Unit 4: How One Should Live

An Introduction to Western Ethical Thought: Aristotle, Kant, Utilitarianism

Heather Wilburn, Ph.D.

While there are many approaches to ethics in the west, here we will look at three distinct theories. Aristotle’s approach is agent-centered in that it focuses on the development of the individual, which in turn, benefits society as a whole. Kant’s approach is duty-based, which means that there are certain duties that we have as human beings and these duties are absolutely binding for us. Utilitarianism is the final approach we will address here and this is the view that consequences are the most important thing for resolving ethical dilemmas. Here we will look at the basics for two utilitarians, Bentham and J.S. Mill.


For Aristotle, happiness is the only good that we desire for its own sake. All of our other goods/goals/ends are for the sake of achieving happiness. His notion of happiness is not simply a feeling of contentment or satisfaction, but an activity for human beings. This should be understood in terms of the function of human beings (activity of the soul in accordance with reason). Human beings are unique insofar as we have the capacity to reason. Thus, a human life, in order to be happy and flourish, must be lived in accordance with reason. This would mean that we have a balance between reason and emotion, in which reason is the guiding aspect.

According to Aristotle, it is the function of human beings to live a certain type of life and this life is to be an activity of the soul in accordance with reason. Therefore, the function of a human being (i.e. a good human being) is the excellent performance of these actions.

Happiness, then, for Aristotle, is an activity of the human soul in accordance with excellence and virtue and this is manifested over an entire lifetime. Happiness as the ethical end does not simply consist of moral virtue, but, rather, includes intellectual virtue as well. Complete happiness is both a contemplative and practical activity.

So, what kinds of things make us happy (or fulfilled)?

Aristotle does not exclude the various common sense notions of happiness that we might think of and, for him, it is not some single instance. Instead, it is an activity of virtue that depends on certain external and internal goods (i.e. friends, money, health, good luck, family, etc) and it includes all the various goods that allow us to flourish. It is also an activity that is undergone internally but that also benefits and depends upon one’s community.

The final good that human beings aim at is happiness. All other things that human beings aim at are subordinate goods (wealth or power) for the sake of happiness. In other words, we always choose actions that will get us closer to happiness. Happiness is not a stepping-stone to some other good. It is self-sufficient insofar as when taken by itself it makes life desirable and not lacking.

Happiness involves the ability to move toward the final end of developing oneself intellectually, emotionally, and physically as well as using the capacities that are distinctly human with excellence.


Aristotle’s ideas regarding virtue are based upon human characteristics that he found to be universal to all human beings across all times. Aristotle examines the behavior and moral judgments of men who would be considered good and virtuous as well as qualified to judge in matters of virtue. Overall, he claims that virtue is a mean and he describes the virtuous person as one whose behavior is neither excessive nor deficient in regard to desires, emotions, and appetites.

According to Aristotle, the master of any art seeks the intermediate between two extremes of excess and deficiency and the intermediate will depend upon us as individuals. For instance, eating one pound of food per day may be enough for one person while another person may need five pounds. So, the intermediate is relative to us as individuals.

The same holds for the virtues. For example, fear may be felt either too little or too much, but when we feel fear at the right time, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is intermediate and best, which is characteristic of virtue. To miss the mark is easy and to hit it is difficult.

The good life, for Aristotle, does not consist of a series of unrelated good actions. Good acts are intentional and they lead to other good acts—they form patterns of conduct that reveal the true character of a happy/flourishing person.

Excellence, for him, is concerned with passions and actions and the character of the agent is to be revealed by the voluntary choices she makes. Human choice aims at the good, or at the perceived good, and the ability to make excellent choices requires accurate knowledge of a particular situation, good reasoning skills, and a well-developed virtuous character. Becoming a virtuous person depends upon one’s habituation and practice of the various virtues. Thus, if you want to become temperate then practice of self-moderation and if you want to become courageous then practice actions that challenge your fears.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 2).

This means that we are not born virtuous; yet, we are born with the potential to become virtuous. The virtues must be cultivated. Virtues need to be consciously developed and sustained both by the people whose character traits they are and by others around them: parents, teachers, role models, and the community at large.

By acting ethically we express our excellence as rational creatures.

For Aristotle, becoming a virtuous person entails developing the virtues in such a way that we are developing a stable pattern of character. Practice is crucial. In other words, if we think of a character trait as a reliable disposition to act in certain ways in certain situations, we must practice or habituate ourselves to solidify that character trait. We cannot just say that we are honest, we cannot just commit to being honest—we must BE honest. Make it a habit to be honest, to not talk about people behind their backs, to not be selfish, etc. Moral character is an ongoing project.

