ARISTOTLE, KANT AND MILL:
                             CLASSIC SELECTIONS ON ETHICS

                                       Supplemental Texts:
                                      Aristotle, Kant and Mill

Since the invention of writing, there have been literally thousands of books composed on the
subject of ethics, and among these a few hold an especially honored position among philosophers
today. At the top of the list are Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (384–322 BCE), The
Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Utilitarianism
by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). They are original, insightful, and, most importantly, forged the
three dominant traditions of ethical theory that we follow today, namely, virtue theory,
deontological ethics and utilitarianism. This textbook, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, has
a chapter devoted to each of these theories and makes regular reference to Aristotle, Kant and
Mill throughout the others.
         Virtue theory, in a nutshell, is that morality involves the acquiring of good character traits
which produces virtuous people who act out of spontaneous goodness. Aristotle‘s work on this
subject, Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BCE), was named after his son Nicomachus who may have
assembled the text from Aristotle‘s lecture notes. Key to Aristotle‘s theory is that morality is
intimately linked with our purpose and function as human beings. To be truly happy, we must
cultivate and follow the rational component of our psyches, which elevates us above the animals.
One aspect of human rationality is practical wisdom, namely, the ability to devise the best way to
restrain and redirect our basic desires and appetites, such as pleasure, anger, and fear. Through
the exercise of our practical wisdom in response to our desires, we develop good habits—that is,
virtues. For Aristotle, virtues lie at a mean between two more extreme vices. For example,
courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness.
         Deontological theories of ethics hold that certain features of moral actions themselves
have intrinsic value, and we intuitively recognize our duty to act morally. In The Foundations of
the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant argues that we have one fundamental moral duty,
namely, the categorical imperative: ―Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the
same time will that it would become a universal law‖. According to Kant, there are several ways
that we can formulate this principle, one of which is called the formula of the law of nature: ―Act
as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature.‖ This
tells us to take a particular action, interpret it as a general maxim, and then see if it can be willed
consistently as a law of nature. If it can be willed consistently, then the action is moral. If not,
then it is immoral.
         Utilitarianism is the view that morally right actions are those that tend to produce the best
overall consequences. Actions do not themselves have intrinsic value, and we have no instinctive
moral duty such as the categorical imperative. Instead, according to utilitarians, the center of
value is the outcome or consequences of the act; if the consequences are on balance positive,
then the action is right; if negative, then wrong. In his book Utilitarianism (1861), Mill defended
a particular version of this view called hedonistic utilitarianism, which holds that pleasure is the
only intrinsic positive value and pain is the only negative intrinsic value. Thus, actions are
deemed right or wrong based on the balance of pleasing and painful consequences that result. In
Mill‘s words, ―Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they
tend to produce the reverse of happiness.‖ Mill makes an important distinction between higher

intellectual pleasures of the mind, and lower sensual pleasures of the body. Mental pleasures are
qualitatively superior to bodily ones, and thus have more importance when assessing the
consequences of our actions.
        The full texts by Aristotle, Kant and Mill total around 400 pages, and thus cannot be
conveniently included here in their complete form. However, the most influential chapters of the
three books are reprinted below: selections from Chapters 1 and 2 of Nicomachean Ethics,
selections from Parts 1 and 2 of The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, and selections
from Part 1 and 2 of Utilitarianism. College instructors who wish to include different selections
by Aristotle, Kant, Mill—as well as texts by a wealth of other ethical philosophers—have the
opportunity to customize their own supplemental readings to Ethics: Discovering Right and
Wrong. Please see for more information.

James Fieser




Happiness is something which is both precious and final. This seems to be so because it is a first
principle or ultimate starting point. For, it is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else,
and we regard the cause of all good things to be precious and divine. Moreover, since happiness
is an activity of the soul in accordance with complete or perfect virtue, it is necessary to consider
virtue, as this will be the best way of studying happiness.
        It appears that virtue is the object upon which the true statesman has expended the largest
amount of trouble, as it is his wish to make the citizens virtuous and obedient to the laws. We
have instances of such statesmen in the legislators of Crete and Sparta and such other legislators
as have resembled them. But if this inquiry is proper to political science, it will clearly accord
with our original purpose to pursue it. But it is clear that it is human virtue which we have to
consider; for the good of which we are in search is, as we said, human good, and the happiness,
human happiness. By human virtue or excellence we mean not that of the body, but that of the
soul, and by happiness we mean an activity of the soul.
        If this is so, it is clearly necessary for statesmen to have some knowledge of the nature of
the soul, in the same way as it is necessary for one who is to treat the eye or any part of the body
to have some knowledge of it, and all the more as political science is better and more honorable
than medical science. Clever doctors take a great deal of trouble to understand the body, and
similarly the statesman must make a study of the soul. But he must study it with a view to his
particular object and so far only as his object requires; for to elaborate the study of it further
would, I think, be to aggravate unduly the labor of our present undertaking.

Virtue and the Divisions of the Soul
There are some facts concerning the soul which are adequately stated in popular discourses, and
these we may rightly adopt. It is stated, for example, that the soul has two parts, one irrational
and the other possessing reason. But whether these parts are distinguished like the parts of the

body and like everything that is itself divisible, or whether they are theoretically distinct, but in
fact inseparable, as convex and concave in the circumference of a circle, is of no importance to
the present inquiry.
         Again, it seems that of the irrational part of the soul one part is common, that is, shared
by man with all living things, and vegetative; I mean the part which is the cause of nutrition and
increase. For we may assume such a faculty of the soul to exist in all things that receive nutrition,
even in embryos, and the same faculty to exist in things that are full grown, as it is more
reasonable to suppose that it is the same faculty than that it is different. It is clear then that the
virtue or excellence of this faculty is not distinctively human but is shared by man with all living
things; for it seems that this part and this faculty are especially active in sleep, whereas good and
bad people are never so little distinguishable as in sleep—from which we get the saying that
there is no difference between the happy and the miserable during half their lifetime. And this is
only natural; for sleep is an inactivity of the soul in respect of its virtue or vice, except in so far
as certain impulses affect it to a slight extent, and make the visions of the virtuous better than
those of ordinary people. But enough has been said on this point, and we must now leave the
principle of nutrition, as it possesses no natural share in human virtue.
         It seems that there is another natural principle of the soul which is irrational and yet in a
sense partakes of reason. For in a continent or incontinent person we praise the reason, and that
part of the soul which possesses reason, as it exhorts men rightly and exhorts them to the best
conduct. But it is clear that there is in them another principle which is naturally different from
reason and fights and contends against reason. For just as the paralyzed parts of the body, when
we intend to move them to the right, are drawn away in a contrary direction to the left, so it is
with the soul; the impulses of incontinent people run counter to reason. But there is this
difference, however, that while in the body we see the part which is drawn astray, in the soul we
do not see it. But it is probably right to suppose with equal certainty that there is also something
in the soul that is different from reason, which opposes and thwarts it, although the sense in
which it is distinct from reason is immaterial. But it appears that this part too partakes of reason,
as we said; at all events in a continent person it obeys reason, while in a temperate or courageous
person it is probably still more obedient, as being absolutely harmonious with reason.
         It appears, then, that the irrational part of the soul is itself twofold; for the vegetative
faculty does not participate at all in reason, but the faculty of desire or general concupiscence
participates in it more or less, in so far as it is submissive and obedient to reason. But it is
obedient in the sense in which we speak of ―paying attention to a father‖ or ―to friends,‖ but not
in the sense in which we speak of ―paying attention to mathematics.‖ All correction, rebuke and
exhortation is a witness that the irrational part of the soul is in a sense subject to the influence of
reason. But if we are to say that this part too possesses reason, then the part which possesses
reason will have two divisions, one possessing reason absolutely and in itself, the other listening
to it as a child listens to its father.
         Virtue or excellence, again, admits of a distinction which depends on this difference. For
we speak of some virtues as intellectual and of others as moral -- wisdom, intelligence and
prudence, being intellectual virtues, liberality and temperance being moral virtues. For when we
describe a person‘s character, we do not say that he is wise or intelligent but that he is gentle or
temperate. Yet we also praise a wise man in respect of his mental state, and such mental states as
deserve to be praised we call virtuous.

