Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kant on Lying: Commentary on Kant's "Supposed Right to Lie", and Other Material

(For those looking for a quick answer to the question, "Does Kant take lying to be always wrong?", the answer is: no, he does not. For specific examples, scroll down to the excerpt fromLectures on Ethics. The distinction between mendacium and falsiloquium will be helpful.) Purpose of this Commentary:
This commentary is mainly for one purpose: to serve as a reference for me in the future whenever I encounter someone who believes that Kant holds lying to be impermissible in any circumstance at all. The reason I have decided to do this with a commentary on the article 'Supposed Right to Lie' is that it is frequently referenced through the famous 'murderer at the door example'. This example is incorrectly taken to show that Kant believed it was against the moral law to, in any way, lie to a murderer who has come to our door in order to kill a friend who is hiding within. The example is genuine, and so is Kant's response here, but I intend to point out the context which reveals these statements are not concerning the moral law but rather rights, as well as to provide some understanding of rights.
Unfortunately, due to the narrow scope of the commentary, this will not be a very helpful guide to scholarship of Kant's understanding of 'Morals', 'Right' or 'Politics' generally, and I will try to keep my comments brief and to the topic of clarifying the context as regards 'lying' as we proceed through the essay. I have made some parenthetical remarks that I felt were off the specific topic of the commentary, but would be helpful for more information.
The manner in which Kant's ethics are taught is offensive to me as a careful reader, and I hope that any educators that may stumble upon this commentary, as well as students, will consider me an available resource if I can be of service. I am not interested in a debate about Kant being correct or incorrect, but rather to further the the possibility of moral discourse and pedagogy, and to assist in the education of such a possibility.
Apart from this commentary I will also include some other quotes from Kant's work that involve lying, or right, that may help clarify and add detail to Kant's position as well. I will also provide some links to some websites that maintain the interpretation I consider standard (incorrect) on the topic of Kant and Lying.
Now, to the essay. I am using this edition available online, the footnotes have been moved more or less in-line, but are offset by square brackets ([]).
The title tells us that we are discussing a 'supposed right'. We must understand what a 'right' is to be able to understand the context of this essay, and most of all we must understand what Kant understands by 'right'. This takes us immediately on a detour to Kant's work Metaphysics of Morals.
Kant gives two definitions of 'right' in close proximity to each other in the Metaphysics of Morals:
"Right is therefore the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be united with the choice of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom." (Metaphysics of Morals, 6:230)
"'Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law.'" (ibid.)
These expositions of 'right' are directed at the laws of a state as the principle which is to say what can and cannot be a law. In the current essay, these are the principles that we are looking at (not the Categorical Imperative, otherwise, for the Categorical Imperative is more foundational than this principle).
Now, if we have a reason to leave the realm of right in the essay to moral law generally, then we should be able to find a reason to in the essay. But, as we go forward it should become apparent that there are only more reasons to remain in the context of law. The strongest of these is the footnote which explicitly states that we are not interested in 'duties to self': "I do not wish here to press this principle so far as to say that “falsehood is a violation of duty to one’s self.” For this principle belongs to Ethics, and here we are speaking only of a duty of justice. Ethics look in this transgression only to the worthlessness, the reproach of which the liar draws on himself."
We will discuss this footnote in more detail when we come to it.
In the work called France, for the year 1797, Part VI. No. 1, on Political Reactions, by Benjamin Constant, the following passage occurs, p. 123:—
“The moral principle that it is one’s duty to speak the truth, if it were taken singly and unconditionally, would make all society impossible. We have the proof of this in the very direct consequences which have been drawn from this principle by a German philosopher, who goes so far as to affirm that to tell a falsehood to a murderer who asked us whether our friend, of whom he was in pursuit, had not taken refuge in our house, would be a crime.” [*]
[* “J. D. Michaelis, in Göttingen, propounded the same strange opinion even before Kant. That Kant is the philosopher here referred to, I have been informed by the ruthor of this work himself.”—K. F. Cramer.[**]
[** I hereby admit that I have really said this in some place which I cannot now recollect.—I. Kant.]]
This quotations is the center of the dispute, and this famous murderer at the door example is given later in a way that shows clearly what is intended by the use of 'crime' at the end of the quotation. However, even though we don't fully know what a 'crime' is understood as, we can at least remark that it is something legal in nature and distinguish this from the moral law which will not render one culpable if broken, but guilty (worthless).
(As a reader, it is troubling that those who read this passage have been so quick to pass over the difference between law and ethics, and I know that it was easy for me to see this distinction when I first encountered this essay as an undergrad. When I encountered this essay I had already spent a few courses dedicated to Kant, and so may have been better prepared than students first encountering Kant in an ethics course. However, what excuse did my professors have who had misread this essay?)
The French philosopher opposes this principle in the following manner, p. 124:—“It is a duty to tell the truth. The notion of duty is inseparable from the notion of right. A duty is what in one being corresponds to the right of another. Where there are no rights there are no duties. To tell the truth then is a duty, but only towards him who has a right to the truth. But no man has a right to a truth that injures others.” The πρωˆτον ψενˆδος here lies in the statement that “To tell the truth is a duty, but only towards him who has a right to the truth.”
It is to be remarked, first, that the expression “to have a right to the truth” is unmeaning. We should rather say, a man has a right to his own truthfulness (veracitas), that is, to subjective truth in his own person. For to have a right objectively to truth would mean that, as in meum and tuum generally, it depends on his will whether a given statement shall be true or false, which would produce a singular logic.
Here Kant clarifies terms and we discover that, at least according to Kant's terms, the "French philosopher" is uttering nonsense.
From this passage we can test our understanding of Kant's use of the term 'right'. Why is a "right to lie" a contradiction, while "a right to the truth" is unmeaning? Kant will argue that "right to lie" contradicts the notion of rights themselves, and we take it that lying is something possible for us. On the other hand a 'right to the truth' is interpreted by Kant as something that is not possible for us, since he takes it to mean we can determine the truth by will alone. Under this understanding of 'a right to the truth' it is nonsense because it is not a possible condition of us either with or without rights.
