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In his book “Critique of Pure Reason, (1781)” which is considered as one of the most influential works of philosophy, Immanuel Kant criticized the utilitarian theory.
Utilitarianism which was first proposed by Jeremy Bentham advocates for rules which gives maximum pleasure to maximum number of people in the society. The basis of this theory is that each act of man is based on or results in either pain or pleasure. Humans have a tendency to work for pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, the “good” law would be the one that would create maximum pleasure for maximum number of the people. For example, a criminal must be sent to jail because it would give a certain “kind” of pleasure to the society.
The basis of Kant’s rejection of utilitarianism is that humans are rational beings capable of reasoning. This is what sets them apart from mere inanimate things. Kant advocates that each individual irrespective of his societal status possesses an inherent dignity which has an intrinsic value. Therefore, humans should not used as a means to achieve an end. Kant advocated the libertarian concept of individual freedom. But his conception of freedom is different from others.
According to Kant, freedom is opposite to necessity. For example, if someone goes to restaurant to eat something then according to Kant’s notion of freedom, he is not ordering food according to his freedom because his hunger is the cause which necessitated him to go to restaurant. To act freely is not to choose a best means for an end. To act freely is to act for the sake of end itself. Accordingly, Kant proposes freedom as autonomy which means to act according to your own will. In autonomy, a Law is not imposed on an individual; rather the individual imposes a Law upon himself.
Kant proposes a very stringent standard of morality. Each act has its own moral worth which should be independently judged from the consequence that it produces. This is against the theory of consequential morality which advocates that the morality of an act depends on the consequence that it produces.Therefore, according to Kant, fundamental rights are not morally good because their observance leads to a ordered and peaceful society rather they are morally good because of the reason that each individual possess an inherent dignity and hence he must possess certain fundamental rights.
Taking another example, deception is not morally bad because in the long run it may harm, but because in deception, one uses the other person as a means to achieve an end and humans should not be used as a means. Notions like duty, inclination, sympathy and altruism are acceptable reasons behind acts, which give acts their moral worth.
The contribution of Immanuel Kant has been great in the way that he advocated the dignity of each human being. Philosophers like John Rawls were influenced by what came to be known as “Kantianism”. John Rawls in his famous Theory of Justice states that a liberal democracy and its institutions must take care of all the people including the people belonging to the lowest strata of the society.
His principle of inviolability of each person’s dignity is very similar to the Kant’s theory. Another area which in my view supports Kantian notion is the area of human rights. The theory of human rights developed post World War II emphasizes that human rights are rights which an individual possesses because of the reason that he is human. Here also we see that the intrinsic worth of human dignity is respected.