Virtues Are Acquired

Virtue or excellence being twofold (partly intellectual and partly moral) intellectual virtue is both
originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it therefore demands experience and time. Moral
virtue on the other hand is the outcome of habit, and accordingly its name is derived by a slight
deflection of habit. From this fact it is clear that no moral virtue is implanted in us by nature; a
law of nature cannot be altered by habituation. Thus, a stone naturally tends to fall downwards,
and it cannot be habituated or trained to rise upwards, even if we were to habituate it by throwing
it upwards ten thousand times. Nor again can fire be trained to sink downwards, nor anything
else that follows one natural law be habituated or trained to follow another. It is neither by nature
then nor in defiance of nature that virtues are implanted in us. Nature gives us the capacity of
receiving them, and that capacity is perfected by habit.
         Again, if we take the various natural powers which belong to us, we first acquire the
proper faculties and afterwards display the activities. It is clearly so with the senses. It was not
by seeing frequently or hearing frequently that we acquired the senses of seeing or hearing. On
the contrary it was because we possessed the senses that we made use of them, not by making
use of them that we obtained them. But the virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as is the
case with all the arts, for it is by doing what we ought to do when we have learnt the arts that we
learn the arts themselves; we become, for example, builders by building and harpists by playing
the harp. Similarly it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we
become temperate, by doing courageous acts that we become courageous. The experience of
states is a witness to this truth, for it is by training the habits that legislators make the citizens
good. This is the object which all legislators have at heart. If a legislator does not succeed in it,
he fails of his purpose, and it constitutes the distinction between a good polity and a bad one.
         Again, the causes and means by which any virtue is produced and by which it is
destroyed are the same; and it is equally so with any art; for it is by playing the harp that both
good and bad harpists are produced and the case of builders and all other artisans is similar, as it
is by building well that they will be good builders and by building badly that they will be bad
builders. If it were not so, there would be no need of anybody to teach them; they would all be
born good or bad in their several trades. The case of the virtues is the same. It is by acting in
such transactions as take place between man and man that we become either just or unjust. It is
by acting in the face of danger and by habituating ourselves to fear or courage that we become
either cowardly or courageous. It is much the same with our desires and angry passions. Some
people become temperate and gentle, others become licentious and passionate according as they
conduct themselves in one way or another way in particular circumstances. In a word character
traits are the results of activities corresponding to the character traits themselves. It is our duty
therefore to give a certain character to the activities, as the character traits depend upon the
differences of the activities. Accordingly, the difference between one training of the habits and
another from early days is not a light matter, but is serious and all-important.

The Study of Virtue
Our present study is not, like other studies, purely speculative in its intention. For the object of
our inquiry is not to know the nature of virtue but to become ourselves virtuous, as that is the
sole benefit which it conveys. It is necessary therefore to consider the right way of performing
actions, for it is actions as we have said that determine the character of the resulting character
        That we should act in accordance with right reason is a common general principle, which
may here be taken for granted. The nature of right reason, and its relation to the virtues generally,

will be subjects of discussion hereafter. But we must admit at the outset that all reasoning upon
practical matters must be like a sketch in outline, it cannot be scientifically exact. We began by
laying down the principle that the kind of reasoning demanded in any subject must be such as the
subject matter itself allows; and questions of practice and expediency no more admit of
invariable rules than questions of health.
         But if this is true of general reasoning upon ethics, it is still more true that scientific
exactitude is impossible in reasoning upon particular ethical cases. They do not fall under any art
or any law, but the agents themselves are always bound to pay regard to the circumstances of the
moment as much as in medicine or navigation.
         Still, although such is the nature of the present argument, we must try to make the best of
         The first point to be observed, then, is that in such matters as we are considering
deficiency and excess are equally fatal. It is so, as we observe, in regard to health and strength;
for we must judge of what we cannot see by the evidence of what we do see. Excess or
deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength. Similarly an excess or deficiency of meat
and drink is fatal to health, whereas a suitable amount produces, augments and sustains it. It is
the same then with temperance, courage, and the other virtues. A person who avoids and is afraid
of everything and faces nothing becomes a coward; a person who is not afraid of anything but is
ready to face everything becomes rash. Similarly, he who enjoys every pleasure and never
abstains from any pleasure is licentious; he who avoids all pleasures like a boor is an insensible
sort of person. For temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency but preserved
by the mean state.
         Again, not only are the causes and the agencies of production, increase and destruction in
the character traits the same, but the sphere of their activity will be proved to be the same also. It
is so in other instances which are more conspicuous, for example, in strength; for strength is
produced by taking a great deal of food and undergoing a great deal of labor, and it is the strong
man who is able to take most food and to undergo most labor. The same is the case with the
virtues. It is by abstinence from pleasures that we become temperate, and, when we have become
temperate, we are best able to abstain from them. So too with courage; it is by habituating
ourselves to despise and face alarms that we become courageous, and, when we have become
courageous, we shall be best able to face them.

Virtues Are Character Traits
We have next to consider the nature of virtue. Now, as the there are three qualities of the soul,
namely, emotions, faculties and character traits, it follows that virtue must be one of the three.
By the ―emotions‖ I mean desire, anger, fear, courage, envy, joy, love, hatred, regret, emulation,
pity – in a word whatever is attended by pleasure or pain. I call those ―faculties‖ in respect of
which we are said to be capable of experiencing these emotions, for example, capable of getting
angry or being pained or feeling pity. And I call those ―character traits‖ in respect of which we
are well or ill-disposed towards the emotions. For example, towards the emotion of anger, it is
ill-disposed if our anger be too violent or too feeble; it is well-disposed if it be duly moderated.
The same goes for our other emotions.
        Now neither the virtues nor the vices are emotions; for we are not called good or evil in
respect of our emotions but in respect of our virtues or vices. Again, we are not praised or
blamed in respect of our emotions; a person is not praised for being angry in an absolute sense,
but only for being angry in a certain way; but we are praised or blamed in respect of our virtues

or vices. Again, whereas we are angry or afraid without deliberate purpose, the virtues are in
some sense deliberate purposes, or do not exist in the absence of deliberate purpose. It may be
added that while we are said to be moved in respect of our emotions, in respect of our virtues or
vices we are not said to be moved but to have a certain disposition.
        These reasons also prove that the virtues are not faculties. For we are not called either
good or bad, nor are we praised or blamed, as having an abstract capacity for emotion. Also
while Nature gives us our faculties, it is not Nature that makes us good or bad, but this is a point
which we have already discussed. If then the virtues are neither emotions nor faculties, it remains
that they must be moral states.
        The nature of virtue has been now generally described. But it is not enough to state
merely that virtue is a moral state, we must also describe the character of that moral state.
        It must be laid down then that every virtue or excellence has the effect of producing a
good condition of that of which it is a virtue or excellence, and of enabling it to perform its
function well. Thus the excellence of the eye makes the eye good and its function good, as it is
by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly, the excellence of the horse makes a
horse excellent and good at racing, at carrying its rider and at facing the enemy.
        If then this is universally true, the virtue or excellence of people will be such a moral
state as makes them good and able to perform their proper function well. We have already
explained how this will be the case, but another way of making it clear will be to study the nature
or character of this virtue.


