’

Categorical Imperatives vs. The Golden Rule

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) fathered Kantianism. In contrast to Mill’s Utilitarianism ethics lacking moral consideration, Kant’s deontological view is focused on moral. Kant weights action right and wrong based on moral duties fulfilled rather than outcome.

The first formula of Categorical Imperatives states, ‘act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Johnson, ‘ Kant’s Moral Philosophy’).

This philosophical idea is very similar to the Golden Rule in the aspect of having everyone follow the same rules of action and to do to others what you are willing to have everyone else do to you. However, the categorical imperatives cannot be applied to all situations. Kant views that certain actions deemed immoral, for example lying, would always be wrong in all situations regardless of what is taking place; and that if we were to lie, then lying becomes ‘permissible’ (California State University, ‘Kantian Ethics’). If everyone were to lie, then lying becomes not lying. Kant’s theory seems to describe how everyone is ought to behave making it a good rule for everyone to try to follow but it is not possible to be applied perfectly as not everyone have the same preferences on maxims. For example, a maxim to study hard to become a doctor, while nice to have, does not align to the will of every single person in the world. The Golden Rule says to act how you want others to act towards you. While similar on some rules, the premise of the method and outcome generated by the categorical imperatives deviates from that of the Golden Rule. It would be difficult to maintain morality if everyone were to assume Kantianism as their ‘golden rule’ despite efforts to address morality as focus.


Hence, Mill and Kant’s principles and the Golden Rule are naturally different. The Golden Rule, while simple and straight forward, was able to encompass the majority desire and increase cohabitation. Although all three philosophy hold similar intention of creating the most happy place in society, they all are of varying methods leading to varying directions of outcome. Not everyone have the same will nor measures of happiness with one another. Mill weights action based on the outcome of happiness disregarding moral while Kant weights actions on moral independent of the outcome in a situation. The principles are different in The ethics of philosopher Mill and Kant are not to be regarded the same as the golden rule nor as each other.

Work Cited

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