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Kant's explanation of why it is wrong to tell a lie


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Kant's explanation of why it is wrong to tell a lie
Date: 16th October 2009 11:48

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 12 October, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London 'Ethics Historical Perspectives' module, in response to the question, 'Is Kant right in thinking that appeal to the categorical imperative is enough to show lying to be morally wrong?'

I'm impressed that you managed to write 1825 words in an hour. You do use up a fair amount of words on the general topic of the Categorical Imperative before you address the question of lying (in your seventh paragraph!).

The question of lying is especially interesting because in some ways it looks like the 'best case scenario' for the Categorical Imperative. We feel, intuitively, that there is something wrong with the admission, 'I am willing to lie, if I find myself in a tight spot.' If I told you this, and you found me in a tight spot, then why should you believe anything I say?

The Categorical Imperative (in its first formulation) effectively uses this thought. Just as I am extremely reluctant to tell you that I am a liar, so the general acceptance that lies were OK is almost unthinkable.

Almost -- and yet, as you point out, there is a case for saying that human discourse could survive, 'Maybe humans adapt in a way that they continue to have trust and communication is still possible by figuring out patterns or betting on what people say in certain ways.'

There was a notorious article published in 1968 in the Harvard Business Review, by Albert Carr, 'Is Business Bluffing Ethical?' which made the case that in business (as contrasted with life outside the business arena) lies were acceptable as 'part of the game' in the same way that bluffing is part of the game of poker. I don't think Carr is right about this, but the idea that language could survive what would effectively be the destruction of an 'ethics of discourse' has some plausibility.

One only has to think of the various fictional representations of the gangster world, in novels and films, to grasp the idea of a form of discourse where no-one 'trusts' anyone, but rather makes 'bets' on whether a person will do what he says, given the sanctions available against those who are caught breaking their word.

If this scenario is conceivable, then surely it is not such a great step to imagine a world which the gangster style of discourse is the only discourse.

One possibility, in response to the original question, might be that the categorical imperative is not strictly 'enough to show lying to be morally wrong' yet it does offer a powerful explanation of why we reject lying. In other words, what the CI offers is 'interpretation' rather than 'proof'.

In his essay, 'On the supposed right to lie from philanthropic motives' Kant makes the point, in response to examples like that of the Nazi and the persecuted innocent which you cite, that if I lie to the Nazi, and if by chance the Nazi successfully captures the man as a result of following my lying directions (e.g. because I was mistaken about exactly where the man was hiding), then I effectively take on the moral responsibility for the man's fate. If it hadn't been for my lies, the man would have lived.

We don't *see* this as a valid valid argument because we embrace consequentialist thinking where any person is a potential means to some 'better' end. When I lied to the Nazi, I must have realized that there was a chance that this would happen, but I did a quick 'cost benefit' analysis and discounted it. Once you give up the *principle*, 'do not tell a lie', then you are effectively giving up the idea that certain actions are beyond our ethical reach, Kant would say. This is what he means by, 'Do not use another person as a mere means'.

You suggest that there could be a 'trade off in moral dilemmas'. However, the way Kant would see this, we are not dealing with a case of a 'clash of principles' (which would indeed threaten the very coherence of the CI) but rather a conflict between principles and consequences.

Again, as Kant would be quick to point out, any attempt to state when and where it is acceptable to lie is self-defeating. Suppose we had this rule, carefully formulated with every exception we can think of: cases will inevitably arise which we hadn't foreseen, which force us to break our carefully worded rule.

I think there is a deep paradox here, regarding the very idea that some things are just wrong, period, yet there will always arise circumstances when you have to do something which is wrong. You might find my discussion in Tentative Answers relevant:

In this post, I look at Peter Geach's argument that the only coherent defence of moral principles is to see them as the expression of God's Law.

All the best,