(The "French philosopher" probably means by 'right to the truth' a right to what some person takes to be true. Kant is not fully engaging with the "French philosopher" by forcing the discussion into his own terms, but my job here is to stick to Kant's terms, since it is his view on lying we are considering. Further, it seems that the "French philosopher" may be using lie in a looser sense then Kant, and that if Kant understood by lie here falsiloquium then he may be in agreement. Falsiloquium is clarified in the quote below the commentary taken from the Kant's Lectures on Ethics.)
Now, the first question is whether a man—in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yes or No—has the right to be untruthful. The second question is whether, in order to prevent a misdeed that threatens him or some one else, he is not actually bound to be untruthful in a certain statement to which an unjust compulsion forces him.
Here are the two questions that Kant wishes to address in the essay. The first, pertaining to a right to lie generally, has a special case associated with it: "in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yet or No". This question is answered quite readily. The second question is if there can be mitigating circumstances in which there is a positive duty to lie for the sake of justice. When the the answer to the first question is established, the second question will also answered on the basis of the first.
Truth in utterances that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of a man to everyone, [*] however great the disadvantage that may arise from it to him or any other; and although by making a false statement I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to speak, yet I do wrong to men in general in the most essential point of duty, so that it may be called a lie (though not in the jurist’s sense), that is, so far as in me lies I cause that declarations in general find no credit, and hence that all rights founded on contract should lose their force; and this is a wrong which is done to mankind.
[* I do not wish here to press this principle so far as to say that “falsehood is a violation of duty to one’s self.” For this principle belongs to Ethics, and here we are speaking only of a duty of justice. Ethics look in this transgression only to the worthlessness, the reproach of which the liar draws on himself.]
How do we do wrong to "men in general" by telling a lie to the murderer? This is to be understood in the context of duties to justice, and rights, and as relating to criminal culpability (as we will see in the example he gives in the next passage). The way that Kant phrases the injury to men generally is in legal terms, if we look to the Doctrine of Right in the Metaphysics of Morals we can find similar passages.
(Some may be inclined to read Kant as falling into the fallacy of a slippery slope when he says that "so far as in me lies I cause that declarations in general find no credit, and hence that all rights founded on contract should lose their force". The criticism being that Kant is saying that if we allow a lie, then one thing will lead to another and suddenly no one will trust any contracts. This is an incorrect interpretation of Kant (a similar misinterpretation infects readers of Plato's Crito), which should be obvious from how ridiculous it sounds to begin with. It becomes more clear when the better interpretive option that is consistent with Kant elsewhere is bright into view.
As noted already, Kant conceives of laws in a principled and universal manner (this will get mentioned at the end of the essay as well). If the principle is violated, everything that depends upon the principle is also violated. Lying, or speaking an untruth when constrained to answer, stands as a condition for contracts generally in the state, and so lying is a violation of the possibility of contracts formally. This is not to say that if someone lies, then contracts are null, but it is to clearly represent the wrong in relation to what such wrongs imply, and in order to determine punishments appropriately.)
Because the admission of lying as a right (and I should add, lying under the conditions of a contract/promise, or under conditions under which one must answer 'Yes' or 'No') would undermine, in principle, all contracts is the entire reason why it cannot become a right - it would introduce a contradiction in the principles of law. There will be more on this point as we continue.
* Please note the footnote here which is very explicit about what is under discussion here: duties of justice. The worth or lack there of that is mentioned is what comes along with the moral law, the principle of which is the Categorical Imperative. In this remark we can see that this principle is excluded from consideration, save for that fact that the state is only possible because we have the moral law to begin with.
If, then, we define a lie merely as an intentionally false declaration towards another man, we need not add that it must injure another; as the jurists think proper to put in their definition (mendacium est falsiloquium in præjudicium alterius). For it always injures another; if not another individual, yet mankind generally, since it vitiates the source of justice. …
Reiterating what I mentioned above. The "source of justice" is vitiated in a lie in these circumstances (speaking an untruth when restrained to answer 'Yes' or 'No').
…This benevolent lie may, however, by accident (casus) become punishable even by civil laws; and that which escapes liability to punishment only by accident may be condemned as a wrong even by external laws. For instance, if you have by a lie hindered a man who is even now planning a murder, you are legally responsible for all the consequences. But if you have strictly adhered to the truth, public justice can find no fault with you, be the unforeseen consequence what it may. It is possible that whilst you have honestly answered Yes to the murderer’s question, whether his intended victim is in the house, the latter may have gone out unobserved, and so not have come in the way of the murderer, and the deed therefore have not been done; whereas, if you lied and said he was not in the house, and he had really gone out (though unknown to you) so that the murderer met him as he went, and executed his purpose on him, then you might with justice be accused as the cause of his death. For, if you had spoken the truth as well as you knew it, perhaps the murderer while seeking for his enemy in the house might have been caught by neighbours coming up and the deed been prevented. Whoever then tells a lie, however good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences of it, even before the civil tribunal, and must pay the penalty for them, however unforeseen they may have been; because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, the laws of which would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to them were admitted.
This example can be quite inflammatory, since we naturally sympathize with the man who would mislead the murderer. However, we must remain in the context of the example: we are not discussing the virtue of this man, but the legality of telling a lie.
To begin with, the example implies another option other than answering the question is available when it says, "perhaps the murderer while seeking for his enemy in the house might have been caught by neighbours coming up and the deed been prevented". If the man answering the murderer's question were to know of his plans, it would be an obvious option for him to stop him. However, all of this can be cast aside - as Kant does himself - since the matter at hand is one of legality of lying, and also under the particular conditions of answering 'yes' or 'no' being unavoidable. The charge here is that you are responsible for what you say, and for the results of what you say.
Kant is clear in other places that this other option is available. For example, we have that he said the following in lecture:
