The concepts between the Universal Law Formulation (ULF) and Mill’s version of Utilitarianism is not as straightforward as one would consider at first blush. Mill does not make a strictly consequentialist assessment of utilitarianism, and the universal law theory must take into account consequences when evaluating whether an action can be acceptable as a universal law. I will be examining the similarities between the two concepts, and determine whether the universal law formulation and Mill’s account of utilitarianism are in fact compatible as ethical theories.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant develops a deontological theory of morals which states requires one to use a priori knowledge to establish whether an action is right or wrong. This theory relies on his conception of the categorical imperative which states, “act only according to that maxim in which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant 4:421) The act of willing requires one to adhere to natural laws, the will cannot desire something that would be contrary to nature. A maxim is a subjective desire one has for a given end. According to the categorical imperative, in order for one’s action to be right, which are the only actions one should perform, their maxim must be able to be willed as a universal law. Kant argues that actions should be performed from duty, not simply in accordance with duty.

The determining factor of duty is intent, if a person performs an action that is considered right, but does so on the premise of personal gain, their intent determines that action is performed in accordance with duty rather than from duty. If an action is performed from duty, an agent will perform the act with altruistic intentions. Kant uses the example of the shopkeeper to demonstrate this premise:


It certainly conforms with duty that a shopkeeper not overcharge his inexperienced customer, and where there is much commerce, a prudent merchant actually does not do this, but keeps a fixed general price for everyone, so that a child may buy from him just as well as everyone else. (Kant 4:397)



As Kant argues in his example, a shopkeeper who chooses not to overcharge inexperienced customer, regardless of intention, is acting in accordance with duty. However, for Kant, acting in accordance with duty is not enough, therefore the shopkeeper who sets fair prices for the sake of receiving further business, is not acting properly, but the shopkeeper who sets fair prices so as to allow for fair treatment for all of his customers is acting from duty, and as such acts rightly.

There are two imperatives that Kant uses to describe actions as what an agent ought to do: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives are determined subjectively based on an agent willing a particular outcome. In order to achieve that outcome, a hypothetical imperative determines what the agent ought to do in order to achieve that particular end. Categorical imperatives are objective insofar as they are what an agent ought to do without having willed any particular end. Without having an end in mind an agent is not acting in order to achieve any particular purpose, and should therefore be performed from duty.

According to Kant, the Universal Law Formulation requires an agent’s action must only act in accordance with what the agent can will to be a universal law. (Kant 4:421) According to this principle, any action that cannot be willed as a universal law in morally impermissible, and cannot be performed from a good will at any time.  One aspect that is of importance for the ULF is that a rational agent must have free will. An agent must be rational so as to be able to rationally develop the distinction of whether or not a maxim is universalizable. They must have free will so as to be able to have done otherwise, for if they were unable to do so, Kant would not argue that they are culpable for their actions. A maxim is not universalizable if the rational agent cannot consider the action right in all cases by all agents. The intent of the action is part of the maxim and as such, narrows the scope of the action, and makes it necessary to consider more than just the consequences of the action, but also what affect the intent has on the end.

The major competing theory for Kant’s deontological theory is Utilitarianism which is first argued for by Jeremy Bentham. This theory is commonly considered consequentialist, and determines an action to be right or wrong based on whether the result of an action creates more happiness or more pain. If an action nets more happiness, the classical view of utilitarianism says that the action is morally permissible, but if an action ends up resulting in a net loss of happiness, then the action is wrong to commit. Therefore, according to utilitarianism, an agent must consider the consequences of an action before he performs it, so as to ensure that they will not end up causing more pain as a result. A problem the classical utilitarian faces is demonstrated in a thought experiment called Transplant. A doctor has five patients who all need organ transplants in order to live. One needs a heart, one needs a liver, two need kidneys, and one needs a pancreas. The doctor also has a patient who is there for a checkup, and just happens to be a match for donation. According to the classic utilitarian, the doctor has an obligation to harvest organs from the healthy patient to save the five dying patients so as to maximize happiness.