Doctrine of the Mean
Now in everything, whether it be continuous or discrete, it is possible to take a greater, a smaller,
or an equal amount, and this either absolutely or in relation to ourselves, the equal being a mean
between excess and deficiency. By the mean in respect of the thing itself, or the absolute mean, I
understand that which is equally distinct from both extremes and this is one and the same thing
for everybody. By the mean considered relatively to ourselves I understand that which is neither
too much nor too little. But this is not one thing, nor is it the same for everybody. Thus if 10 be
too much and 2 too little we take 6 as a mean in respect of the thing itself; for 6 is as much
greater than 2 as it is less than 10, and this is a mean in arithmetical proportion. But the mean
considered relatively to ourselves must not be determined in this way. It does not follow that if
10 pounds of meat be too much and 2 be too little for a man to eat, a trainer will order him 6
pounds, as this may itself be too much or too little for the person who is to take it; it will be too
little, for example, for Milo, but too much for a beginner in gymnastics. It will be the same with
running and wrestling; the right amount will vary with the individual. This being so, everybody
who understands his business avoids alike excess and deficiency; he seeks and chooses the mean,
not the absolute mean, but the mean considered relatively to ourselves.
          Every science then performs its function well, if it regards the mean and refers the works
which it produces to the mean. This is the reason why it is usually said of successful works that it
is impossible to take anything from them or to add anything to them, which implies that excess
or deficiency is fatal to excellence but that the mean state ensures it. As we say, good artists have
an eye to the mean in their works. But virtue, like Nature herself, is more accurate and better
than any art; virtue therefore will aim at the mean; I speak of moral virtue, as it is moral virtue
which is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is these which admit of excess and

deficiency and the mean. Thus it is possible to go too far, or not to go far enough, in respect of
fear, courage, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, and the excess and the
deficiency are alike wrong; but to experience these emotions at the right times and on the right
occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the
mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue. Similarly there may be excess,
deficiency, or the mean, in regard to actions. But virtue is concerned with emotions and actions,
and here excess is an error and deficiency a fault, whereas the mean is successful and
praiseworthy, and success and merit are both characteristics of virtue.
         It appears then that virtue is a mean state, so far at least as it aims at the mean.
         Again, there are many different ways of going wrong; for evil is in its nature infinite, to
use the Pythagorean figure, but good is finite. But there is only one possible way of going right.
Accordingly the former is easy and the latter difficult; it is easy to miss the mark but difficult to
hit it. This again is a reason why excess and deficiency are characteristics of vice and the mean
state a characteristic of virtue: ―For good is simple, evil manifold.‖ Virtue then is a state of
deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being
determined by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it.
         It is a mean state firstly as lying between two vices, the vice of excess on the one hand,
and the vice of deficiency on the other, and secondly because, whereas the vices either fall short
of or go beyond what is proper in the emotions and actions, virtue not only discovers but
embraces the mean.
         Accordingly, virtue, if regarded in its essence or theoretical conception, is a mean state,
but, if regarded from the point of view of the highest good, or of excellence, it is an extreme.
         But it is not every action or every emotion that admits of a mean state. There are some
whose very name implies wickedness, as for example, malice, shamelessness, and envy, among
emotions, or adultery, theft, and murder, among actions. All these, and others like them, are
censured as being intrinsically wicked, not merely the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is
never possible then to be right in respect of them; they are always sinful. Right or wrong in such
actions as adultery does not depend on our committing therewith the right person, at the right
time or in the right manner; on the contrary it is sinful to do anything of the kind at all. It would
be equally wrong then to suppose that there can be a mean state or an excess or deficiency in
unjust, cowardly or licentious conduct; for, if it were so, there would be a mean state of an
excess or of a deficiency, an excess of an excess and a deficiency of a deficiency. But as in
temperance and courage there can be no excess or deficiency because the mean is, in a sense, an
extreme, so too in these cases there cannot be a mean or an excess or deficiency, but, however
the acts may be done, they are wrong. For it is a general rule that an excess or deficiency does
not admit of a mean state, nor a mean state of an excess or deficiency. But it is not enough to lay
down this as a general rule; it is necessary to apply it to particular cases, as in reasonings upon
actions general statements, although they are broader, are less exact than particular statements.
For all action refers to particulars, and it is essential that our theories should harmonize with the
particular cases to which they apply.

Examples of Virtues and Vices
We must take particular virtues then from the catalogue of virtues. In regard to feelings of fear
and confidence courage is a mean state. On the side of excess, he whose fearlessness is excessive
has no name, as often happens, but he whose confidence is excessive is rash, while he whose
timidity is excessive and whose confidence is deficient is a coward.

        In respect of pleasures and pains (although not indeed of all pleasures and pains, and to a
less extent in respect of pains than of pleasures) the mean state is temperance, the excess is
licentiousness. We never find people who are deficient in regard to pleasures; accordingly such
people again have not received a name, but we may call them insensible.
        As regards the giving and taking of money, the mean state is liberality, the excess and
deficiency are prodigality and illiberality. Here the excess and deficiency take opposite forms;
for while the prodigal man is excessive in spending and deficient in taking, the illiberal man is
excessive in taking and deficient in spending.
        In respect of money there are other dispositions as well. There is the mean state which is
magnificence; for the magnificent man, as having to do with large sums of money, differs from
the liberal man who has to do only with small sums; and the excess corresponding to it is bad
taste or vulgarity, the deficiency is meanness. These are different from the excess and deficiency
of liberality; what the difference is will be explained hereafter.
        In respect of honor and dishonor the mean state is high-mindedness, the excess is what is
called vanity, the deficiency little-mindedness. Corresponding to liberality, which, as we said,
differs from magnificence as having to do not with great but with small sums of money, there is
a moral state which has to do with petty honor and is related to high-mindedness which has to do
with great honor; for it is possible to aspire to honor in the right way, or in a way which is
excessive or insufficient, and if a person‘s aspirations are excessive, he is called ambitious, if
they are deficient, he is called unambitious, while if they are between the two, he has no name.
The dispositions too are nameless, except that the disposition of the ambitious person is called
ambition. The consequence is that the extremes lay claim to the mean or intermediate place. We
ourselves speak of one who observes the mean sometimes as ambitious, and at other times as
unambitious; we sometimes praise an ambitious, and at other times an unambitious person. The
reason for our doing so will be stated in due course, but let us now discuss the other virtues in
accordance with the method which we have followed hitherto.
        Anger, like other emotions, has its excess, its deficiency, and its mean state. It may be
said that they have no names, but as we call one who observes the mean gentle, we will call the
mean state gentleness. Among the extremes, if a person errs on the side of excess, he may be
called passionate and his vice passionateness, if on that of deficiency, he may be called
impassive and his deficiency impassivity.
        There are also three other mean states with a certain resemblance to each other, and yet
with a difference. For while they are all concerned with interaction in speech and action, they are
different in that one of them is concerned with truth in such interaction, and the others with
pleasantness, one with pleasantness in amusement and the other with pleasantness in the various
circumstances of life. We must therefore discuss these states in order to make it clear that in all
cases it is the mean state which is an object of praise, and the extremes are neither right nor
laudable but censurable. It is true that these mean and extreme states are generally nameless, but
we must do our best here as elsewhere to give them a name, so that our argument may be clear
and easy to follow.
        In the matter of truth, then, he who observes the mean may be called truthful, and the
mean state truthfulness. Pretence, if it takes the form of exaggeration, is boastfulness, and one
who is guilty of pretence is a boaster; but if it takes the form of depreciation it is irony, and he
who is guilty of it is ironical.

