Claims regarding the moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of any action differ according to ethical frameworks, within which they are situated. What is a morally reprehensible action for the Kantian is often justified and commendable for the Utilitarian. Consequently, the Keebler Elf labor situation will appear to us differently relative to the ethical theory, through which we choose to analyze it. In the following essay, I will first analyze the situation from a Utilitarian perspective; second, I will adopt a Kantian viewpoint.
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John Stuart Mill writes that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (1957, 158). Utilitarianism, then, is a form of consequentialism as it determines the moral praise or blameworthiness of an action by its consequences. An action is right insofar if it promotes the most of happiness for the greatest number, and conversely, it is wrong insofar if it does not. Utilitarianism is a system of utility. For Mill, happiness is utility. Thus, with regard to the Keebler Elf labor situation, the Utilitarian will concern himself with whether or not the surplus of happiness produced by the increasingly efficient labor line will exceed the deficit of happiness created by subjecting the Elves to regrettable working conditions. For example, if the lower price of Keebler treats produces 4 units of happiness-utility for their consumers, and forced Elf labor subtracts 2 units of happiness-utility from the Elves, then the utility-calculation gives us an overall surplus of 2 units. Thus, according to Mill, Keebler’s forced Elf labor is justified by the fact that it produces a surplus of happiness. Implicit in this idea is the claim that each person—in this case, Elves are included—is equal in terms of happiness-utility calculus of Utilitarianism. Since all persons (including Elves) count for one, my own happiness is equivalent to anyone else’s. This is, so to speak, an ultimately democratic theory. If my own happiness is equivalent to everyone else’s, then I should act in a way that considers everyone’s happiness equally. The argument runs thus: 1) each person’s happiness is a good thing to that person; 2) the general happiness is good to the aggregate of all persons; thus, 3) the individual person ought to pursue the happiness of the aggregate. As a result, suffering of one person admits a justification on the basis of happiness of others. No doubt, Keebler’s Elves are suffering, and their suffering is ethically significant. It is wrong for Mill because happiness is good and, therefore, suffering is its opposite. However, in this case, one and the same situation produces a surplus of happiness for others, despite the lack of Elf happiness. Recall that every person counts for one. Thus, if the happiness of Keebler’s customers outranks the suffering of the Elves, then the forced labor is justified. On the other hand, it is very possible that the opposite is true. It is possible that happiness produced by Keebler’s cheaper treats does not outrank the suffering caused by their forced labor situation. It is possible that the suffering produces a deficit of 5 units of happiness-utility for the 4 unit surplus. Consequently, the situation will admit a negative happiness-utility. For the Utilitarian, this means that the forced labor situation cannot be justified and must, therefore, be deemed morally reprehensible. The actions themselves depend on their consequences that affect value. If the consequences are good (more happiness for more people), then the actions are justified; if the consequences are regrettable (more suffering, or less happiness), then the actions are blameworthy. A Utilitarian analysis of the Keebler situation will therefore concern itself with the consequences of the forced labor, and its resultant amount of happiness or suffering.
Actions are right or wrong in principle, regardless of their consequences
In this sense, it is the antithesis to Utilitarianism. Kant’s categorical imperative is the Kantian maxim, upon which rests the moral blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of an action. In his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims that one ought to act in a way that others are considered as ends in themselves, and never only as means. Kant writes: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (2002, 80). If I am lying to my teacher to get an assignment extension, I am using him as a means to the end of maximizing the time I have to write my assignment. Since I am doing this without his knowledge (I am lying), he is not being treated as a means at all; simply as an ends. Since every person is a rational agent, and therefore worthy of respect for the Kantian, every person must be considered an end and never a mere mean. Thus, if I lie to my teacher for extra time, I am acting in a morally reprehensible way. In the Keebler Elf labor situation, the Kantian will concern himself with whether or not the Elves are being treated as ends in themselves, or if they are being utilized as means to some other purpose. It is quite clear, however, that the Elves are being treated only as means to a lower product-price and a higher rate of production. Their disagreeable labor situation is forced means that they are not involved as ends in themselves at all. Thus, the situation is, for the Kantian, morally blameworthy. This at all proves significant, if we take seriously the Kantian paradigm. Consider another example: do I not treat my doctor as a mere means to the end of making me healthy? No, because we are engaging in a consensual relationship, I am (or my health insurance is) paying him for his services and we are in agreement. I am, therefore, treating him both as a means to my better health and as an end in himself (such that he is making a living, agreeing to the terms of our relationship, and so on). Thus, the moral praiseworthiness of an action turns on this point: is the other treated as a mere means or not? In the Keebler case, it seems correct to suppose that the Elves are not being considered as ends in themselves. To treat an employee as an end means setting forth a set of respectable working conditions, to which he freely complies. If he is forced at all, if his working conditions are disagreeable, if his pay is unreasonably low, etc., then he is being treated as a mere means. Consequently, the Keebler situation cannot be justified in the eyes of the Kantian.
As we have seen, the terms of a situation shift considerably according to the ethical framework being used as the basis for analysis. From the Utilitarian perspective, this means that the information relevant involves the happiness surplus/deficit ratio and whether or not the forced Elf labor can be justified on the grounds of an increase of happiness due to an increase in productivity and a decrease in commodity cost. From the Kantian perspective, the only information relevant is whether or not the Elves are being treated as ends in their own right, or if they are being co-opted as means to some other ends; namely, to the end of a higher profit-margin. According to the ethical framework, the moral conclusion depends on different considerations. The Utilitarian considers consequences; the Kantian considers human (and Elf) dignity and respect.