"If an enemy, for example, takes me by the throat and demands to know where my money is kept, I can hide the information here, since he means to misuse the truth. That is still no mendacium, for the other knows that I shall withhold the information, and that he has no right whatsoever to demand the truth from me." (See below the commentary for the complete passage where this appears.)
(There is another point here to address, because I fear that in light of the statements that Kant makes concerning the culpability of the man who lies people get offended additionally since they already were defending his right to lie (and Kant is as well, just not if we are to assume that he is obliged to answer 'Yes' or 'No'). This is where the example shows itself to be quite silly, since not only are we to suppose that this man is somehow obliged to answer truthfully (as if engaged in a contract with the murderer), but also that Kant tells a story about his lie leading to unintended harm (which is also seemingly unlikely). This is nothing more than pedantry on our part if we are offended, but this does not excuse Kant for his poor example: in illustrating the culpability he should have selected a different case as to appear less ridiculous.)
To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency.
Since we have a context for this we can see that the unconditional command here is revealed by the contradiction that would occur if we were to allow lying as a right in principle.
M. Constant makes a thoughtful and sound remark on the decrying of such strict principles, which it is alleged lose themselves in impracticable ideas, and are therefore to be rejected (p. 123):—“In every case in which a principle proved to be true seems to be inapplicable, it is because we do not know the middle principle which contains the medium of its application.” He adduces (p. 121) the doctrine of equality as the first link forming the social chain (p. 121); “namely, that no man can be bound by any laws except those to the formation of which he has contributed. In a very contracted society this principle may be directly applied and become the ordinary rule without requiring any middle principle. But in a very numerous society we must add a new principle to that which we here state. This middle principle is, that the individuals may contribute to the formation of the laws either in their own person or by representatives. Whoever would try to apply the first principle to a numerous society without taking in the middle principle would infallibly bring about its destruction. But this circumstance, which would only show the ignorance or incompetence of the lawgiver, would prove nothing against the principle itself.” He concludes (p. 125) thus: “A principle recognised as truth must, therefore, never be abandoned, however obviously danger may seem to be involved in it.” (And yet the good man himself abandoned the unconditional principle of veracity on account of the danger to society, because he could not discover any middle principle would serve to prevent this danger; and, in fact, no such principle is to be interpolated here.)
Kant here shows how M. Constant seems to speak against himself.
Retaining the names of the persons as they have been here brought forward, “the French philosopher” confounds the action by which one does harm (nocet) to another by telling the truth, the admission of which he cannot avoid, with the action by which he does him wrong (lædit). It was merely an accident (casus) that the truth of the statement did harm to the inhabitant of the house; it was not a free deed (in the juridicial sense). For to admit his right to require another to tell a lie for his benefit would be to admit a claim opposed to all law. …
Once more, a repetition of what is being said: a right to lie is "opposed to all law".
… Every man has not only a right, but the strictest duty to truthfulness in statements which he cannot avoid, whether they do harm to himself or others. He himself, properly speaking, does not do harm to him who suffers thereby; but this harm is caused by accident. For the man is not free to choose, since (if he must speak at all) veracity is an unconditional duty. The “German philosopher” will therefore not adopt as his principle the proposition (p. 124): “It is a duty to speak the truth, but only to him who has a right to the truth,” first on account of the obscurity of the expression, for truth is not a possession, the right to which can be granted to one, and refused to another; and next and chiefly, because the duty of veracity (of which alone we are speaking here) makes no distinction between persons towards whom we have this duty, and towards whom we may be free from it; but is an unconditional duty which holds in all circumstances.
I will remark here once again that the "statements which he cannot avoid" condition of this this discussion is very important. It is clear from other things that Kant writes that this can make all the difference. (Once more, see the excerpt from Lectures on Ethics below).
Now, in order to proceed from a metaphysic of Right (which abstracts from all conditions of experience) to a principle of politics (which implies these notions to cases of experience), and by means of this to the solution of a problem of the latter in accordance with the general principle of right, the philosopher will enunciate:—1. An Axiom, that is, an apodictically certain proposition, which follows directly from the definition of external right (harmony of the freedom of each with the freedom of all by a universal law). 2. A Postulate of external public law as the united will of all on the principle of equality, without which there could not exist the freedom of all. 3. A problem; how it is to be arranged that harmony may be maintained in a society, however large, on principles of freedom and equality (namely by means of a representative system); and this will then become a principle of the political system, the establishment and arrangement of which will contain enactments which, drawn from practical knowledge of men, have in view only the mechanism of administration of justice, and how this is to be suitably carried out. Justice must never be accommodated to the political system, but always the political system to justice.
Once more, I wearily point out that the context is explicitly legal.
(There is a lot to be said about this passage and those that follow, but not much that will further clarify that the claim about the lie is limited to law. I will only point out a few more things.)
“A principle recognised as true (I add, recognised à priori, and therefore apodictic) must never be abandoned, however obviously danger may seem to be involved in it,” says the author. Only here we must not understand the danger of doing harm (accidentally), but of doing wrong; and this would happen if the duty of veracity, which is quite unconditional, and constitutes the supreme condition of justice in utterances, were made conditional and subordinate to other considerations; and, although by a certain lie I in fact do no wrong to any person, yet I infringe the principle of justice in regard to all indispensably necessary statements generally (I do wrong formally, though not materially; and this is much worse than to commit an injustice to any individual, because such a deed does not presuppose any principle leading to it in the subject. The man who, when asked whether in the statement he is about to make he intends to speak truth or not, does not receive the question with indignation at the suspicion thus expressed towards him that he might be a liar, but who asks permission first to consider possible exceptions, is already a liar (in potentia), since he shows that he does not recognize veracity as a duty in itself, but reserves exceptions from a rule which in its nature does not admit of exceptions, since to do so would be self-contradictory.
Kant distinguishes right away between 'harm' and 'wrong', focusing in 'wrong' which is to be understood as opposed to 'right'.