Let’s consider a specific virtue: courage. The virtuous person is courageous, the person who is excessively fearful is a coward, and the person deficient in fear is reckless. Acting virtuously in a given situation depends to some degree upon the individual characteristics and training of the agent. Courage is always a mean with regard to things that inspire fear or confidence. However, while running into a burning building to search for survivors may be courageous for a firefighter, it is likely reckless for a physically weak person or an elderly person.

In this sense, the morality of the action also involves the examination—the rational examination—of whether or not the action was done to the right person, at the right time, and in the right way.

“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean” (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk 2, section 6).

Here are some of the virtues that Aristotle identified:

Excess:                                       Virtue:                                         Deficiency:

Recklessness                                         Courage                                                  Cowardice

Unrestrained                                          Temperate                                              Insensible

Wasteful                                                 Generous                                                Stingy

Vanity                                                       Humility                                                  Timid

Impatience                                               Patience                                                  Lack of Spirit

Boastfulness                                    Truthfulness                                           Understatement

Clownish                                                   Witty                                                       Boring

Flattery                                                      Friendly                                                  Surly

Shameless                                                 Modesty                                                Shyness


Here is a video summarizing some key points of virtue ethics:



Utilitarianism is a widely popular approach to morality that focuses on the consequences of one’s actions. The idea put forth by Bentham and then Mill rests on the idea that the morally correct action is the one that generates the most happiness, pleasure, and/or well-being in the world OR alternatively, reduces the most pain and suffering in the world. This is a compelling approach to moral reasoning and typically comes in two basic varieties:

  1. Act utilitarianism–This version is about the consequences of specific acts. So, in one situation A may be the morally correct option, but in another situation it might be B. It really depends upon the amount of happiness or pleasure produced or pain reduced. This version of utilitarianism is most often attributed to Bentham, who is thought to be the founder of utilitarianism. Bentham argued that to make the best decisions we must consider a few elements to determine the most optimal outcome. These elements include factors such as: scope (how many people will be affected by the action); whether or not the pleasure obtained will lead to optimal long term effects or not; and whether or not the pleasure obtained will itself produce more pleasure in the end. Essentially, Bentham thought that all pleasure was equal in a democratic sense, so, whatever brings you happiness or pleasure might differ from what brings me happiness.
  2. Rule utilitarianism–This version is about the consequences of general rules. So, if lying tends to reduce well being in the world there ought to be a general rule against it. If persecuting innocent people results in bad outcomes, there ought to be a rule against it. Mill is the author that is thought to introduce rule utilitarianism in his attempt to defend individual rights and protect the nature of justice. As you can imagine, one major problem with Act Utilitarianism is that it would be very difficult to protect the nature of justice if persecuting an innocent person happens to bring about optimal results for the greater good. His defense of individual rights is referred to as Mill’s Harm Principle, which is located in his book, On Liberty. This states that one cannot restrict another’s behavior unless one is harming others. So, individual freedom and autonomy is important because if everyone’s rights and liberties are protected, the overall good will be promoted.

Another factor that distinguishes Mill from Bentham is that Mill does not believe that all pleasures are equal. Mill holds the view that humans have certain qualities that make us human, which ought to be the basis for the type of pleasures we pursue. This is noted in his famous quote: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool dissatisfied. And, if the fool, or the pig ,are of a different opinion it is because they only know their side of the question.”

Some Notable Attractions of Utilitarianism:

  1. Impartiality:  everyone’s interests and well-being are equally important, regardless of class, sex, race, sexual orientation, or any other arbitrary characteristic.
  2. Justifies Conventional Moral Wisdom: can justify our basic moral beliefs, condemning the kinds of acts that we typically condemn: slavery, bigotry, and killing innocent people while commending things we typically believe are morally right: helping the poor, keeping our promises, being honest, etc. Can also explain our shared view about virtues and vices.
  3. Conflict Resolution: one ultimate rule, so it is pretty easy to figure out which action is the right one. Take debates about the most just way to tax citizens. Should everyone be taxed the same amount, the same percentage, or should we have a graduated tax system where those who make more pay more taxes? Tough question, but from the utilitarian perspective we have one principle to work with to figure it out.
  4. Flexibility: no moral rule is absolute; it is not a free for all or anything goes, but it is not absolute. Even Rule Utilitarianism would have to be somewhat flexible if a rule was found NOT to contribute to the greater good.
  5. Scope of the Moral Community: First, what is a moral community? For utilitarians, entrance into the moral community only depends upon whether the entity can suffer. Animals are included here. Traditional and alternative accounts are based on things like the ability to reason, communicate, to have emotions, to be self-aware, or to be able to self-govern. However, for the utilitarian, it’s simple: if the being can experience pain and pleasure, it counts in our moral calculations.