John Stuart Mill, assesses the situation differently. He presents a different version of Utilitarianism where one’s actions are not determined solely by the consequences of their actions, or at least that is what Daniel Jacobsen argues in Utilitarianism without Consequentialism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. Jacobsen explains Mill’s theory of utilitarianism is not consequentialist because Mill takes into account more than the consequences of an action, and also uses a different valuations than classic utilitarianism. Jacobsen argues that when determining right and wrong, one must make the distinction between whether an action is morally wrong or foolish. For if one causes pain, but the act is not morally wrong because it is not punishable.


“In short, the good of promoting the agent’s own happiness does not justify compulsion, and the bad of causing the agent’s unhappiness does not give others grounds to inflict punishment. Prudent action is not right action, even if it maximizes utility; and self-destructive action is not wrong action, even if there is an available alternative with better consequences. (Jacobson 189)


An act that causes harm always decreases utility, and by traditional utilitarian accounts, is not morally permissible. Jacobsen argues that Mill does not agree with this aspect of utilitarianism, but says that in order for an act to be immoral, it must be punishable. Given the fact that an agent could cause harm to themselves and decrease utility doing so, but generally would not be considered punishable by many standards, the self-harming agent is not acting in a morally impermissible way.

The differences between the classical account of utilitarianism and the commonly interpreted account of Kant’s Universal Law Formulation make the two theories incompatible. For the ULF, despite taking into consideration the consequences of an action in the universalizability of a maxim, also considers the intent of a maxim. A classic utilitarian would argue that regardless of an agent’s intent, the consequences of an action determine whether an action is right or wrong, for a well-intentioned act that causes a net decrease in utility is always wrong. Both accounts do not leave much room for interpretation, and both theories are very strict to their words. However, both theories have also been interpreted in several ways so as to allow for the two to be compatible. Andrews Reath argues that Kant’s ULF can be interpreted to allow an agent to will badly. L.W. Sumner argues that John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism takes into account the individual liberties of agents. Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s utilitarianism factors intention into determination of whether or not an action is truly right or wrong. Given these various interpretations of the ULF and utilitarianism from Joh Stuart Mill’s perspective, I will argue that the two theories are compatible insofar as both, in determining the morality of an actions actually take into account the same information during their rational deliberations.

In Andrews Reath’s paper “Did Kant Hold that Rational Volition is Sub Ratione Boni?” Reath discusses aspects of the ULF that he believes demonstrates that despite a rational agent’s will being good, allows for the agent to will badly. Throughout the paper, Reath discusses varies reasons in which the common interpretation of Kant is flawed, specifically the belief that a rational agent would be unable to will badly because by being a rational agent, they take into account the goodness of an action before performing it. Reath argues that wills act in accordance to laws which, according to the ULF would suggest that rational agents would only be able to perform acts that the rational agent perceives as being a good action. However, given the fact that rational agents do not always reason perfectly, and have a bias towards seeking their own end, we can argue that through bad reasoning a rational agent can make an improper judgement about the goodness of an act.


According to the elective conception, Willkür is the capacity for choice that is independent of and floats free of Wille (in the narrow sense) in that it involves the further decision whether or not follow the judgement of practical reason. Willkür is the capacity to act from universalizable maxims, but (though it ought to follow pure practical reason) it has no constitutive aim or formal principle and thus does not operate sub ratione boni. (Reath 249)


The elective conception says that Willkür is what controls decision making, and it operates on its own accord separate from the rational analytical wille. Given the independence of the decision-making part of the will and the analytical part of the will, it is plain to see that a rational agent could make a decision based on flawed intent. The flawed intent could stem from the agent holding too high a valuation on their ends causing their actions to reflect the flawed reasoning behind their actions. The rational agent could also act contrary to what the rational Wille determines to be right resulting in an agent performing bad acts from the Willkür which would be contrary to the idea that an agent always performs the actions they know to be right.

