Home / kant on lying quizlet / Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door One More …

Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door One More … - kant on lying quizlet

Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door One More …-kant on lying quizlet

Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . .
One More Time: Kant's Legal Philosophy and Lies to
Murderers and Nazis
Helga Varden
Kant's example of lying to the murderer at the door has been a cherished
source of scorn for thinkers with little sympathy for Kant's philosophy and a
source of deep puzzlement for those more favorably inclined. The problem is that
Kant seems to say that it is always wrong to lie--even to a murderer asking for the
whereabouts of his victim--and that if one does lie and despite one's good
intentions the lie leads to the murderer's capture of the victim, then the liar is
partially responsible for the killing of the victim. If this is correct, then Kant's
account seems not only to require us to respect the murderer more than the victim,
but also that somehow we can be responsible for the consequences of another's
wrongdoing. After World War II our spontaneous, negative reaction to this appar-
ently absurd line of argument is made even starker by replacing the murderer at the
door with a Nazi officer looking for Jews hidden in people's homes. Does Kant
really mean to say that people hiding Jews in their homes should have told the
truth to the Nazis, and that if they did lie, they became co-responsible for the
heinous acts committed against those Jews who, like Anne Frank, were caught
anyway? Because this is clearly what Kant argues, the critics continue, his dis-
cussion of lying to the murderer brings out the true, dark side not only of Kant's
universalistic moral theory but also of Kant himself. We get the gloomy picture of
a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his
theory, and instead grotesquely defends the inhumane by turning it into an a priori,
moral command.
In this paper, I argue that Kant's discussion of lying to the murderer at the
door has been seriously misinterpreted. My suggestion is that this is primarily a
result of the fact that the Doctrine of Right with its conception of rightful, external
freedom has been given insufficient attention in Kant interpretation. It is in the
Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world.
Hence it is in this work we find many of the arguments needed not only to
understand his analysis of lying to the murderer in "On a Supposed Right to Lie
from Philanthropy," but also to analyze the added complexity the Nazi officer
brings to the example. When we interpret lying to the murderer in light of Kant's
JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 41 No. 4, Winter 2010, 403-421.
? 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
josp_1507 403..421
404 Helga Varden
discussion in the Doctrine of Right, we can make sense of why lying to the
murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become
responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do
wrong in general. The account of rightful freedom provided in the Doctrine of
Right also makes it possible to see why replacing the murderer with a Nazi officer
adds philosophical complexity rather than just one more reason to reject Kant's
view. The introduction of the Nazi officer requires us to consider the role of a
public authority in ensuring rightful relations in general and what happens to the
analysis of lying when rightful interactions as a matter of fact are no longer
possible. We will see that the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally
punishable is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The
Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant's view and conse-
quently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis. Two further strengths of
Kant's account, I propose in the final sections of the paper, lie in its ability to
critique how European legal systems aimed to deal with the Nazis after the war
was over and in its contribution to our understanding of the experiences of war
The Murderer at the Door
Kant's short essay "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy" (hereafter
"Supposed Right to Lie") is a response to a challenge raised by Benjamin Constant
in 1797. Kant begins by quoting Constant's challenges to him. Constant argues:
The moral principle, "it is a duty to tell the truth" would, if taken unconditionally and
singly, make any society impossible. We have proof of this in the very direct consequences
drawn from this principle by a German philosopher [Kant], 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. . . . It is a duty to tell the truth. The concept
of duty is inseparable from the concept of right. A duty is that on the part of one being which
corresponds to the rights of another. Where there are no rights, there are no duties. To tell
the truth is therefore a duty, but only to one who has a right to the truth. But no one has a
right to a truth that harms others. (8: 425)
Constant here argues against Kant that if it is always wrong to lie, then
society is impossible, by which, I believe, Constant means that it would be
practically impossible to protect oneself against violent aggressors. In addition,
Constant maintains, whether or not lying is wrong depends on the circum-
stances, that is, to whom we are lying. Murderers do not have a right to the truth
and hence no one has the corresponding duty to tell them the truth. Constant
therefore concludes--allegedly against Kant--that lying to murderers should
not be considered a crime.
The traditional reading of Kant outlined in the introduction is very much in
line with Constant's general take on Kant. In addition, of course, it takes Kant's
Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door 405
response to Constant in the "Supposed Right to Lie" as more support for the
reading. And if one were to choose a particular part of Kant's essay that appears
to confirm the traditional view, one is likely to choose the following passage:
. . . if you have by a lie prevented someone just now bent on murder from committing the
deed, then you are legally accountable for all the consequences that might arise from it. But
if you have kept strictly to the truth, then public justice can hold nothing against you,
whatever the unforeseen consequences might be. It is still possible that, after you have
honestly answered "yes" to the murderer's question as to whether his enemy is at home, the
latter has nevertheless gone out unnoticed, so that he would not meet the murderer and the
deed would not be done; but if you had lied and said that he is not at home, and he has
actually gone out (though you are not aware of it), so that the murderer encounters him
while going away and perpetrates his deed on him, then you can by right be prosecuted as
the author of his death. For if you had told the truth to the best of your knowledge, then
neighbors might have come and apprehended the murderer while he was searching the
house for his enemy and the deed would have been prevented. Thus one who tells a lie,
however well disposed he may be, must be responsible for its consequences even before a
civil court and must pay the penalty for them, however unforeseen they may have been; for
truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties to be grounded on
contract, the laws of which is made uncertain and useless if even the least exception to it is
To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred command of reason
prescribing unconditionally, one not to be restricted by any conveniences (8: 427).1
According to the traditional reading, we should view Kant's responses to
Constant through the lenses provided by, for example, his account of the moral
law in Groundwork. In this work, we learn that all moral actions must be based
on a maxim that can be universalized and that we must do the right thing
because it is the right thing to do--or from duty. When viewed this way the
"Supposed Right to Lie," including passages like the one quoted above, is seen
as accomplishing two goals: it simply repeats how one ought never to lie as the
maxim of lying cannot be universalized, and it cashes out the implications of
this moral principle with regard to people's enforceable rights and duties against
one another. Because lying is not a universalizable maxim, Kant is seen as
saying, lying to the murderer is a crime. And of course, it is continued, this must
mean not only that one cannot lie to a run of the mill murderer at the door, but
also not to the worst of murderers, such as the Nazis. Lying to Nazis is therefore
also a crime. There are no exceptions to the rule--the truth must be told. To
make things even worse, in the above passage Kant can be seen as arguing that
if you lie despite the immorality of doing so, you are also legally responsible for
the bad consequences of the lie. So, for example, if the Jew hiding in your
house sneaks out while you are lying to the Nazi, and hence as the Nazi walks
away from your house she actually captures the fleeing Jew, then you are par-
tially responsible for what happens to the Jew even if it was not foreseeable. But
this analysis is clearly absurd and morally repugnant. If this is all Kant has to
say about the issue, the critics reasonably conclude, then the theory's irrecon-
cilability with any test of reason is demonstrated.

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.