        As regards pleasantness in amusement, he who observes the mean is witty, and his
disposition wittiness; the excess is buffoonery, and he who is guilty of it a buffoon, whereas he
who is deficient in wit may be called a boor and his moral state boorishness.
        As to the other kind of pleasantness, namely, pleasantness in life, he who is pleasant in a
proper way is friendly, and his mean state friendliness. But he who goes too far, if he has no
ulterior object in view, is obsequious, while if his object is self-interest, he is a flatterer, and he
who does not go far enough and always makes himself unpleasant is a quarrelsome and morose
sort of person.
        There are also mean states in the emotions and in the expression of the emotions. For
although modesty is not a virtue, yet a modest person is praised as if he were virtuous. For here
too one person is said to observe the mean and another to exceed it, as for example, the bashful
man who is never anything but modest, whereas a person who has insufficient modesty or no
modesty at all is called shameless, and one who observes the mean modest.
        Righteous indignation, again, is a mean state between envy and malice. They are all
concerned with the pain and pleasure which we feel at the fortunes of our neighbors. A person
who is righteously indignant is pained at the prosperity of the undeserving; but the envious
person goes further and is pained at anybody‘s prosperity, and the malicious person is so far
from being pained that he actually rejoices at misfortunes. …


It has now been sufficiently shown that moral virtue is a mean state, and in what sense it is a
mean state; it is a mean state as lying between two vices, a vice of excess on the one side and a
vice of deficiency on the other, and as aiming at the mean in the emotions and actions.
         That is the reason why it is so hard to be virtuous; for it is always hard work to find the
mean in anything, for example, it is not everybody, but only a man of science, who can find the
mean or center of a circle. So too anybody can get angry—that is an easy matter—and anybody
can give or spend money, but to give it to the right persons, to give the right amount of it and to
give it at the right time and for the right cause and in the right way, this is not what anybody can
do, nor is it easy. That is the reason why it is rare and praiseworthy and noble to do well.
Accordingly one who aims at the mean must begin by departing from that extreme which is the
more contrary to the mean; he must act in the spirit of Calypso‘s advice, ―Far from this smoke
and swell you keep your bark,‖ for of the two extremes one is more sinful than the other. As it is
difficult then to hit the mean exactly, we must take the second best course, as the saying goes,
and choose the lesser of two evils, and this we shall best do in the way that we have described,
that is, by steering clear of the evil which is further from the mean. We must also observe the
things to which we are ourselves particularly prone, as different natures have different
inclinations, and we may ascertain what these are by a consideration of our feelings of pleasure
and pain. And then we must drag ourselves in the direction opposite to them; for it is by
removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the mean, as we
do, when we pull a crooked stick straight.
         But in all cases we must especially be on our guard against what is pleasant and against
pleasure, as we are not impartial judges of pleasure. Hence our attitude towards pleasure must be
like that of the elders of the people in the Iliad towards Helen, and we must never be afraid of
applying the words they use; for if we dismiss pleasure as they dismissed Helen, we shall be less

likely to go wrong. It is by action of this kind, to put it summarily, that we shall best succeed in
hitting the mean.
         It may be admitted that this is a difficult task, especially in particular cases. It is not easy
to determine, for example, the right manner, objects, occasions, and duration of anger. There are
times when we ourselves praise people who are deficient in anger, and call them gentle, and
there are other times when we speak of people who exhibit a savage temper as spirited. It is not,
however, one who deviates a little from what is right, but one who deviates a great deal, whether
on the side of excess or of deficiency, that is criticized; for he is sure to be found out. Again, it is
not easy to decide theoretically how far and to what extent a man may go before he becomes
censurable, but neither is it easy to define theoretically anything else within the region of
perception; such things fall under the head of particulars, and our judgment of them depends
upon our perception.
         So much then is plain, that the mean state is everywhere praiseworthy, but that we ought
to incline at one time towards the excess and at another towards the deficiency; for this will be
our easiest manner of hitting the mean, or in other words of attaining excellence.

Source: Adapted from Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.13-2.9, translated by J.E.C. Welldon.




… Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good,
without qualification, except a good will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the
mind, how ever they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of
temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects. But these gifts of nature
may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and
which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with the gifts of
fortune. Power, riches, honor, even health, and the general well-being and contentment with
one‘s condition which is called happiness, inspire pride, and often presumption, if there is not a
good will to correct the influence of these on the mind, and with this also to rectify the whole
principle of acting and adapt it to its end. The sight of a being who is not adorned with a single
feature of a pure and good will, enjoying unbroken prosperity, can never give pleasure to an
impartial rational spectator. Thus a good will appears to constitute the indispensable condition
even of being worthy of happiness.
         There are even some qualities which are of service to this good will itself and may
facilitate its action, yet which have no intrinsic unconditional value, but always presuppose a
good will, and this qualifies the esteem that we justly have for them and does not permit us to
regard them as absolutely good. Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm
deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic
worth of the person; but they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification,
although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of

a good will, they may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him
far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would
have been without it.
         A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its suitability for
the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition. That is, it is good in
itself, and considered by itself it is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about
by it in favor of any inclination, nay even of the sum total of all inclinations. Even if it should
happen that, owing to special disfavor of fortune, or the stingy provision of a step-motherly
nature, this will should wholly lack power to accomplish its purpose, if with its greatest efforts it
should yet achieve nothing, and there should remain only the good will (not, to be sure, a mere
wish, but the summoning of all means in our power), then, like a jewel, it would still shine by its
own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitfulness can neither
add nor take away anything from this value. It would be, as it were, only the setting to enable us
to handle it the more conveniently in common commerce, or to attract to it the attention of those
who are not yet good judges, but not to recommend it to true experts, or to determine its value. . .


The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a
command (of reason), and the formula of the command is called an imperative. …
         Now all imperatives command either hypothetically or categorically. The former
represent the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed (or
at least which one might possibly will). The categorical imperative would be that which
represented an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, that is, as
objectively necessary.
         Every practical law represents a possible action as good and, on this account, necessary
for a subject who is practically determinable by reason. Thus, all imperatives are formula
determining an action which is necessary according to the principle of a will that is good in some
respects. If now the action is good only as a means to something else, then the imperative is
hypothetical. If it is conceived as good in itself and consequently as being necessarily the
principle of a will which of itself conforms to reason, then it is categorical.
         Thus the imperative declares what possible action by me would be good. It presents the
practical rule in relation to a will which does not immediately perform an action simply because
it is good, whether because the subject does not always know that it is good, or because, even if
it knows this, yet its maxims might be opposed to the objective principles of practical reason.

Justification of a Categorical Imperative
… The question ―How the imperative of morality is possible?‖ is undoubtedly one–the only one–
demanding a solution. For it is not at all hypothetical, and the objective necessity which it
presents cannot rest on any hypothesis, as is the case with the hypothetical imperatives. Only
here we must never leave out of consideration that we cannot make out by any example, in other
words empirically, whether there is such an imperative at all. But it is rather to be feared that all
those which seem to be categorical may yet be at bottom hypothetical. Take, for instance the
precept ―Do not promise deceitfully.‖ Assume that the necessity of this is not merely advice to
avoid some other evil such as this: ―Do not make a lying promise, in case if it becomes known

