Immanuel Kant was an 18th Century Prussian philosopher. He was a homebody (living and dying in his village), precise (legend has it the village housewives could set their clocks by his afternoon walks), and an academic at his alma mater, the University of Königsberg.
A key premise of his philosophy of ethics was that "the right thing to do" could not be determined by emotions: one could not "feel" the way to an ethical decision. To the contrary, and perhaps mirroring his legendary rigid lifestyle, Kant looked to absolute duties that should be consistently and universally applied. Indeed, Kant's major work detailing his formulation of moral law is entitled, Critique of Practical Reason (1788). Moreover, Kant believed one should not be swayed by the consequences of a decision; an action is deemed ethical if it arises from one's motive to act out of duty.
Although Kant never ventured far from his village, his writings travelled globally. He remains a premier influence on contemporary ethical studies. Fortunately, other philosophers have deciphered and better explained Kant's theory of the ethical life.
See for yourself and be thankful for their efforts.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the Godfather of Utilitarianism. He was a lawyer (who avoided the courtroom), an inventor of items (central heating systems and refrigeration units) and words (dynamic, exhaustive, and 'catastatico-chrestic physiurgics'), and author (Auto-Icon: Or, Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living, which suggested the preserved bodies of the famous might serve as excellent lawn ornaments).
Bentham's philosophy of ethics began with his observation that people act out of self interest. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. He then identified the Principle of Utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle as the moral guideline for living: approve or disapprove of an action according to its tendency to augment or diminish happiness. Bentham was looking at consequences. In sum, the ethical choice is that which yields the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number.
Explore the teachings of this British philosopher, radical, and social reformer:
By the way, Bentham took his own advice. He continues to inspire – seated in a glass box at the entry to University College in London.
John Steward Mill
John Steward Mill (1806-1873) was Jeremy's friend and, fortunately for Utilitarians, the one who took on Bentham's critics. He answered some of the more difficult questions such as, "Can pleasures be qualified?" Mill observed, "Better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied." Mill can give you an in-depth explanation of how he arrived at that remarkable conclusion.
Mill was certainly up to the task. He read Greek by the age of three and Latin by age eight. He kept busy: by his early teenage years, Mill had made an extensive survey of history and was well versed in law, psychology, economics, math, and logic. By age 20, Mill suffered a nervous breakdown. He credited his recovery to the pursuit of art and poetry.