Immanuel Kant

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Your friend is a vice president at the company you work for. It is a nonprofit organization that raises funds to help children and families impacted by mental illness. Your friend is also a single mom with two children. You come to find out that she is embezzling funds from the organization that you both work at. What would Kant argue that you ought to do? What would Mill argue that you ought to do?

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Kant and Mill would take very different approaches to this ethical problem. Kant would argue that a "categorical imperative" or universal law prohibits stealing. This law is rational and applies to everyone without exception. He would argue that the friend of the embezzler has a moral obligation to expose the embezzler without worrying about the consequences. The friend should not consider what it might do to this embezzling single mother and her children to lose her job and perhaps face jail time. The case is cut and dried, according to Kant: the embezzler is breaking a moral law as well as a judicial law and must face the consequences.

Mill, a utilitarian, argues from a different set of ethical premises. For him, the goal of society and moral law is to maximize happiness. He wrote in his book Utilitarianism that

actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

This creates a more difficult ethical situation for the friend to unravel. She must, according to Mill, determine what produces greater happiness: continuing to allow the friend to embezzle or turning her in. In this case, she would have to determine how much her friend is embezzling and then do the moral calculus to decide if her friend benefits more from having the money than do the people she is depriving of the money.

For example, if she is not taking much, and it is keeping her and her children from a dire situation, such as homelessness or paying for a child's medical care, it might be morally best to look the other way. On the other hand, if she is taking a lot of money and spending it on designer clothes and luxuries while depriving others in need of necessities, her friend would be morally obligated to expose her.

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