All practical principles of justice must contain strict truths, and the principles here called middle principles can only contain the closer definition of their application to actual cases (according to the rules of politics), and never exceptions from them, since exceptions destroy the universality, an account of which alone they bear the name of principles.
Principles of justice are mentioned, and these hearken back, as we should all know, to the definition of 'right' which I gave from Kant's Metaphysics of Morals at the outset.
What cause is there in this essay to extend beyond 'right' to morals, and to involve transcendental philosophy that is required for the Categorical Imperative?
As an upshot - if we understand lie the way we do casually it is still difficult to mistake this essay for saying that all laws in the most general sense are wrong. We can get clearer, however, by understanding how subtle the notion of lie (mendacium) is for Kant, since he does not take it to be captured in a simple untruth (falsiloquium). Below I have given a number of passages that give more detail on Kant's subtle thoughts on lying.
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Metaphysics of Morals
What is Right?
Like the much-cited query "what is truth?" put to the logician, the question "what is right?" might well embarrass the jurist if he does not want to lapse into a tautology or, instead of giving a universal solution, refer to what the laws in some country at some time prescribe. He can indeed state what is laid down as right (quid sit iuris), that is, what the laws in a certain place and at a certain time say or have said. But whether what these laws prescribe is also right, and what the universal criterion is by which one could recognize right as well as wrong (iustum et iniustum), this would remain hidden from him unless he leaves those empirical principles behind for a while and seeks the sources of such judgments in reason alone, so as to establish the basis for any possible giving of positive laws (although positive laws can serve as excellent guides to this). Like the wooden head in Phaedrus' fable, a merely empirical doctrine of right is a head that may be beautiful but unfortunately it has no brain.
The concept of right, insofar as it is related to an obligation corresponding to it (i.e., the moral concept of right), has to do, first, only with the external and indeed practical relation of one person to another, insofar as their actions, as deeds, can have (direct or indirect) influence on each other. But, second, it does not signify the relation of one's choice to the mere wish (hence also to the mere need) of the other, as in actions of beneficence of callousness, but only a relation to the other's choice. Third, in this reciprocal relation of choice no account at all is taken of the matter of choice, that is, of the end each has in mind with the object he wants; it is not asked, for example, whether someone who buys goods from me for his own commercial use will gain by the transaction or not. All that is in question is the form in the relation of choice on the part of both, insofar as choice is regarded merely as free, and whether the action of one can be united with the freedom of the other in accordance with a universal law.
Right is therefore the sum of the conditions under which the choice of one can be united with the choice of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.
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Metaphysics of Morals
"Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law."
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Lectures on Ethics
If a man announces that he means to disclose his opinions, should he knowingly disclose them in full, or keep something to himself? If he says that he intends to speak his mind, but does not, and makes a false statement instead, that is a falsiloquium, or untruth. Falsiloquium may occur, even though the other cannot presume that I shall state my views. One may impose on a person, without actually saying anything to him. I can make a pretense, and give expression to something, from which the other may deduce what I want him to; but he has no right to infer from my utterance a declaration of intent, and in that case I have told him no lie, for I never declared that I was opening my mind to him; if I pack my bags, for example, people will think I am off on a journey, and that is what I want them to believe; but they have no right to demand any declaration of will from me. That is what the famous John Law did; he kept on building, and when everyone was thinking: He'll never leave, off he went.
I can also, however, commit a falsiloquium, when my intent is to hide my intentions from the other, and he can also presume that I shall do so, since his own purpose is to make a wrongful use of the truth. If an enemy, for example, takes me by the throat and demands to know where my money is kept, I can hide the information here, since he means to misuse the truth. That is still no mendacium, for the other knows that I shall withhold the information, and that he has no right whatsoever to demand the truth from me. Suppose, however, that I actually state that I mean to speak my mind, and that the other is perfectly well aware that he has no right to require this of me, since he is a swindler; the question arises: Am I then a liar? If the other has cheated me, and I cheat him in return, I have certainly done this fellow no wrong; since he has cheated me, he cannot complain about it, yet I am a liar nonetheless, since I have acted contrary to the right of humanity. It is therefore possible for a falsiloquium to be a mendacium - a lie - though it contravenes no right of any man in particular. Whoever may have told me a lie, I do him no wrong if I lie to him in return, but I violate the right of mankind; for I have acted contrary to the condition, and the means, under which a society of men can come about, and thus contrary to the right of humanity.
When one country has broken the peace, the other cannot do so in retaliation, for if that were allowable, no peace would be secure. And thus though something may not infringe the particular right of a man, it is still already a lie, since it is contrary to the right of humanity. If a man publishes a false report, he thereby does no wrong to anyone in particular, but offends against mankind, for if that were to become general, the human craving for knowledge would be thwarted; apart from speculation, I have only two ways of enlarging my store of information: by experience, and by testimony. But now since I cannot experience everything myself, if the reports of others were to be false tidings, the desire for knowledge could not be satisfied. A mendacium is thus a falsiloquium in praejudicium humanitatis (untruth damaging to humanity), even when it is not also in violation of any particular jus quaesitum (special right) of another. In law a mendacium is a falsiloquium in praejudicium alterius (untruth damaging to another person), and cannot be anything else there, but from the moral viewpoint it is a falsiloquium in praejudicium humanitatis. Not every untruth is a lie; it is so only if there is an express declaration of my willingness to inform the other of my thought. Every lie is objectionable and deserving of contempt, for once we declare that we are telling the other our thoughts, and fail to do it, we have broken the pactum, and acted contrary to the right of humanity. But if, in all cases, we were to remain faithful to every detail of the truth, we might often expose ourselves to the wickedness of others, who wanted to abuse our truthfulness. If everyone were well disposed, it would not only be a duty not to lie, but nobody would need to do it, since he would have nothing to worry about. Now, however, since men are malicious, it is true that we often court danger by punctilious observance of the truth, and hence has arisen the concept of the necessary lie, which is a very critical point for the moral philosopher. For seeing that one may steal, kill or cheat from necessity, the case of emergency subverts the whole of morality, since if that is the plea, it rests upon everyone to judge whether he deems it an emergency or not; and since the ground here is not determined, as to where emergency arises, the moral rules are not certain. For example, somebody, who knows that I have money, asks me: Do you have money at home? If I keep silent, the other concludes that I do. If I say yes, he takes it away from me; if I say no, I tell a lie; so what am I to do? So far as I am constrained, by force used against me, to make an admission, and a wrongful use is made of my statement, and I am unable to save myself by silence, the lie is a weapon of defense; the declaration extorted, that is then misused, permits me to defend myself, for whether my admission or my money is extracted, is all the same. hence there is no case in which a necessary lie should occur, save where the declaration is wrung from me, and I am also convinced that the other means to make a wrongful use of it.
