This essay will attempt to explain why the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), thought that it is wrong to lie even to an enquiring murderer. To do this the essay will explain Kant’s theory of a Categorical Imperative which is a source of all universalized moral laws and how he applied it to the challenge of his theory by the Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant. The essay will then discuss whether Kant is right in asserting the correct moral answer through the use of the Categorical Imperative.
Kant advocated a moral principle that, “It is a duty to tell the truth”. He asserted that it would even be wrong to lie to a murderer who inquired as to the whereabouts of our friend so that he could harm our friend. This is because the formal duty of being truthful is something that is owed by an individual to everyone. By making a false statement we commit a wrong against our general duty to be truthful. If we could be alleviated from this obligation, all of our contractual rights would be void and there would be no security in relations between humans. This would harm the good of all mankind because it would corrupt the origin of law itself. For Kant, honesty was an absolute and sacred imperative for all declarations, and could not be limited by other contingent factors.
The absolute and sacred imperative that Kant describes in his explanation of the importance of truthfulness became known as the Categorical Imperative. A Categorical Imperative is a universal law that is derived from reason alone. The concept of the Categorical Imperative was developed in Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) and the central question for the development of this concept was, “What ought I to do?”. By identifying fundamental principles, or maxims, he does away with all previous philosophical assertions or references to what is supposedly good for humans. All his principles for what is good for humans are derived from a rational process only and his quest for what our moral obligations are begins with a rejection of all principles that cannot be universalized.
Kant’s whole process in the development of his moral laws, or Categorical Imperatives, was based upon the keystone demand: “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law”. Kant contends that if moral laws hold for every rational being a genuine practice of moral principles will be implanted into the human mind for the highest good. Objective principles derived through reason alone become a form of command which is called an imperative.
Not only does Kant formulate a basis for assessing the reliability of all Categorical Imperatives but he states that they can be drawn down to the single Categorical Imperative. to act only on the maxim that is able to be universalized and only in a way through which our treatment of humanity is not a means to an end but an end in itself. When the philosopher, Constant, challenged Kant’s proposition of such a Categorical Imperative, he stated that as truthfulness must be a universalizable maxim according to Kant’s assertions then one would have to be truthful to a murderer who was trying to locate a victim. It is useful to note that Constant’s example does not leave one the ability to refuse to give the information, only to lie to protect the victim. Constant then posited that although it is a duty to tell the truth , a duty is a right and if the other person had no right to that duty he has no right to truthfulness. In the case of the enquiring murderer Constant stated that a maxim should apply in which ‘no one as a right to a truth that injures others’.
Kant objects to this challenge by stating that we must tell the truth to everyone even if they are an enquiring murderer. Kant reaffirms that it is a formal duty of every individual to tell the truth to everyone even if this puts that individual at a disadvantage. This is because the individual also relies upon the truthfulness of others. Further he states that by telling a lie to protect someone the individual leaves itself open to the responsibility of the consequences of such a lie. Also, Kant argues, that we cannot know the consequences of such an action as telling a benevolent lie and that the truth must prevail so as to allow consequences to be what they may.
One of the difficulties with such an absolute moral maxim is that it is counterintuitive to human behaviour. Many people would find that it would be a moral imperative to try and save the murderer’s victim. The philosopher William David Ross (1877-1971) argued that, contrary to Kant’s assertion that it would be an uncertain world where we could not rely upon truthtelling, that a world in which everybody made false promises would be just as effective and reliable. Another objection to Kant’s assertion that we cannot know the consequences of our actions is that we can a have justifiable belief in such consequences as what the victim would suffer at the hands of the murderer. Also, if there is a negative consequence of lying it can also be posited that there is a negative consequence of telling the truth. So there appears to be a contradiction in Kant’s two proposed maxims 1) not to lie and 2) not to do anyone harm.
It is in the idea of the conflicting maxims that a further solution to the challenge posed by Constant can be applied. Through his maxims Kant intended to influence human volition so that it would have the greatest good for all. When there are contradicting maxims as the ones above it could be argued that the maxim that applies to the greatest good for all must have priority over any other conflicting maxim. In this case the greatest good would be one that did no one any harm. By lying to the murderer, one is doing him the greatest good by not allowing him to harm and doing the victim good through not allowing him to be harmed. The only one to be harmed by lying would be the individual.
Kant asserted that it would be wrong to lie even to an enquiring murderer because it would cause harm to all mankind through the uncertainty caused by the breach of the Categorical Imperative for truthfulness. The Categorical Imperative is a universalized moral law that works for all rational beings. The philosopher Constant challenged such an absolute view by stating that a murderer has no right to expect the truth. However, Kant refutes this by stating that everyone has a right to the truth and that we cannot determine the consequences our actions by using lies as a contingency. Therefore, considering that there is a Categorical Imperative not to harm others or oneself, it can be argued that when there are two moral laws that conflict with each other, the one that applies to the greatest good for all must prevail.
- Constant B. “On Political Reactions” in France Part VI, No.1 (1797)
- http://hercules.gcsu.edu/~hedmonds/lecture%20notes/kant%20lecture%20notes.htm Retrieved 16/07/2011
- Kant, I. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Trans. Mary Gregor, Harvard University,
- Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, trans. L.W. Beck, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1949), 346-9 in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer
- http://legacy.lclark.edu/~jay/Immanuel%20Kant.pdf Retrieved 16/07/2011
- O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics in “A Companion to Ethics” Ed. Peter Singer
 Constant B. “On Political Reactions” in France Part VI, No.1 (1797) p.123
 Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, trans. L.W. Beck, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1949), 346-9 in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer, p. 280
 O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics in “A Companion to Ethics” Ed. Peter Singer p.vii
 Ibid. p.176
 O’Neill O. Kantian Ethics p. 177
 Kant, I. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Trans. Mary Gregor, Harvard University, 4.412
 Ibid: 4.413
 Constant B. “On Political Reactions” (1797) p.123
 Kant, I. (1785), The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in Oxford Ethics (1994) Ed. Peter Singer