Some Notable Difficulties with Utilitarianism:

  1. It’s too demanding:
    • Deliberation: lots of information may be needed to determine value of options, then weigh it all out. Mill argued that in most cases we know what is going to promote well being in the world or harm in the world. There may be rare situations where we have to stop and really think about the best option, but that’s okay; sometimes, we need to do that.
    • Action: Does utilitarianism require us to be saints? Perhaps it calls us beyond what we typically think of as our moral obligations.
  1. Impartiality: Typically this is seen as a strength, but sometimes it seems partiality is okay. Utilitarians can argue that giving preferences to our loved ones is a good idea, but not because they deserve it. Instead, this justification would have to be based on what’s most beneficial.
  2. No intrinsic wrong or right: Many of us believe that some actions are just always wrong (rape, torturing innocents, enslavement), but utilitarianism doesn’t accept this. The morality of an act always depends upon the results. Any action is permitted, provided it is necessary to prevent an even worse outcome. Sometimes our options are not good and we have to choose between two evils.
  3. The problem of injustice: The Big Problem

If it is ever optimific to violate rights, then it seems that utilitarianism will require us to do so.

  • Sometimes we let the guilty go free for a benefit they can offer.
  • Peeping Tom cases (unknowing victims)
  • Persecuting innocent people for the security and peace of a community

Possible utilitarian responses to the problem of injustice:

  1. Justice is intrinsically valuable: can we just add justice to the principle–we should maximize well being and maximize justice? Problem is when we have to choose one or the other. It also does not seem plausible to always give priority to justice.
  2. Injustice is never optimific: This was Mill’s line of reasoning. Long term effects of injustice outweigh possible benefits.
  3. Sometimes justice must be sacrificed: depends on the situation

Here is a video covering some key elements of consequentialism:


Kant is a deontologist, which means that duty is the basis for morality. For Kant there is a strong connection between freedom and morality. The human faculty that marks our freedom is our ability to reason and to be autonomous. This means that we are able to give ourselves the moral law. This ability is what allows us to be morally responsible. If we were not capable of acting freely we could not be held accountable for our actions. So, Kant believes that it is through our capacity for reason and autonomy that we are moral agents. These capacities are also what makes each of us unique and irreplaceable. As such, Kant is a solid defender of individual rights.

Once again, we have the capacity to give ourselves the moral law, which is the process in which we determine what duties we have as moral agents. Morality, for Kant, has nothing to do with consequences; instead, it is about fulfilling our duties. So, how do we determine what duties we have? Through what Kant calls the categorical imperative–the supreme principle of morality.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative:

Kant’s moral theory has two formulas for the categorical imperative. So, if you’re facing a moral dilemma you must determine whether or not your action is permissible according to the formulations of the Categorical Imperative. The first formula states that we ought to act in a way such that the maxim, or principle, of our act can be willed a universal law. If your maxim cannot be universalized then that act is morally off limits. For example, if I am considering stealing a loaf of bread, I have to ask myself if my maxim can be made a universal law. This would look something like this: Is it okay for all people to steal all the time? The answer is no; the maxim itself would be self-defeating because if everyone stole all the time there would be no private property and stealing would no longer be possible. The key is to formulate maxims that everyone could support (even if some don’t). The rules are fair. So, what you are essentially doing with the test is ensuring that your maxim is logically consistent and can be used without it being self-defeating.

The second formula states that we ought to treat humanity (self and others) as an end and never as a mere means. Essentially, this entails that I treat all persons with respect and dignity; I help others achieve their goals when possible, and I avoid using them as tools or objects to further my own goals. For Kant, since humans have the capacity for autonomy and rationality, it is crucial that we treat humans with respect and dignity. With these two formulas of Kant’s categorical imperative, we can see that the focal points of his moral theory include: fairness, justice, individual rights, and consistency.

Some Notable Strengths of Kant’s Approach:

  1. Explains why actions like slavery and rape are always wrong.
  2. Explains why we do not like paternalistic laws or behavior.
  3. Universal human rights are backed.
  4. Explains why humans are morally responsible agents.

Some Notable Problems with Kant’s Approach:

  1. Justice is important, but is it always the most important factor?
  2. Autonomy is complicated. Many factors influence the choices we make and there may be blurred lines about whether an individual is capable of being autonomous.
  3. Is it true that consequences don’t matter?
  4. Moral community is restricted to those that are autonomous and rational.

Here is a video summarizing some key elements of deontology:


Now that we have laid out the theoretical approaches to morality in the Western World, let’s think about how we might apply the theories. Take a look at this video, which explains a famous ethical dilemma:

Here’s another that demonstrates ethical reasoning:


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