The question arises, whether a lie that affects nobody's interests, and does nobody any harm, is likewise a lie? It is, for I promise to speak my mind, and if I fail to speak it truly, I do not, indeed, act in praejudicium of the particular individual concerned, but I do so act in regard to humanity. There are also lies whereby the other is cheated. To cheat is to make a lying promise. breach of faith is when we promise something truthfully, but do not have so high a regard for the promise as to keep it. The lying promise is offensive to the other, and though it does not invariably cause offense, there is still always something mean about it. If I promise, for example, to send a person wine, but subsequently make light of it, that is already a cheat, for though he certainly has no right to demand such a gift from me, it is still cheating, in that it was already, as he saw it, a part of his property.
Reservatio mentalis (mental reservation) is a form of dissimulation, and aequivocatio (equivocation) of simulation. Aequivocatio is permitted, in order to reduce the other to silence and get rid of him, so that he shall no longer try to extract the truth from us, once he sees that we cannot give it to him, and do not wish to tell him a lie. If the other is wise, he will also let it go at that. It is quite difficult though, to employ equivocation when we state and declare that we are expressing our views, for in that case the other may infer something else from the equivocation, and then I have deceived him. Such lies, professing to achieve some good result, were called by the Jesuits peccatum philosophicum, or peccatillum (white lie), from which comes the word 'bagatelle'. But the lie is intrinsically a worthless thing, whether its intentions be good or bad, because it is even as to form; it is still more worthless, however, when it is also evil as to matter. For by lies something evil may always result. A liar is a cowardly fellow, for since he has no other way of obtaining something, or getting out of trouble, he starts to tell lies. But a bold man will love the truth, and never let a casus necessitatis arise. All such methods, whereby the other man cannot be on his guard, are utterly vile. Lying, assassination and poisoning are amongst them. A highwayman's attack is not so low, for there one may take precautions, but not against the poisoner, since one does, after all, have to eat. Flattery is not always mendacity, but rather a want of self-esteem, where we do not scruple to demean our own worth beneath another's, and elevate his, in order to gain something thereby. But one may also flatter from kindheartedness, and this is done by some kindly souls, who have a high opinion of others. So we have both well meaning and false flattery. The former is weak, but the other low. When men do not flatter, they lapse into censoriousness.
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Metaphysics of Morals, Doctrine of Virtue
Casuistical questions
Can an untruth from mere politeness(e.g., the "your obedient servant" at the end of a letter) be considered a lie? No one is deceived by it. - An author asks one of his readers "How do you like my work?" One could merely seem to have an answer, by joking about the impropriety of such a question. Bu who has his wit always ready? The author will take the slightest hesitation in answering as an insult. May one, then, say what is expected of one?
If I say something untrue in more serious matters, having to do with what is mine or yours, must I answer for all the consequences it might have? For example, a householder has ordered his servant to say "not at home" if a certain human being asks for him. The servant does this and, as a result, the master slips away and commits a serious crime, which would otherwise have been prevented by the guard sent to arrest him. Who (in accordance with ethical principles) is guilty in this case? Surely the servant, too, who violated a duty to himself by his lie, the results of which his own conscience imputes to him.
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Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View
Finally, one can also attribute to this unintentional play of productive power of imagination, which can then be called fantasy, the tendency to harmless lying that is always met with in children and now and then in adults who, though otherwise good-natured, sometimes have this tendency almost as a hereditary disease. The events and supposed adventures they narrate issue from the power of imagination like a growing avalanche as it rolls down, and they do not have any kind of advantage in view except simply to make their stories interesting. This is like Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, who made five people out of two buckram-clad men before he finished his story.
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Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View
It could well be that on some other planet there might be rational beings who could not think in any other way but aloud; that is, they could not have any thoughts that they did no at the same time utter, whether awake or dreaming, in the company of others or alone. What kind of behavior toward others would this produce, and how would it differ from that of our human species? Unless they were all pure as angels, it is inconceivable how they could live in peace together, how anyone could have any respect at all for anyone else, and how they could get on well together. -So it already belongs to the original composition of a human creature to the concept of his species to explore the thoughts of others but to withhold one's own; a neat quality which then does not fail to progress gradually from dissimulation to intentional deception and finally to lying. This would then result in a caricature of our species that would warrant not mere good-natured laughter at it but contempt for what constitutes its character, and the admission that this race of terrestrial rational beings deserves no honorable place among the (to us unknown) other rational beings - except that precisely this condemning judgment reveals a moral predisposition in us, an innate demand of reason, also to work against this propensity. So it presents the human species not as evil, but as a species of rational beings that strives among obstacles to rise out of evil in constant progress toward the good. In this its volition is generally good, but achievement is difficult because one cannot expect to reach the goal by the free agreement of individuals, but only by a progressive organization of citizens of the earth into and toward the species as a system that is cosmopolitcally united.
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Here are some offending articles about Kant's Ethics online. Finding these is as easy as searching Google for "Kant on Lying":


