Kant, lying to a murderer, and bad philosophy

Are great philosophers bad philosophers? Michael Huemer thinks so. This is supposedly because they come up with bad arguments to support conclusions that are “absurd” and “outrageous”. In the face of conclusions like that, they should be “going back and questioning their starting points”, but they prefer to stick to their irrational reasoning. Huemer’s examples are Plato, Hume and Kant. Here’s his take on Kant:

We all know about Kant’s ethical theory, centered on the “Categorical Imperative” (which has “three formulations” that are somehow one, kind of like the Holy Trinity). According to one formulation, you always have to act in such a way that you could will that the maxim of your action was a universal law. That’s supposed to capture all of morality, and you have to follow that principle no matter what. E.g., if a murderer comes to your door looking for his intended victim, and the victim happens to be hiding in your house, you can’t just lie to the murderer and tell him the victim is somewhere else. Because you can’t will that everyone always lie.

What about Kant’s argument for the Categorical Imperative? I bet you can’t say what the argument was, can you? That’s because almost no one covers it in classes or discusses it in the literature. And that’s because it’s completely unconvincing and not worth discussing, except to make points about bad arguments. Here is a key statement:

But if I think of a categorical imperative, I know immediately what it contains. For since the imperative contains besides the law only the necessity that the maxim should accord with this law, while the law contains no condition to which it is restricted, there is nothing remaining in it except the universality of law as such to which the maxim of the action should conform; and in effect this conformity alone is represented as necessary by the imperative.
There is, therefore, only one categorical imperative. It is: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
(Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals [1969], 44)

Got that? Okay, so that explains why you can’t lie to murderers to stop them from finding their intended victims.

I think this is a really awful caricature of Kant’s views. First of all, it simply doesn’t follow from the categorical imperative that you can never lie, because “you can’t will that everyone always lie”. Neither Kant believes it follows, nor any Kant scholar I can think of. In fact Kant himself gives examples of justified lies in his “Lectures on Ethics”. It’s true that he argued it’d be wrong to lie to the murderer, but “you can’t will that everyone always lie” has nothing to do with his argument.

This is because for Kant in morals (Sitten) we have two kinds of duties: duties of ethics (Ethik) and duties of right (Recht). The exact relation between the two is a matter of controversy, but it is clear that the categorical imperative, in all its formulations, is a principle of the former only. And the duty to tell the truth that Kant discusses in “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy”, where the murderer argument can be found, is a duty of right.*

Secondly, Kant often uses the word “lie” (Lüge) in a technical sense: “untruthful declaration”, where “declaration” (Aussage/Deklaration) is another technical term meaning “a statement that somebody is warranted in relying on and can make the speaker liable by law if it’s intentionally false”. The Latin equivalent is mendacium. It’s simply true by definition that mendacium is always wrong. It can be contrasted with a lie that is any attempt to make somebody believe in a falsehood and can be justified (falsiloquium in Latin). The gist of Kant’s argument in “On a Supposed Right…” is that lying to the murderer would count as mendacium, even though the murderer is not entitled to our declaration.

Is his argument any good? I don’t actually think so – Kant doesn’t seem to be doing a great job explaining why we’re dealing with mendacium in this case. The quality of his paper might be explained by the fact that he wrote it as a quick reply to a philosopher called Benjamin Constant, who had written about “a German philosopher, who goes so far as to maintain that it would be a crime to lie to a murderer who asked us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. Kant responded by saying he thought he had said it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where. But in fact he never had. And then the argument followed. Some scholars, like H. J. Paton, believe that this had to do with Kant’s age at that time:

It is a melancholy fact that at the age of 73 a man may become more forgetful, and perhaps more petulant, than he was in his prime. Kant’s forgetfulness led him to accept as his own a doctrine that he had never taught. Is it going too far to suggest that his petulance may have led him to defend it?

Whatever the reason was, it’s just silly to argue that Kant was a bad philosopher because at one point of his life he put forward one dodgy argument, and even sillier to argue that his conclusion follows from the categorical imperative.

Moreover, Huemer’s reasoning here seems self-refuting. He modestly calls himself a good philosopher, but judging by his own standards, he’s a bad one: he arrives at an outrageous conclusion (“great philosophers are bad philosophers”) by offering a poor argument (based on a completely unsubstantiated premise according to which being bad at philosophy has something to do with arriving at outrageous conclusions). Which is exactly what he accuses Kant of doing.


* I’m basically recycling comments I left on Huemer’s blog, which are mostly based on what Allen Wood says in his “Kantian Ethics”. Note that there are many philosophers who argue that lying to the murderer doesn’t contradict the categorical imperative, however, as Wood points out, they all seem to be ignoring Kant’s distinction between duties of ethics and duties of right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s