you would destroy your credit.‖ Assume instead that an action of this kind must be regarded as
evil in itself, so that the imperative of the prohibition is categorical. However, we cannot show
with certainty in any example that the will was determined merely by the law, without any other
spring of action, although it may appear to be so. For it is always possible that fear of disgrace,
perhaps also obscure dread of other dangers, may have a secret influence on the will. Who can
prove by experience the non-existence of a cause when all that experience tells us is that we do
not perceive it? But in such a case the so-called moral imperative, which as such appears to be
categorical and unconditional, would in reality be only a pragmatic precept, drawing our
attention to our own interests and merely teaching us to take these into consideration.
         We shall therefore have to investigate a priori the possibility of a categorical imperative.
For, we have not in this case the advantage of its reality being given in experience, so that [the
clarification of] its possibility should be essential only for its explanation, not for its
establishment. In the meantime it may be determined beforehand that the categorical imperative
alone has the purport of a practical law; all the rest may indeed be called principles of the will
but not laws, since whatever is only necessary for the attainment of some arbitrary purpose may
be considered as in itself contingent, and we can at any time be free from the precept if we give
up the purpose; on the contrary, the unconditional command leaves the will no liberty to choose
the opposite. Consequently it alone carries with it that necessity which we require in a law.
         Secondly, in the case of this categorical imperative or law of morality, the difficulty of
discerning its possibility is a very profound one. It is an a priori synthetical practical proposition.
And as there is so much difficulty in discerning the possibility of speculative propositions of this
kind, it may readily be supposed that the difficulty will be no less with the practical.
         In this problem we will first inquire whether the mere conception of a categorical
imperative may not perhaps supply us also with the formula of it, containing the proposition
which alone can be a categorical imperative. For even if we know the tenor of such an absolute
command, yet how it is possible will require further special and laborious study, which we
postpone to the last section.
         When I conceive a hypothetical imperative, in general I do not know beforehand what it
will contain until I am given the condition. But when I conceive a categorical imperative, I know
at once what it contains. Besides containing the law, the imperative contains only the necessity
that the maxims shall conform to this law, while the law contains no conditions restricting it.
Thus, there remains nothing but the general statement that the maxim of the action should
conform to a universal law, and it is this conformity alone that the imperative properly represents
as necessary.
         There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim
whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
         Now if all imperatives of duty can be deduced from this one imperative as from their
principle, then, although it should remain undecided what is called duty is not merely a vain
notion, yet at least we shall be able to show what we understand by it and what this notion


The universality of the law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly
called nature in the most general sense (as to form), that is the existence of things so far as it is

determined by general laws. Thus, the imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as though
the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature.

We will now itemize a few duties, adopting the usual division of them into duties to ourselves
and to others, and into perfect and imperfect duties.
         1. A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so
far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his
duty to himself to take his own life. Now he inquires whether the maxim of his action could
become a universal law of nature. His maxim is: ―From self-love I adopt it as a principle to
shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction.‖ It is asked
then simply whether this principle founded on self-love can become a universal law of nature.
Now we see at once that a system of nature of which it should be a law to destroy life by means
of the very feeling whose special nature it is to impel to the improvement of life would contradict
itself and, therefore, could not exist as a system of nature. Hence that maxim cannot possibly
exist as a universal law of nature and, consequently, would be wholly inconsistent with the
supreme principle of all duty.
         2. Another finds himself forced by necessity to borrow money. He knows that he will not
be able to repay it, but sees also that nothing will be lent to him unless he promises stoutly to
repay it in a definite time. He desires to make this promise, but he has still so much conscience
as to ask himself: ―Is it not unlawful and inconsistent with duty to get out of a difficulty in this
way?‖ Suppose, however, that he resolves to do so: then the maxim of his action would be
expressed thus: ―When I think myself in want of money, I will borrow money and promise to
repay it, although I know that I never can do so.‖ Now this principle of self-love or of one‘s own
advantage may perhaps be consistent with my whole future welfare. But the question now is, ―Is
it right?‖ I change then the suggestion of self-love into a universal law, and state the question
thus: ―How would it be if my maxim were a universal law?‖ Then I see at once that it could
never hold as a universal law of nature, but would necessarily contradict itself. For supposing it
to be a universal law that everyone when he thinks himself in a difficulty should be able to
promise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping his promise, the promise itself
would become impossible, as well as the end that one might have in view in it, since no one
would consider that anything was promised to him, but would ridicule all such statements as vain
         3. A third finds in himself a talent which with the help of some culture might make him a
useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to
indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural
capacities. He asks, however, whether his maxim of neglect of his natural gifts, besides agreeing
with his inclination to indulgence, agrees also with what is called duty. He sees then that a
system of nature could indeed subsist with such a universal law although men (like the South Sea
islanders) should let their talents rest and resolve to devote their lives merely to idleness,
amusement, and propagation of their species— in a word, to enjoyment. But he cannot possibly
will that this should be a universal law of nature, or be implanted in us as such by a natural
instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they
serve him and have been given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.
         4. A fourth, who is in prosperity, while he sees that others have to contend with great
wretchedness and that he could help them, thinks: ―What concern is it of mine? Let everyone be

as happy as Heaven pleases, or as he can make himself. I will take nothing from him nor even
envy him, only I do not wish to contribute anything to his welfare or to his assistance in
distress!‖ Now no doubt if such a mode of thinking were a universal law, the human race might
very well subsist and doubtless even better than in a state in which everyone talks of sympathy
and good-will, or even takes care occasionally to put it into practice, but, on the other side, also
cheats when he can, betrays the rights of men, or otherwise violates them. But although it is
possible that a universal law of nature might exist in accordance with that maxim, it is
impossible to will that such a principle should have the universal validity of a law of nature. For
a will which resolved this would contradict itself, inasmuch as many cases might occur in which
one would have need of the love and sympathy of others, and in which, by such a law of nature,
sprung from his own will, he would deprive himself of all hope of the aid he desires.

Willing a Maxim
These are a few of the many actual duties, or at least what we regard as such, which obviously
fall into two classes on the one principle that we have laid down. We must be able to will that a
maxim of our action should be a universal law. This is the canon of the moral appreciation of the
action generally. Some actions are of such a character that their maxim cannot without
contradiction be even conceived as a universal law of nature, far from it being possible that we
should will that it should be so. In others this intrinsic impossibility is not found, but still it is
impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, since
such a will would contradict itself. It is easily seen that the former violate strict or rigorous
(inflexible) duty; the latter only laxer (meritorious) duty. Thus it has been completely shown how
all duties depend as regards the nature of the obligation (not the object of the action) on the same
         If now we attend to ourselves on occasion of any transgression of duty, we shall find that
we in fact do not will that our maxim should be a universal law, for that is impossible for us. On
the contrary, we will that the opposite should remain a universal law, only we assume the liberty
of making an exception in our own favor or (just for this time only) in favor of our inclination.
Consequently if we considered all cases from one and the same point of view, namely, that of
reason, we should find a contradiction in our own will, namely, that a certain principle should be
objectively necessary as a universal law, and yet subjectively should not be universal, but admit
of exceptions. As, however, we at one moment regard our action from the point of view of a will
wholly conformed to reason, and then again look at the same action from the point of view of a
will affected by inclination, there is not really any contradiction, but an antagonism of inclination
to the precept of reason, whereby the universality of the principle is changed into a mere
generality, so that the practical principle of reason shall meet the maxim half way. Now,
although this cannot be justified in our own impartial judgment, yet it proves that we do really
recognize the validity of the categorical imperative and (with all respect for it) only allow
ourselves a few exceptions, which we think unimportant and forced from us.
         We have thus established at least this much: that if duty is a conception which is to have
any import and real legislative authority for our actions, it can only be expressed in categorical
and not at all in hypothetical imperatives. We have also, which is of great importance, exhibited
clearly and definitely for every practical application the content of the categorical imperative,
which must contain the principle of all duty if there is such a thing at all. …