In “Mill’s Theory of Rights” by L.W. Sumner, Sumner writes about Mill’s Utilitarian ideas that require one to take into account the individual liberties that each rational agent has by nature. Sumner suggests that Utilitarianism, at least from Mill’s perspective, must take into account people’s rights when determining whether an action is right or wrong because by violating a person’s rights, utility is harmed. The harm that stems from violating peoples’ right has a greater impact that on the individual who had their rights violated, but also reaches to others because they perceive the harm that they could themselves receive in regards to not having their rights acknowledged.


This complex strategy thus consists of asset of moral rules with thresholds above which direct appeal to utility is called for. The justification for this indirect decision procedure is itself utilitarian: In the long run its adoption will have better consequences than would a direct procedure. However, there is no guarantee that it will lead agents to do the best. -i.e., the right – thing on every occasion. On the contrary, it will sometimes require agents to conform to a rule even when defection would be utility maximizing. (Sumner 194)


Sumner argues that the long-term effects of respecting an individual’s rights will maximize utility better than the act-utilitarian belief that each action must be considered on a case by case basis. By analyzing each case before acting, act-utilitarians do not consider the consequences of anything beyond the current case they analyze. By not considering long-term utility as part of their analysis, act-utilitarians may often cause a net loss of pleasure which, at least according to rule-utilitarians, would be counter intuitive based on the premise of utilitarianism that is to maximize utility.

Daniel Jacobson explains Mill’s Utilitarianism in a manner that is much more compatible with deontological accounts of ethics insofar as one must take into account the intentions and punishability of an action before deciding whether it is right or wrong in his paper “Utilitarianism without Consequentialism.”  In order for someone to judge an act as morally wrong they must consider the act as having harmed utility (which is where the utilitarian aspect of his theory comes from), but also must justify that the action is subject to punishment.


Although Mill’s sanction-based moral theory is a form of indirect utilitarianism, his sentimentalist metaethics differentiates the view from ordinary rule-utilitarianism because the moral sentiments distinguish the moral realm from the prudential and the aesthetic. In short (and too crudely): things we cannot feel guilty about doing, or resent other people for doing, cannot be wrong—though they may be amenable to other forms of criticism. (Jacobson 185)


According to Jacobson, if an action would not cause an agent to feel guilt, or to seek sanctions against another individual based on the action not being ill intentioned or causing harm to uninvolved party, then the action cannot be considered wrong. This varies from the common interpretation of utilitarianism because often utilitarians believe that if an act, regardless of intention or who the action hurts, results in a diminishing of utility, the action is wrong. By common utilitarian standards, that are unwavering, an agent who hurts themselves accidentally acted wrongly. However, no one would seek sanctions against that individual because they did not seek to cause anyone harm, nor did was his pain malicious in any way. Jacobson argues that this distinction is important for Mill because it causes us to make decisions that are best suited for long-term utility rather than case by case utility.

The accounts of utilitarianism given by both Sumner and Jacobson regard Mill as a rule-utilitarian who seeks to promote individual liberty and long-term utility maximization. Taking this into account with Reath’s argument for a rational agent being able to act against what is always right makes the two conceptions of the ULF and utilitarianism at least partially compatible. Given Mill’s considerations of intent, or at least punishability, of an action one can see that his view is able to work alongside Kant’s ULF insofar as Mill would consider it important for an agent to reason well in order act only from actions that would properly value the liberties of other individuals. By considering the rights of others, an agent would be considering whether the intent of his actions were compatible with respecting the rights of others which is similar to aspects of the ULF needing to consider whether a maxim is able to be willed as a universal law. For if an action would violate the rights of others, a rational agent would therefore not be able to will that the maxim be a universal law, and therefore the action is wrong. Jacobson would necessarily agree with this sentiment given the fact that violating the rights of an agent, assuming the agent were not themselves, would be subject to punishment, and as such would be wrong. By taking into account the punishability, one must consider the intent of an action which also falls in line with the maxim principle of the ULF.



Works Cited

Jacobson, Daniel. 2008. “Utilitarianism without Consequentialism: The Case of John Stuart Mill.” Philosophical Review 159-191.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2001. Print.

Reath, Andrews. 2014. Did Kant Hold that Rational Volition is Sub Ratione Boni.

Sumner, L. W. n.d. Mill’s Theory of Rights.



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