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. Unfortunately, it still seems extremely unclear.

Is there a way that you could compress this into a simpler form, say, 3 paragraphs that are not laden with jargon?

There are several things I find confusing. Kant refers to contradiction. This makes no sense to me. We speak truth or untruth to get what we want. If we get what we want, what we expect, then there's no contradiction. In order for there to be a contradiction, I must assume P, then later conclude ~P. I'm just not seeing it.

I get the sense that Kant is not referring to consequentialist strategies regarding when to speak truth versus untruth. And yet in some passages (especially relating to the CI), he seems to be making the slippery slope argument you disclaim.

Is Kant referring to actions as they would be conceived in an ideal society? Is he saying something like, "In the best possible society, nobody would lie (or have good cause to lie), and so lying in our imperfect world implicitly contradicts our goal to create a more ideal society"? This sounds like a bad interpretation because it stems from consequentialist motives. (It also doesn't follow, since the creation of a more ideal society may not be reliant on unconditional adoption of practices of the ideal society by individuals.)

Is Kant even saying anything normative? If I falsely tell the murderer at the door that my guest is not home, then Kant considers me a liar. Fine. If "liar" is simply a label for people who don't always tell the truth, then, sure, that makes me a liar. But so what? Such a label does not convey moral value or interpretation. Why should I care? Morality and caring are basically the same thing. Why should I care about what Kant has to say? My decision to lie to the murderer is consequentialist. Nothing Kant says is going to change this.