                        THE FORMULATION OF THE END ITSELF

The will is conceived as a faculty of determining oneself to action in accordance with the
conception of certain laws. And such a faculty can be found only in rational beings. Now that
which serves the will as the objective ground of its self-determination is the end, and, if this is
assigned by reason alone, it must hold for all rational beings. On the other hand, that which
merely contains the ground of possibility of the action of which the effect is the end, this is
called the means. The subjective ground of the desire is the spring, the objective ground of the
volition is the motive; hence the distinction between subjective ends which rest on springs, and
objective ends which depend on motives valid for every rational being. Practical principles are
formal when they abstract from all subjective ends; they are material when they assume these,
and therefore particular springs of action.
         The ends which a rational being proposes to himself at pleasure as effects of his actions
(material ends) are all only relative. For it is only their relation to the particular desires of the
subject that gives them their worth, which therefore cannot furnish principles universal and
necessary for all rational beings and for every volition, that is to say practical laws. Hence all
these relative ends can give rise only to hypothetical imperatives.
         Supposing, however, that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute
worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this
and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, that is, a practical law.
         Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely
as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern
himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end. All objects
of the inclinations have only a conditional worth, for if the inclinations and the wants founded on
them did not exist, then their object would be without value. But the inclinations, themselves
being sources of want, are so far from having an absolute worth for which they should be desired
that on the contrary it must be the universal wish of every rational being to be wholly free from
them. Thus the worth of any object which is to be acquired by our action is always conditional.
Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature‘s, have nevertheless, if they are
irrational beings, only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things. Rational beings,
on the contrary, are called persons, because their very nature points them out as ends in
themselves, that is as something which must not be used merely as means, and so far therefore
restricts freedom of action (and is an object of respect). These, therefore, are not merely
subjective ends whose existence has a worth for us as an effect of our action, but objective ends,
that is, things whose existence is an end in itself. Moreover, it is an end for which no other can
be substituted, which they should serve merely as means, for otherwise nothing whatever would
possess absolute worth; but if all worth were conditioned and therefore contingent, then there
would be no supreme practical principle of reason whatever.
         If then there is a supreme practical principle or, in respect of the human will, a categorical
imperative, it must be one which, being drawn from the conception of that which is necessarily
an end for everyone because it is an end in itself, constitutes an objective principle of will, and
can therefore serve as a universal practical law. The foundation of this principle is: rational
nature exists as an end in itself. Man necessarily conceives his own existence as being so; so far
then this is a subjective principle of human actions.
         But every other rational being regards its existence similarly, just on the same rational
principle that holds for me: so that it is at the same time an objective principle, from which as a
supreme practical law all laws of the will must be capable of being deduced. Accordingly the

practical imperative will be as follows: So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person
or in that of any other, in every case as an end and never as merely a means.
        We will now inquire whether this can be practically carried out.

To follow the previous examples:
          First, under the heading of necessary duty to oneself: He who contemplates suicide
should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in
itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person
merely as a means to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a
thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be
always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my
own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics proper to define
this principle more precisely, so as to avoid all misunderstanding, for example, as to the
amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself, as to exposing my life to danger with a view
to preserve it, etc. This question is therefore omitted here.)
          Second, as regards necessary duties, or those of strict obligation, towards others: He who
is thinking of making a lying promise to others will see at once that he would be using another
man merely as a means, without the latter containing at the same time the end in himself. For he
whom I propose by such a promise to use for my own purposes cannot possibly assent to my
mode of acting towards him and, therefore, cannot himself contain the end of this action. This
violation of the principle of humanity in other men is more obvious if we take in examples of
attacks on the freedom and property of others. For then it is clear that he who transgresses the
rights of men intends to use the person of others merely as a means, without considering that as
rational beings they ought always to be esteemed also as ends, that is, as beings who must be
capable of containing in themselves the end of the very same action.
          Third, as regards contingent (meritorious) duties to oneself: It is not enough that the
action does not violate humanity in our own person as an end in itself, it must also harmonize
with it. Now there are in humanity capacities of greater perfection, which belong to the end that
nature has in view in regard to humanity in ourselves as the subject: to neglect these might
perhaps be consistent with the maintenance of humanity as an end in itself, but not with the
advancement of this end.
          Fourth, as regards meritorious duties towards others: The natural end which all men have
is their own happiness. Now humanity might indeed subsist, although no one should contribute
anything to the happiness of others, provided he did not intentionally withdraw anything from it.
But after all this would only harmonize negatively not positively with humanity as an end in
itself, if every one does not also endeavor, as far as in him lies, to forward the ends of others. For
the ends of any subject which is an end in himself ought as far as possible to be my ends also, if
that conception is to have its full effect with me. …


The three ways of presenting the principle of morality that have been adduced are at bottom only
so many formula of the very same law, and each of itself involves the other two. There is,
however, a difference in them, but it is rather subjectively than objectively practical, intended

namely to bring an idea of the reason nearer to intuition (by means of a certain analogy) and
thereby nearer to feeling. All maxims, in fact, have:
        1. A form, consisting in universality; and in this view the formula of the moral imperative
is expressed thus, that the maxims must be so chosen as if they were to serve as universal laws of
        2. A matter, namely, an end, and here the formula says that the rational being, as it is an
end by its own nature and therefore an end in itself, must in every maxim serve as the condition
limiting all merely relative and arbitrary ends.
        3. A complete characterization of all maxims by means of that formula, namely, that all
maxims ought by their own legislation to harmonize with a possible kingdom of ends as with a
kingdom of nature. There is a progress here in the order of the categories of unity of the form of
the will (its universality), plurality of the matter (the objects, that is, the ends), and totality of the
system of these. In forming our moral judgment of actions, it is better to proceed always on the
strict method and start from the general formula of the categorical imperative: Act according to a
maxim which can at the same time make itself a universal law. If, however, we wish to gain an
entrance for the moral law, it is very useful to bring one and the same action under the three
specified conceptions, and thereby as far as possible to bring it nearer to intuition.
        We can now end where we started at the beginning, namely, with the conception of a will
unconditionally good. That will is absolutely good which cannot be evil—in other words, whose
maxim, if made a universal law, could never contradict itself. This principle, then, is its supreme
law: ―Act always on such a maxim as you can at the same time will to be a universal law‖; this is
the sole condition under which a will can never contradict itself; and such an imperative is
categorical. Since the validity of the will as a universal law for possible actions is analogous to
the universal connection of the existence of things by general laws, which is the formal notion of
nature in general, the categorical imperative can also be expressed thus: Act on maxims which
can at the same time have for their object themselves as universal laws of nature. Such then is
the formula of an absolutely good will.
        Rational nature is distinguished from the rest of nature by this, that it sets before itself an
end. This end would be the matter of every good will. But since in the idea of a will that is
absolutely good without being limited by any condition (of attaining this or that end) we must
abstract wholly from every end to be effected (since this would make every will only relatively
good), it follows that in this case the end must be conceived, not as an end to be effected, but as
an independently existing end. Consequently it is conceived only negatively, that is, as that
which we must never act against and which, therefore, must never be regarded merely as means,
but must in every volition be esteemed as an end likewise. Now this end can be nothing but the
subject of all possible ends, since this is also the subject of a possible absolutely good will; for
such a will cannot without contradiction be postponed to any other object. The principle: ―So act
in regard to every rational being (yourself and others), that he may always have place in your
maxim as an end in himself,‖ is accordingly essentially identical with this other: ―Act upon a
maxim which, at the same time, involves its own universal validity for every rational being.‖ For
that in using means for every end I should limit my maxim by the condition of its holding good
as a law for every subject, this comes to the same thing as that the fundamental principle of all
maxims of action must be that the subject of all ends, that is, the rational being himself, be never
employed merely as means, but as the supreme condition restricting the use of all means, that is
in every case as an end likewise. …

Source: Adapted from The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Sections 1 and 2,
translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott.



                            CHAPTER 1: GENERAL REMARKS

… From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum [i.e., the highest
good], or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the
main problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and divided them
into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another. And, after more than
two thousand years, the same discussions continue. Philosophers are still ranged under the same
contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem nearer to being unanimous
on the subject than when the youth Socrates listened to the old Protagoras, and asserted (if
Plato‘s dialogue be grounded on a real conversation) the theory of utilitarianism against the
popular morality of the so-called sophist. ...

