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Categorical Imperative and Lying

Posted on November 8, 2017 — 15 Minutes Read

Have you ever told a lie? If you have, however well-intentioned it was, even as to save a human life, Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century philosopher and the central figure in modern philosophy, would say that you have done wrong.

Kant and Categorical Imperative

To see how Kant came to such a radical assertion, we have to look into how he formulated the concept of categorical imperative in his work, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.

Reason and the Good Will

Kant started out wondering what is good in and of itself. Intelligence, talents, and skills are without doubt desirable in many aspects. Yet they are means to certain ends. If they are commanded by an evil individual, they can be used for mischievous deeds. There is hardly any disagreement that a smart, talented and skilful villain is much worse than an otherwise ordinary outlaw. What then commands intelligence, talents, and skills to do good or otherwise? Kant suggested, it is the will. A good will, as a result, is the basis of a good person. It directs one to do good. It corrects the influence of pride and presumption on the mind. It is also, Kant believed, an indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness. For these reasons, Kant asserted, a good will is ‘good without qualification’, that it is good in and of itself.

Kant then moved on to address the question of what governs the will. Nature, Kant believed, grants us two practical faculties to guide our will, namely instinct and reason. For the purpose of self-preservation and welfare, which Kant referred to as, in a word, happiness, instinct alone will serve well. In fact Kant himself admitted that the more a cultivated reason comes in the way of the enjoyment of life and happiness, the less satisfied we will be. The question becomes then for what purpose does nature gift one with reason? A faculty that nonetheless can guide the will. After meticulous examination, Kant believed, the purpose of reason is to guide the will to goodness, that is to produce a will that is good in itself.

Three Propositions of Morality and the Supreme Principle: the Categorical Imperative

After establishing the unconditional and the intrinsic goodness of a will, as well as reason’s role in curating it, Kant proceeded to look at moral worth and formulated three propositions of morality. The first proposition of morality is that for an action to have moral worth, it must be done because of duty, which is to say that actions commanded by inclinations are not of moral worth. One example Kant gave is self-preservation. One is without doubt inclined to preserve one’s life. This, as a result of inclination, has no moral worth. If however one has lost all hopes in life, and preserves life still, because duty requires so, then self-preservation, in this instance, has moral value. Kant’s second proposition of morality says that moral worth of an action is derived from the intention and not by the consequences that follow. This is a direct result of the unconditionality of moral worth, that is attained by following duties derived from reason, and a will that is good in and of itself.

Following from the two previous propositions, Kant concluded that duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law commanded by reason, and that morality lies in the conception of the law itself. One, therefore, with a will to act according to the law commanded by one’s own reason, is good in and of oneself. This led Kant to derive the supreme principle of morality, which resides in reason, determines the will and is good in and of itself.

First Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Universal Law

Kant then moved on to construct the first formulation of the categorical imperative:

Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This imperative, Kant explained, is categorical in the sense that it is unconditional, whereas hypothetical imperative is on the other hand contingent to certain desire or inclination. All imperatives of duty, Kant believed, can be deduced from this categorical imperative.

The Kinds of Duties

Kant proceeded to illustrate how moral duties can be derived from this categorical imperative with four examples, and in doing so, he provided two dimensions to better understand moral duties. The first dimension is to whom the moral duty is due. For example, one has a moral duty not to kill oneself and not to kill others. Another dimension is on which the moral duty is grounded. There are, Kant noted, perfect and imperfect moral duty, which he also referred to as strict or rigorous (inflexible) duty and laxer (meritorious) duty. A perfect duty, Kant explained, is one, the negation of which as a universal law would result in contradiction in pure reason. An imperfect duty on the other hand is one, the negation of which as a universal law would result in contradiction, not in pure reason, but in universality.

In other words, a perfect duty is a moral duty because of logic, whereas an imperfect duty is a moral duty because everyone would want it to become one. One example of a perfect duty is keeping a promising. Promise presupposes it being honoured. A world in which everyone is making empty promise would defeat the premise of promising. This is a logical contradiction and as a result it violates perfect duty. An example of an imperfect duty is to help others in need. It does not contradict reason to imagine a world in which people do not help each other. Such a world will however deprive everyone all hope of aid shall one require, and as such no rational beings would will it to become a universal law. This contradiction in universality is a violation in imperfect duty.

