Is It Ever OK To Lie?

Kant on Lying

Preamble

     Recall that in Kant’s moral philosophy acting morally is a matter of acting out of duty to the moral law.  Let’s break that down.  First, the moral law (AKA the Categorical Imperative) as I’m sure you all recall is “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”.  In everyday language we would say that I should only act in a way that the principle according to which I acted could be willed as a universal law for er’body.  Second, we encounter the concept of duty.  As Kant conceives it, an action out of duty is one that is devoid of considerations of personal interest (will I gain from this?) and inclination (is my action guided by an emotion such as  sympathy?).  An action out of duty also doesn’t take into consideration desired outcomes; action out of duty is action that is only concerned with abiding by what is morally correct–regardless of circumstance.  If your intentions are good then you will act out of duty to the moral law, and thus your action is morally praiseworthy.  The only consideration we make when judging the moral worth of an action if its intent was good (i.e. in line with the Categorical Imperative).

The Categorical Imperative (CI) and Not Keeping Promises

     The next step in Kant’s project is to go from a general principle of action–the CI–and try to derive particular rules of action.  One of the examples he uses as a derivation is a prohibition on making promises you don’t intend to keep.  The intent of this section is two-fold:  The first is to give an example of a particular moral law, and second it to demonstrate why and how we should make moral decisions.  Lets see how it works:
     Suppose you’re at someone’s party…a friend of a friend.  You’re not particularly fond of this person because they won’t cater to your Bieber Fever and like a lot of people they are oblivious to your dislike of them.  Er’body’s been sippin’ on juice and gin and feeling quite jovial.  After listening to this person go off on some tangent that smacks of Dualism they say, “my dear, you absolutely must bring your girlfriend/boyfriend over for dinner some time, my husband Laurence is a smashing good cook. Is that all right, what?”  Now aside from the fact that they used a grammatical form that irks you and speak with a really annoying British accent, you really have no desire to go over for dinner.  Social convention might dictate that you agree to the dinner date even though you have not intention of actually going. Is it ok to make a promise without the intention of keeping it?  Do you really want to kill this person’s buzz?
     Kant distinguishes two ways to consider the dilemma: prudence and duty.  The first is to consider whether it is prudent to make a false promise.  To do this we have to consider if my making the false promise might in the end cause for you a more uncomfortable situation.  Maybe a few months later you bump into the hostess and she demands to know why you haven’t kept the dinner plans, and proceeds to “put it on blast” on facebook that you are a false promiser!
     So maybe you have calculate that the outcome of making a false promise might put you in a more uncomfortable situation that the one you’re already in.  Based on this calculation you decide it is more prudent to act on the maxim that “one should not make a promise unless one intends to keep it”.   The problem with this conclusion is that you have based your action and maxim on fear of consequences–not on what is moral.  You are only declining the invite because in your calculations the consequences of not making a promise that you won’t keep now are less severe than the consequences in the future of not keeping the promise.  Essentially your decision is based on the outcome that is most convenient to you:  If in the future you were in a similar situation but predicted that making the false promise would extricate you from the inconvenience of the situation and lead to fewer inconveniences then you would choose to make the false promise.  If this is the case your maxim is actually: whenever telling a false promise will get me out of a pickle I should do so.
     The other point that Kant is trying to elucidate here is that reasoning in such a way depends upon a shaky prediction about future outcomes.  There are thousands of ways we can go wrong in predicting what might happen.
     In the case of acting out of duty you suppose there is a moral law:  you should not make promises you don’t intend to keep.  In this case when you act counter the law it is never good because the goodness of your action isn’t attached to the (potential) outcomes but to your acting for the sake your duty (to follow the law).
     Lets return to the first case where we chose our action based on outcome.  What happens if we apply the CI to cases where it is more prudent to make a false promise?  That is to say, what happens when we universalize this behaviour…what result do we get?  We get a law that says, “er’body can make promises they don’t intend to keep if it will get them out of a pickle”.   The problem that arises when we universalize the maxim is that now I have eliminated the possibility of promises. 
     Wicka! Wicka! Rewind!  Basically, if er’body in the house gettin’ tipsy knows that when people are asked to make a promise, they will not keep it if they think they can get out of it with less inconvenience than keeping it.  Now, anytime someone promises to do something, the promisee will assume the promiser isn’t going to do it.  This renders useless the concept of a promise and leads to a world where no one keeps promises and no one  believes anyone who makes a promise.  Did I just explain that 3 different ways?  I must be getting sleepy.  Accordion to Kant this demonstrates that we should base our behavioural decisions on what is consistent with the CI, not what is prudent.  
     His other point is that prudential reasoning depends on us knowing future events.  Because not er’body is sweet baby jesus this is not going to be possible.  The consequences of our actions are not discernible or if they are it is only in a very limited sense. 
Counter Example

     It all sounds good and dandy until we consider a counter example.  Because I’m fading in and out of consciousness I will confine myself to the one that is most commonly brought up.  Suppose you live in Nazi Germany and are harbouring Jews (with horns).  The gestapo knocks on your door and says “eef ve ask you ver is ze jew, do you promees to tell?”.  According to Kant’s rules we can’t consider consequences of our actions when we act out of duty to the moral law.  To act morally is to act according to the moral law regardless of circumstances.  We are obligated to follow the particular maxim of not making false promises.  Kant might reply that although you have turned the Jews (with the horns) over to the Gestapo you didn’t harm them (assuming the Jews meet their most likely fate).  You are not morally responsible for what the Gestapo does to them–that moral judgment is on the Gestapo agents.
     The natural response to this situation is to say that Kant’s system leads us to a position that is morally repugnant for most people.  Maybe we need to consider more than just adherence to the CI and intentions in calculating the morality of an action.  Maybe we need to consider the circumstances under which we make our decisions.  Or maybe we need to calculate the moral worth of an action based on the amount of pain and suffering it avoids or on the amount of happiness it produces.  All of these solutions have their own problems which I won’t go into.
     Anyway, can you think of a way out for Kant without giving up the CI and his idea that moral actions arise out of the intent of an action not its consequences?

By the By, is it wrong to tell people that a blog entry with be the greatest thing they’ll ever read and then it isn’t?  But what if it’s to get them to learn philosophy?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s