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The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil
Citation
Korsgaard, Christine. 1986. The right to lie: Kant on dealing with evil. Philosophy and Public
Affairs 15, no. 4: 325-349.
Published Version
http://www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=0048-3915
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http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:3200670
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The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil
Christine M. Korsgaard
One of the great difficulties with Kant's moral philosophy is that it seems to
imply that our moral obligations leave us powerless in the face of evil. Kant's theory
sets a high ideal of conduct and tells us to live up to that ideal regardless of what other
persons are doing. The results may be very bad. But Kant says that the law "remains
in full force, because it commands categorically." (G 438-439/57) The most well-
known example of this "rigorism", as it is sometimes called, concerns Kant's views on
our duty to tell the truth.
In two passages in his ethical writings, Kant seems to endorse the following pair
of claims about this duty: First, one must never under any circumstances or for any
purpose tell a lie. Second, if one does tell a lie one is responsible for all of the
consequences that ensue, even if they were completely unforeseeable.
One of the two passages occurs in the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue. There
Kant classifies lying as a violation of a perfect duty to oneself. In one of the casuistical
questions, a servant, under instructions, tells a visitor the lie that his master is not at
home. His master, meanwhile, sneaks off and commits a crime, which would have been
prevented by the watchman sent to arrest him. Kant says:
Upon whom ... does the blame fall? To be sure, also upon
the servant, who here violated a duty to himself by lying,
the consequence of which will now be imputed to him by
his own conscience. (MMV 431/93)

The other passage is the infamous one about the murderer at the door from the essay,
"On A Supposed Right to Lie From Altruistic Motives." Here Kant's claims are more
extreme, for he says that the liar may be held legally as well as ethically responsible for
the consequences, and the series of coincidences he imagines is even more fantastic:
After you have honestly answered the murderer's
question as to whether his intended victim is at home, it
may be that he has slipped out so that he does not come
in the way of the murderer, and thus that the murder may
not be committed. But if you had lied and said he was not
at home when he had really gone out without your
knowing it, and if the murderer had then met him as he
went away and murdered him, you might justly be
accused as the cause of his death. For if you had told the
truth as far as you knew it, perhaps the murderer might
have been apprehended by the neighbors while he
searched the house and thus the deed might have been
prevented. (SRL 427/348)
Kant's readers differ about whether Kant's moral philosophy commits him to the
claims he makes in these passages. Unsympathetic readers are inclined to take them
as evidence of the horrifying conclusions to which Kant was led by his notion that the
necessity in duty is rational necessity - as if Kant were clinging to a logical point in the
teeth of moral decency. Such readers take these conclusions as a defeat for Kant's
ethics, or for ethical rationalism generally; or they take Kant to have confused principles
which are merely general in their application and prima facie in their truth with
absolute and universal laws. Sympathetic readers are likely to argue that Kant here
mistook the implications of his own theory, and to try to show that, by careful

What does Kant say about lying?Immanuel Kant views lying as an immoral and unethical act, and he justifies this notion through the categorical imperative and its four formulations. Before the thorough test of the morality of lying by means of the categorical imperative can be carried out, several elements of Kantian ethics must be examined.