Second Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: Humanity as an End in Itself

Kant continued to provide a second formulation of the categorical imperative:

Act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

This formulation of the categorical imperative affirms the inherent value of humanity, and Kant believed, the lack of which is the reason behind the failure of all previous attempts to discover the principle of morality. Previous attempts to uncover the principle of morality, Kant noted, often resulted in subjecting one to laws that are, despite universal, derived outside of oneself. In this sense one is to be a means to certain externally attained end. In Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative, one, on the other hand, is to follow laws of one’s own giving, with its universality resting in our shared faculty of reason. One is to act in conformity with one’s own will. A will that is, Kant noted, free and autonomous, for without which, actions because of duties nor moral worth would be possible. From the categorical imperative, Kant imagined, that one day all rational beings, that are means as well as ends in themselves, will be united in a system of common laws, to which he referred, as a kingdom of ends.

Categorical Imperative and Lying

One of the most radical duties that follows from the categorical imperative is that one ought never to lie. This certainly is a virtue that everyone shall strive for. Recall however that this is a categorical imperative, which means, Kant believed, one ought never to lie in any circumstances or condition. This gave rise to a classical, and perhaps one of the strongest objections, to the categorical imperative: the case of the inquiring murderer.

The Case of the Inquiring Murderer and the Dutch Fishermen

This thought experiment is elegant yet simple. Your friend is taking refuge at your home, for a murderer intends to kill your friend. Now the murderer is at your door inquiring the whereabout of your friend. What would you do? Following the categorical imperative, you ought to tell the truth, even at the cost of your friend’s life. It is not difficult to see why most would have doubt of whether telling the truth, at least in this particular case, is the right thing to do. One may discard this thought experiment as a fictitious example. There have been, in fact, situations in history that put one in a similar situation as in the case of the inquiring murderer.

James Rachels, in his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, noted that during the Second World War, the kind-hearted Dutch fishermen would smuggle Jewish refugees to England with their boats. At times they would be stopped and questioned by the Nazi patrol. The fishermen would lie and be allowed to pass. There is hardly any argument what would otherwise happen if the fishermen were to follow the categorical imperative and tell the truth, nor were the fishermen morally right to have lied.

On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns

Kant defended the categorical imperative in his later work, On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, and in doing so, he further clarified and sharpened his argument against a supposed right to lie. The core ideas, that Kant’s defence rests on, are that while one may have done no wrong, by lying to the murder who may have unjustly compelled an answer, one, however, has done wrong to one’s duty, and that one is legally or morally free from blame if one is to tell the truth. The unforeseeable consequences as a result of truth telling, be it harm or otherwise, are not of moral concern and are at worst accidents.

Arguments against the Categorical Imperative

Compelled Statement or Irrationality Claim

One of the common arguments against the categorical imperative is to state that, by lying to the murderer who unjustly compels a statement, or that by claiming the murderer is no longer a rational being who ought to be treated as an end as well as a means, one has done no wrong. Kant clarified that even if one has not done the murderer wrong, be it for the reason of injustice or irrationality on the murderer’s part, one has nonetheless done duty wrong.

Do No Harm and Survival Instinct Claim

One may resort to the fact that truth telling leads to harm and nature intends men to avoid harm to oneself and others, and to preserve. Kant would reject this claim by maintaining that no one knows how the future will unfold and that truth telling as demanded by one’s duty is not of blame. Ergo, harm or otherwise as a result of truth telling is merely an accident and is not of moral worth or guilt. Kant detailed also, when formulating the categorical imperative, that nature imparts one with reason which, he believed, is for identifying one’s moral duties and curating a will to enact them. One of these moral duties is to never lie and this is what nature intends.