You're highlighting several distinctions. Right refers to a principle of state law? Moral law refers to a principle of God's law? And ethics refers to a principle of personal virtue?

Even given this breakdown, I still can't make sense of things. If we're talking about state law, are we now talking about consequentialism?

And where does the CI fit?

Erik Christianson said...

Thanks for you comment. I will need multiple posts to reply.

I apologize that I haven't been entirely clear. Some of confusion is unavoidable here, since the I was setting out on the narrow task addressing 'lying'. I consider myself successful if I have managed to instill in any reader that Kant does not take lying to be wrong in every case, and that a poor use is made of the essay "Supposed Right to Lie". However, with this task aside I do not mind addressing whatever other questions you have even though I may need to be more brief than I would like in this format. I will take your concerns in a different order than you present them, since I think it may be beneficial for clarity.

The difference between moral law, rights, and virtue in Kant can be described in the following way. (1)A moral law (AKA duty) is a categorical imperative. (2)A right is any action in a state that can conform to the free choice of all other individuals in the state. (3)Virtue is the degree to which you are inclined towards duty.

Erik Christianson said...

1) What is a categorical imperative? (Please excuse me if I stray somewhat from Kant's terminology here for the purpose of clarity, though I won't stray from his meaning). If you experience 'knowing what is good (or bad)' (or, 'what you ought to do', which is the same), this is a categorical imperative. We have such experiences regularly. It helps to break down the word: an imperative is a command, and categorical refers to a type of judgment. I will spend some extra time on 'categorical' now.

In the first critique, Kant explains the difference between three forms of judgment: categorical, hypothetical and disjunctive. This division is incredibly important. For our purposes we can stick to categorical and hypothetical judgments. A categorical judgment is of the form x is y, while a hypothetical judgment is of the form x then y. We understand single experiences categorically and hypothetically (and disjunctively). So, relating this back to "duty", Kant takes the categorical judgment as the starting point for a pure moral philosophy. Why? Put briefly, because we should understand morals starting from "what it is like for something to be good (or bad)". Starting from the hypothetical judgment would be starting from "what is is like for something to be good (or bad) for something". Is there an error in analyzing the form of the hypothetical judgment? Absolutely not, but this latter project is not a question of our understanding of goodness, but of use.

A brief example of the experience of the a categorical judgment. Imagine you have done something you wish you had not, and you are confronted about it with an opportunity to avoid it with a lie. Now, if you experience an understanding "I ought not lie", you have experienced a categorical imperative; if you experience "if I lie then I could get caught and it will be worse", then you have experienced a hypothetical imperative. The difference between these 'mental events' is quite easy to detect. (Please note that these aren't experienced as an inner monologue or something like that. It comes out in that form when we try to present, through introspection, a rationalization.)

Now, I have been saying 'categorical imperative' in a way unfamiliar. Usually in the literature on Kant 'categorical imperative' refers to the principle "Act only on that maxim which you can also will to be a universal law of nature" (or the other formulations). This Categorical Imperative is the form of the categorical imperative we experience. The Categorical Imperative (principle) is not something Kant invents, but an interpretation (description) of what is generally to be understood between all categorical imperatives (judgments).

Kant's pure moral philosophy is often read as normative, but there is nothing normative in the Critique of Practical Reason - it is a work of transcendental philosophy. Kant scholarship has, however, missed this point, by focusing too much it seems on some examples Kant gives to clarity his point in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Instead of taking these examples to contribute to clarifying the principle, they are incorrectly read as normative statements. The experience of duty, however, may be able to be called a normative experience. Such normative judgments which we experience are often different for each other depending on how we understand what is involved.

Schiller put this all best when he said: "With regard to the ideas which predominate in the practical part of Kant's system, philosophers only disagree, while mankind, I am confident of proving, have never done so."

Erik Christianson said...

) A right is grounded in this principle: "Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law."

In right we actually have the technical working out of a science, as it were, that is grounded on this principle. Rights are taken in the context of a state, while moral judgments preexist and are contemporary with a state. Some discussion about contradiction may be convenient now.

Contradictions in a judgment are strictly speaking impossible. We always think consistantly at any given time, however, we can discover that the truths we hold to can be contradicted as we encounter new judgments about the world. Kant formulates the principle of the moral law (Categorical Imperative), as well as the principle of Right, so that they have a form that allows of a contradiction. Contradiction here is derivative from the experience of having to correct our earlier judgments. We don't actually experience an 'impossible thought' in a duty, though the judgment is formally represented as a contradiction. For example, to maintain that x is round and square is impossible for us, even though we can utter the proposition. The Categorical Imperative and principle of Right work in the same manner.

This is why it is not a slippery slope when Kant says: "although by making a false statement I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to speak, yet I do wrong to men in general in the most essential point of duty, so that it may be called a lie (though not in the jurist’s sense), that is, so far as in me lies I cause that declarations in general find no credit, and hence that all rights founded on contract should lose their force; and this is a wrong which is done to mankind."

Here Kant is not saying, if one person lies then it will contribute to the swift degradation of society and its collapse, but rather that such an action is contradictory when one attempts to universalize it, and that this, in a formal sense, for us would make all law null in principle - however, not in concreto.

