You are on page 1of 4

“Prisons are no good, they are free hostels that accommodate every

need of their inmates. This includes gaining a University degree.”

How would a utilitarian and Kantian view this?

This quote seems intrinsically biased against criminals, and the analogy created
between prisons and almost some sort of paradise is rather far-fetched. However, there
may be some truth in the statement, maybe criminals are not being treated harshly
enough, and deserve to have more human rights deprived from them to show others
that prison is not an easy option.

A utilitarian would not share the viewpoint found in the quote1. Utilitarianism is
structured around the belief that actions should be taken in the effort of resulting in
the least possible human suffering for the greatest number – “the greatest good for the
greatest number.” It was a “Eureka” moment for Jeremy Bentham – the founder of
utilitarianism - when this thought came to mind. This is now commonly known as the
Greatest Happiness Principle, or the Principle of Utility. To ease confusion over
utilitarian ideals over specific issues Bentham devised a methodology to determine
which actions were best taken. This is known as the hedonic, or felicific, calculus.
The calculus takes into account the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty,
propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent of actions so it can be
determined which is right under the Principle of Utility. Using the hedonic calculus a
utilitarian would probably see that the duration of suffering in a prison with poor
conditions was unnecessary pain. Even if the criminal had scarred the lives of many
people the number of people scarred would have to be great as their pain would
unlikely be comparable with that of a criminal suffering in a prison with poor
conditions or receiving severe treatment from prison staff. Some may argue that
criminals should not be treated in the same way as others with the hedonic calculus as
they are not law abiding. However, most would argue that prisoners should be treated
with fundamental human rights like all other human beings.

Utilitarianism can be divided into two sub-categories: Rule Utilitarianism, and Act
“the quote” refers to the title quote in this essay unless specified otherwise

Brendan Howard 6JDS 1

Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism is a methodology whereby the best rule of conduct
is chosen to be followed – a particular rule is followed. As opposed to Rule
Utilitarianism, Act Utilitarianism looks at the specific act and its consequences to find
the ideal Utilitarian stance. Using the system of Rule Utilitarianism one would see
past the possibilities of making prison even worse for the innocent people that live
there and instead be more inclined to support the viewpoint expressed in the quote.
Act Utilitarianism on the other hand, would be more workable into society as one
examines each case in hand rather than following a rule, which could be greatly un-
suited. Bentham’s theory was Act-Utilitarian:

“According to act-utilitarianism, it is the value of the consequences of the particular

act that counts when determining whether the act is right.” – Jeremy Bentham

There are problems with both theories, however. Act Utilitarianism seems to be
capable of justifying any crime whereas Rule Utilitarianism does not recognise the
complexity of the world and that the complexity is too great for creating rules for

John Stuart Mill, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham and one of the most famous utilitarian
thinkers, was a strong supporter of capital punishment and would have been more
prone to share the stance held on prisons in the quote. It was JS Mill that came up
with the idea of “higher” and “lower” pleasures to more easily calculate a utilitarian
viewpoint - although the viability of the hedonic calculus is still very arguable.

Kantian ethics, although very aware of each individual’s rights to be treated equally
and not worse than any other, are more supportive of the viewpoint expressed in the
quote. Although Kant believed that humans should not be treated “as a means to an
end” he did not recognise criminals as holders of this right.

Like the Principle of Utility in utilitarian ethics, The Categorical Imperative is the
keystone of Kantian ethics. The Categorical Imperitive has three versions, the most
important being as follows:

“I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should

Brendan Howard 6JDS 2

become a universal law.” – Immanuel Kant

This ideology of universal laws is reminiscent of Rule Utilitarianism. Also, like with
the utilitarian hedonic calculus, Kant spoke of a method of pinpointing the laws which
have universal moral worth – laws that should be obeyed by all people. With this in
mind the Categorical Imperitive has also become known as the “imperitive of

Kantian ethics corrected the utilitarian belief that the punishment of innocent people
can be justified by benefit for the majority. In brief, morality of an action derives from
intrinsic rightness of the act rather than the resulting benefit or pain for the greatest
number. Kantian beliefs are typified by the “Golden Rule of Christian ethics:”
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Kant said that “only the law of retribution can determine exactly the kind and degree
of punishment.” In simple terms this is the “eye for an eye” philosophy, that a
deserved punishment is determined by the crime committed. It is with this maxim that
Kant would certainly be a supporter of more harsh conditions in prison. He would
have said that a criminal is put in prison to be punished, and that to be imprisoned the
crime committed must be severe enough to justify no access to luxuries.

The author of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx, was very admiring of Kant.
Hegel was the first “fan” of Kant and the works of he and of Feuerbach were very
influential in those of Karl Marx. Marx said of Kant:

“there is only one theory of punishment which is compatible with human dignity and
that is the theory of kant” – Karl Marx

Sonia Gandhi also said that Kant never deviated from his commitment to serve
people with exceptional devotion. However, Mohatma Gandhi was more critical and
he is infamous for saying “an eye for eye would make the whole world blind.”

In conclusion, although there was no maxim for utilitarian or Kantian policy on this
issue, one can imagine the likely viewpoints from each stance. The utilitarian would

Brendan Howard 6JDS 3

generally not be supportive of harsher prison conditions as it would involve “needless
suffering” – although JS Mill would be an exception, who would probably disregard
the pain of criminals. On the other hand, Kantian ethics would generally be supportive
of “less freedom in prisons” as the maxim of “an eye for an eye” would involve
criminals suffering like their victims. Of course, not all Kantian supporters would feel
like this as some may not be able to see criminals as morally depraved but rather
victims of society themselves. Some may still see punishment in prisons as treating
people as a means to an end (ie. To make society safer or more productive). However,
the Kantian would generally feel that as people are treated as rational beings they
should be held accountable for their actions and should be punished accordingly.
Personally, I think effort to make such a change in the prison system would be
fruitless, with much more pressing issues at hand for the governments of the world.

Brendan Howard 6JDS 4