One may then reply that there are cases where an ill-intended individual may take advantage of this moral duty of truth telling, to intend harm on others, and as a excuse, resort to the claim that ‘I didn’t know what they were gonna do’ while in fact the individual knows well and intends so. In this case, it is difficult to see how such action would have moral worth despite fulfilling the moral duties from the categorical imperative. Kant would reject ascribing any moral worth to such action for it is done from inclination and not from duty.

Refusing to Answer Claim

One may claim there is always the option of refusing to give an answer and this would avoid any possibility of moral wrongdoing or otherwise. It is however not difficult to see that whether in the case of the inquirer murder or of the inquiring Nazi, refusing to answer is equivalent to telling the truth.

Reason and Foresight

In On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, Kant said that:

This is because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, and the laws of such duties would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the slightest exception to them were admitted.

While some may devote fully to the categorical imperative and its resulting moral duty to never lie, there is no argument that most do not. How come then contract and trust retain their place and meanings, despite a world today that is not lack of untruthfulness? No one can deny that what the Dutch fishermen did back in the Second World War were nothing short of heroic, and the lies they told to the Nazi patrol were not of any moral wrongdoing. How is it possible the moral duties form the supreme principle of morality, that is the categorical imperative, which resides in reason, determines the will and is good in and of itself, defy common sense and contradict empirical observations? Perhaps Kant, when formulating the categorical imperative, was overwhelmingly absorbed by reason’s capacity to guide a will and to derive a priori moral rules, and neglected that there are more to what reason can do, that reason is capable also of rational foresight, of which nature must intent for a purpose.

The Case of the Dutch Fishermen Revisited

If the Dutch fishermen were to follow the categorical imperative, and to tell the truth to the Nazi patrol, while resorting to say that ‘I didn’t know what they were gonna do’, they would have been of moral blame. Nature imparted them with reason which enabled them to rationally foresee what would have happened if they were to tell the truth, the Jewish refugees otherwise would not have been hiding under the deck nor would the Nazi patrol be questioning them in the first place. Harm or the likely death to the Jewish refugees would not have been, as Kant suggested, mere accidents that could not have been foreseen. Blood would have been on the hands of the Nazi and of the fishermen.

The Case of the Inquiring Murderer Revisited

One may argue that in the case of the inquiring murder, as Kant suggested, if one was to lie and send the murderer away, without knowing one’s friend was at the same time escaping the house, the lie, as a result, sent the murderer to cross path with one’s friend, and to whom demise, then one is of moral blame, for not only doing wrong to moral duty by lying, but one is also responsible of the death. It is true that no one will know how the future will unfold and there is no guarantee any rational foresight will not lead to otherwise catastrophic consequence as in this case. Nonetheless, if one could not have rationally known that one’s friend is escaping the house and one’s rational foresight, at that point, was that a lie would send the murderer away and save one’s friend, then telling the lie, as duty of reason and its capability of foresight commanded, was of moral worth regardless of the consequences. The death would have been an accident. Blood would be on the hands of the murderer and only the murderer.

Morality and the Practical Use of Reason

One of the greatest accomplishments of Kant’s categorical imperative is without doubt the grounding of moral worth on men and our faculty of reason. By identifying what is good without qualification, Kant provided a trajectory, through our faculty of reason, which is imparted in us by nature, to extend the goodness of our will, in and of itself, to the categorical imperative and its resulting moral duties. One crucial component of categorical imperative is its universalisability, which is needed to ensure moral principles apply to all. Yet in the cases of the Inquiring Murderer and of the Dutch Fishermen, this strict adherence to universalisability yields moral duties that are difficult if not impossible to follow. It is true that philosophy shall aim to transcend common understanding, yet it becomes problematic if its assertions are in distinct opposition with the intuition many find most at heart. What natures intends however, is perhaps not for one to derive moral duties from reason and blindly follow them. Perhaps what it intends is for one to devote to the practical use of reason, which includes the a priori moral rules that reason commands, as well as the a posteriori moral duties resulting from reason’s capability to foresee given the circumstances and situation, and, most importantly, to decide which to follow should they collide. Failure to do so is not only a betrayal to reason and morality but, in a sense, also to nature’s true intention. This practical use of reason does not provide rules that are as clear and concise as those from the categorical imperative. But the question is, should morality be?