Inductive vs. Intuitive School of Ethics
The intuitive, no less than what may be termed the inductive, school of ethics, insists on the
necessity of general laws. They both agree that the morality of an individual action is not a
question of direct perception, but of the application of a law to an individual case. They
recognize also, to a great extent, the same moral laws, but differ as to their evidence, and the
source from which they derive their authority. According to the one opinion, the principles of
morals are evident a priori, requiring nothing to command assent, except that the meaning of the
terms be understood. According to the other doctrine, right and wrong, as well as truth and
falsehood, are questions of observation and experience. But both hold equally, that morality must
be deduced from principles; and the intuitive school affirms, as strongly as the inductive, that
there is a science of morals. Yet they seldom attempt to make out a list of the a priori principles
which are to serve as the premises of the science; still more rarely do they make any effort to
reduce those various principles to one first principle, or common ground of obligation. They
either assume the ordinary precepts of morals as of a priori authority, or they lay down as the
common groundwork of those maxims some generality much less obviously authoritative than
the maxims themselves, and which has never succeeded in gaining popular acceptance. Yet, to
support their pretensions, there ought either to be some one fundamental principle or law at the
root of all morality; or, if there be several, there should be a determinate order of precedence
among them; and the one principle, or the rule for deciding between the various principles when
they conflict, ought to be self-evident. …
         It is not my present purpose to criticize these thinkers. But I cannot help referring, for
illustration, to a systematic treatise by one of the most illustrious of them—the ―Metaphysics of
Ethics,‖ by Kant. This remarkable man, whose system of thought will long remain one of the
landmarks in the history of philosophical speculation, does in the treatise in question, lay down
an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation. It is this: ―So act, that
the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings.‖ But,

when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails, almost
grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say physical)
impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of
conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no
one would choose to incur.
        On the present occasion, I shall, without further discussion of the other theories, attempt
to contribute something towards the understanding and appreciation of the Utilitarian or
Happiness theory, and towards such proof as it is susceptible of. …

                                 WHAT UTILITARIANISM IS

... The creed which accepts, as the foundation of morals, Utility, or 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. To give a clear view of the moral
standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it
includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question. But
these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality
is grounded—namely, that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends;
and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are
desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure
and the prevention of pain.

Higher and Lower Pleasures
Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds (and among them in some of the most
estimable in feeling and purpose) inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it)
no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate
as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of
Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened. And modern holders of the
doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French,
and English assailants.
         When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their
accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposes human
beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition
were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for, if the
sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which
is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the
Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast‘s pleasures do not
satisfy a human being‘s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated
than the animal appetites; and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as
happiness which does not include their gratification. I do not indeed consider the Epicureans to
have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of consequences from the
utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many Stoic as well as Christian
elements require to be included. But there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not
assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral
sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be

admitted, however, that utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over
bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former—that
is, in their circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And, on all these points,
utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might have taken the other, and, as it may be
called, higher ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility
to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than
others. It would be absurd that (while in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well
as quantity) the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
         If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one
pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount,
there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who
have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral
obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are
competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though
knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any
quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the
preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity, as to render it, in
comparison, of small account.

Higher Pleasures and the Sense of Dignity
Now, it is an unquestionable fact, that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable
of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence
which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into
any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast‘s pleasures: no
intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus,
no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be
persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with
theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction
of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only
in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that, to escape from it, they would exchange their lot for
almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires
more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to
it at more points, than one of an inferior type. But, in spite of these liabilities, he can never really
wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.
         We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness. We may attribute it to
pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least
estimable feelings of which mankind are capable. We may refer it to the love of liberty and
personal independence—an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means
for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the love of excitement, both of which do
really enter into and contribute to it. But its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity,
which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some (though by no means in exact)
proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in
whom it is strong, that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an
object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of
happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the
inferior—confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable, that

the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully
satisfied. And a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for,
as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at
all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the
imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It
is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied,
than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only
know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Why People Reject Higher Pleasures
It may be objected that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally (under the
influence of temptation) postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full
appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character,
make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable, and this no
less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental.
They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the
greater good. It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for
everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not
believe that those who undergo this very common change voluntarily choose the lower
description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves
exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler
feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by
mere want of sustenance; and, in the majority of young persons, it speedily dies away if the
occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has
thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high
aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for
indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately
prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones
which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned, whether any one, who has
remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred
the lower; though many in all ages have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.
        From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a
question, which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is
the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the
judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority
among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this
judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to
even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of
two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those
who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always
heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth
purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced?
When, therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the higher
faculties to be preferable in kind (apart from the question of intensity) to those of which the
animal nature (disjoined from the higher faculties) is susceptible, they are entitled on this subject
to the same regard.

         I have dwelt on this point, as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of
Utility or Happiness, considered as the directive rule of human conduct. But it is by no means an
indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard. For that standard is not the
agent‘s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether. And, if it may
possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can
be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a
gainer by it. Utilitarianism, therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of
nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others—
and his own [benefit] (so far as happiness is concerned) were a sheer deduction from the benefit.
But the bare enunciation of such an absurdity as this last renders refutation superfluous.
         According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end (with
reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable—whether we are considering
our own good or that of other people) is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as
rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the
rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those, who in their
opportunities of experience (to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-
observation) are best furnished with the means of comparison. This (being, according to the
utilitarian opinion, the end of human action) is necessarily also the standard of morality: which
may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of
which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured
to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole
sentient creation.

Whether Happiness Is Unattainable
Against this doctrine, however, arises another class of objectors, who say that happiness, in any
form, cannot be the rational purpose of human life and action; because, in the first place, it is
unattainable. And they contemptuously ask, ―What right hast thou to be happy?‖—a question
which Mr. Carlyle clinches by the addition, ―What right, a short time ago, hadst thou even to
be?‖ Next, they say that men can do without happiness; that all noble human beings have felt
this, and could not have become noble but by learning the lesson of Entsagen, or renunciation;
which lesson, thoroughly learnt and submitted to, they affirm to be the beginning and necessary
condition of all virtue.
         The first of these objections would go to the root of the matter, were it well founded. For,
if no happiness is to be had at all by human beings, the attainment of it cannot be the end of
morality, or of any rational conduct. Though, even in that case, something might still be said for
the utilitarian theory; since utility includes not solely the pursuit of happiness, but the prevention
or mitigation of unhappiness. And, if the former aim be chimerical, there will be all the greater
scope and more imperative need for the latter, so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do
not take refuge in the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by
Novalis. When, however, it is thus positively asserted to be impossible that human life should be
happy, the assertion, if not something like a verbal quibble, is at least an exaggeration. If by
happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough that this is
impossible. A state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some cases, and with some
intermissions, hours or days; and is the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent
and steady flame. Of this the philosophers who have taught that happiness is the end of life were
as fully aware as those who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not a life of

rapture, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and
various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having, as the
foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing. A life thus
composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of
the name of ―happiness.‖ And such an existence is even now the lot of many, during some
considerable portion of their lives. The present wretched education and wretched social
arrangements are the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost all.