3) I will briefly mention virtue, which is simply the degree to which we are inclined towards duty. Someone can be virtuous without being a good person, and this may actually make them more likable for others in some cases, though they may not have as great a sense of self-worth as if they were moral.

If someone hates poor people and yet finds it his duty to give to the poor, and does, then he has moral worth, but no virtue. If someone else knows that it is good to give to the poor, but only does it because he likes doing it, he has virtue but no moral worth. Of course, you can theoretically be inclined towards all your duties, yet do them because they are your duties, but Kant recognizes that in all three of these cases it is never clear on what basis one has performed the action, what is important is that we conceive of it as possible to have acted from duty.

Erik Christianson said...

Concerning Consequentialism: Kant dismisses consequential ism from being able to serve as a principle of the moral law. Why? Because Consequentialism does not issue categorical imperatives, and I have explained why Kant takes his starting point from categorical imperatives instead. Kant does not dismiss Consequentialism from being a convenient way of making general (though not absolute) rules, and for discussing and rationalizing with each other. I don't think that Consequentialism even tries to set it up as a principle of pure reason, so as far as I can see there is in fact no conflict at all between Kant's work in ethics and Consequentialism other than where they are starting with their discourse on good or bad: Kant begins from "what it's like to experience a duty" and analyzes this into its form, while Consequentialism recognizes values (and duties) that we maintain, and uses a rule of trying to maximize those things.

Of course, we find that sometimes we think the results of a Consequentialism position are bad, and if we do, then we do so on the basis of a categorical judgment. I think maintaining a positive relationship between pure moral philosophy and Consequentialism of any kind can be beneficial (however, I think we can dispense with 'Deontology' - Kant is NOT a Deontology in our contemporary sense).

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On being called a liar. The passage I cite from the Lectures on Ethics may have more information on when someone is a liar and when they aren't. It involves the difference between a falsiloquium and a mendacium. There are other passages that I will try to gather together.

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I apologize for the great length of my reply, and if there is anything I can clarify for you I will do my best. I hope to write some posts on these additional topics, using material from this post, and hopefully these can be expanded to be clearer.


brian said...

Allen Wood wrote a pretty good article on some of the same distinctions you address here. He's sensitive to the difference between the "Doctrine of Right" and the "Doctrine of Virtue."

It's worth noting that the example in the Groundwork concerns a "lying promise" and not just any old lie. I think of a lying promise (especially to borrow money) as being almost like a contract (albeit not necessarily in writing).

But I cannot go along with you when you seem to deny that Kant is a deontologist. If you're saying that Kantian ethics is somehow compatible with consequentialism, this is wrong (I don't know that you were, but your reply was a bit confusing). Sure, Kant expected sensible people to consider the outcomes of there actions. Other things being equal, do what will work out for the best. But grounding principles matter, and the issue of paternalistic lying brings out the difference between Kantians and Utilitarians quite nicely. For Kant, everything depends upon whether our actions are done from duty. If the president lies to the people -- even if it's in their best interest not to know -- he treats them as means to an end, which is wrong no matter what the outcome.

All the best,

Here's a link to Wood's article if you're interested:


Erik Christianson said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the comments and for the link. I hope I have an opportunity to read it soon.

The reason I avoided the distinction between a lying promise and 'any old lie', as you say here, is that I found it to be distracting when discussing Supposed Right to Lie". There certainly is a difference to the moral law between different things that we may call lies (which Kant may call falsiloquiums, such as various deceptions), but the issue I had in commenting on the article is precisely that it usually is read as dealing with the moral law generally, when in fact it only deals with right. (If you want to be technical, it also deals with the moral law, but only in part - namely what Kant calls in the article duties of Justice.)

Also, I am maintaining still that Kant is not a Deontologist. My remark about that, however, is some what polemical against many Deontologists that I have read who seem to take Kant to have a prescriptive ethics. Now, Kant the man certainly made demands of others concerning their conduct (as do we all, for who has never been offended by another's action?), but his philosophy contains no prescription. (I often jocularly refer to Kant's transcendental philosophy as the hard problem of common sense.)

"But who would even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it? Just as if, before him, the world had been ignorant of what duty is or in thoroughgoing error about it." (Critique of Practical Reason, Preface)

"Do you really require that a mode of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding, and should only be revealed to you by philosophers?" (Critique of Pure Reason, A831 B859)

Concerning Consequentialism: Kant is opposed to it insofar as it would try to function as the law (what I called principle above) of morality. Now, I should be a bit more precise. There are principles of autonomy (categorical) and principles of heteronomy (hypothetical). Consequentialism falls under heteronomy. While Kant denies that there are laws of heteronomy in morals, this is ultimately saying that duty is not properly described by them, since the form of a duty is the question the Categorical Imperative answers. He does not deny that principles of heteronomy can be pragmatic precepts, or prudential rules with all sorts of benefit arising from them.

What I mean when I say that they are actually in no conflict is that I do not see Consequentialism actually giving an argument of the sort Kant is trying to deny. Consequentialists do not argue that the form of moral judgments is hypothetical, and that we can see that in our daily experience, but rather they debate on a normative playing field (as opposed to Kant's descriptive one). They argue for better pragmatic precepts, which is certainly helpful, but not pure moral philosophy.