Rejection of Virtue Theory
… It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathizing; that it chills their
moral feelings towards individuals; that it makes them regard only the dry and hard consideration
of the consequences of actions, not taking into their moral estimate the qualities from which
those actions emanate. If the assertion means that they do not allow their judgment respecting the
rightness or wrongness of an action to be influenced by their opinion of the qualities of the
person who does it, this is a complaint, not against utilitarianism, but against having any standard
of morality at all. For certainly no known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad
because it is done by a good or a bad man; still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a
benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of
actions, but of persons; and there is nothing in the utilitarian theory inconsistent with the fact,
that there are other things which interest us in persons besides the rightness and wrongness of
their actions. The Stoics indeed, with the paradoxical misuse of language which was part of their
system, and by which they strove to raise themselves above all concern about anything but
virtue, were fond of saying, that he who has that, has everything; that he, and only he, is rich, is
beautiful, is a king. But no claim of this description is made for the virtuous man by the
utilitarian doctrine. Utilitarians are quite aware that there are other desirable possessions and
qualities besides virtue, and are perfectly willing to allow to all of them their full worth. They are
also aware that a right action does not necessarily indicate a virtuous character; and that actions
which are blamable often proceed from qualities entitled to praise. When this is apparent in any
particular case, it modifies their estimation, not certainly of the act, but of the agent. I grant that
they are, notwithstanding, of opinion, that, in the long run, the best proof of a good character is
good actions; and resolutely refuse to consider any mental disposition as good, of which the
predominant tendency is to produce bad conduct. This makes them unpopular with many people:
but it is an unpopularity which they must share with every one who regards the distinction
between right and wrong in a serious light; and the reproach is not one which a conscientious
utilitarian need be anxious to repel.
         If no more be meant by the objection than that many utilitarians look on the morality of
actions, as measured by the utilitarian standards, with too exclusive a regard, and do not lay
sufficient stress upon the other beauties of character which go towards making a human being
lovable or admirable, this may be admitted. Utilitarians who have cultivated their moral feelings,
but not their sympathies nor their artistic perceptions, do fall into this mistake; and so do all other
moralists under the same conditions. What can be said in excuse for other moralists is equally
available for them; namely, that, if there is to be any error, it is better that it should be on that
side. As a matter of fact, we may affirm that among utilitarians, as among adherents of other
systems, there is every imaginable degree of rigidity and of laxity in the application of their
standard. Some are even puritanically rigorous, while others are as indulgent as can possibly be
desired by sinner or by sentimentalist. But, on the whole, a doctrine which brings prominently

forward the interest that mankind have in the repression and prevention of conduct which
violates the moral law, is likely to be inferior to no other in turning the sanctions of opinion
against such violations. It is true, the question, ―What does violate the moral law?‖ is one on
which those who recognize different standards of morality are likely now and then to differ. But
difference of opinion on moral questions was not first introduced into the world by utilitarianism;
while that doctrine does supply, if not always an easy, at all events a tangible and intelligible,
mode of deciding such differences. …

Whether there is Time to Calculate Consequences
Again: defenders of Utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as
this— that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any
line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is
impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on
which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the
objection is, that there has been ample time; namely, the whole past duration of the human
species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of
actions, on which experience all the prudence as well as all the morality of life are dependent.
People talk as if the commencement of this course of experience had hitherto been put off, and as
if, at the moment when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of another, he
had to begin considering for the first time whether murder and theft are injurious to human
happiness. Even then, I do not think that he would find the question very puzzling; but, at all
events, the matter is now done to his hand. It is truly a whimsical supposition, that, if mankind
were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any
agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measures for having their notions on the
subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no difficulty in proving
any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.
But, on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as
to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are
the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher, until he has succeeded in finding
better. That philosophers might easily do this, even now, on many subjects; that the received
code of ethics is by no means of divine right; and that mankind have still much to learn as to the
effects of actions on the general happiness —I admit, or, rather, earnestly maintain. The
corollaries from the principle of utility, like the precepts of every practical art, admit of indefinite
improvement. And, in a progressive state of the human mind, their improvement is perpetually
going on. But to consider the rules of morality as improvable is one thing; to pass over the
intermediate generalizations entirely, and endeavor to test each individual action directly by the
first principle, is another. It is a strange notion, that the acknowledgment of a first principle is
inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveler respecting the place of
his ultimate destination is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction posts on the way. The
proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality does not mean that no road ought to be
laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction
rather than another. Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject
which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. Nobody
argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to
calculate the ―Nautical Almanac.‖ Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready
calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the

common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the far more difficult questions of
wise and foolish. And this, as long as foresight is a human quality, it is to be presumed they will
continue to do. Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we require
subordinate principles to apply it by. The impossibility of doing without them, being common to
all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular. But gravely to argue as if no
such secondary principles could be had (and as if mankind had remained till now, and always
must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life) is as
high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy.

Bending Moral Rules
The remainder of the stock arguments against utilitarianism mostly consist in laying to its charge
the common infirmities of human nature, and the general difficulties which embarrass
conscientious persons in shaping their course through life. We are told that an utilitarian will be
apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules; and, when under temptation, will
see an utility in the breach of a rule greater than he will see in its observance. But is utility the
only creed which is able to furnish us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our
own conscience? They are afforded in abundance by all doctrines which recognize as a fact in
morals the existence of conflicting considerations; which all doctrines do that have been believed
by sane persons. It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs,
that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of
action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable. There is no
ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws by giving a certain latitude, under the
moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances; and under
every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest casuistry get in. There exists
no moral system under which there do not arise unequivocal cases of conflicting obligation.
These are the real difficulties; the knotty points both in the theory of ethics, and in the
conscientious guidance of personal conduct. They are overcome practically with greater or with
less success according to the intellect and virtue of the individual. But it can hardly be pretended
that anyone will be the less qualified for dealing with them, from possessing an ultimate standard
to which conflicting rights and duties can be referred. If utility is the ultimate source of moral
obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are
incompatible. Though the application of the standard may be difficult, it is better than none at all:
while in other systems, the moral laws all claiming independent authority, there is no common
umpire entitled to interfere between them. Their claims to precedence one over another rest on
little better than sophistry; and unless determined, as they generally are, by the unacknowledged
influence of considerations of utility, afford a free scope for the action of personal desires and
partialities. We must remember that only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles
is it requisite that first principles should be appealed to. There is no case of moral obligation in
which some secondary principle is not involved; and, if only one, there can seldom be any real
doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognized.

Source: Adapted from Utilitarianism, Chapters 1 and 2. Spelling and punctuation have been

Questions for Review

(1) What is Aristotle‘s argument for why moral virtues are neither emotions nor mental faculties?
(2) Aristotle argues that the mean between two extremes is not a mathematical average. Why
        does he believe that ―the right amount will vary with the individual?‖
(3) Regarding the virtue of temperance, according to Aristotle, what is the emotion to be
        regulated, and what are the two vices associated with temperance?
(4) Noting the difficulties involved in determining the proper mean, what rule of thumb does
        Aristotle offer for choosing a mean between ―two evils?‖
(5) With Kant‘s first formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., the formula of the law of
        nature), what is the specific contradiction which arises with suicide?
(6) With Kant‘s second formulation of the categorical imperative (i.e., the formula of the end
        itself), why is suicide wrong?
(7) What three points are in common to all formulations of the categorical imperative?
(8) Some critics of utilitarianism have charged that it is a doctrine worthy only of swine. What
        does this mean, and how does Mill respond to it?
(9) What is Mill‘s test for determining the qualitative difference between a higher and a lower
(10) According to Mill, what are the only circumstances under which we should directly evaluate
        the morality of an action by the principle of utility?

Questions for Analysis

(1) Suppose that a man is drowning in a river, and Aristotle, Kant and Mill are on the shore
       debating with each other about the right thing to do in this situation. Write a dialogue of
       their discussion.
(2) Consider the following criticism that Mill makes of virtue theory: ―For certainly no known
       ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad
       man; still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the
       contrary.‖ How might Aristotle respond to this?
(3) Consider the following criticism that Mill makes of Kant: ―[Kant offers a] universal first
       principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation. It is this: ‗So act, that the rule on
       which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings.‘ But,
       when he begins to deduce from this precept any of the actual duties of morality, he fails,
       almost grotesquely, to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say
       physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously
       immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal
       adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur.‖ Try to defend Kant against
(4) A central part of Mill‘s version of utilitarianism is that higher mental pleasures are
       qualitatively superior to lower mental pleasures. Critics of Mill have argued that his
       account of so-called ―higher pleasures‖ have nothing to do with pleasure and instead rest
       on a different intrinsic value, namely dignity. Thus, Mill abandons his view that pleasure
       is the highest intrinsic value. How might Mill respond to this criticism?

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