In his essay The Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant makes the claim that “the greatest violation of a human being’s duty to himself regarded merely as a moral being (the humanity in his own person) is the contrary of truthfulness, lying (To have one thing shut up in the heart and another ready on the tongue (MM, 6:429 n.l )” (MM, 6:429). In order to avoid making this ethical error, Kant holds the position that it is never morally permissible to lie. After specifying the definition of lying for this discussion, I will argue against the following justifications for lying addressed by Christine M. Korsgaard, Benjamin Constant, Rae Langton, Sissela Bok and Henry Sidgwick: 1) Telling only the truth is too hard to do 2) Politeness 3) To avoid or decrease harmful consequences 4) To calm the dying or ill 5) To thwart evil 6) For the greater good 7) From philanthropy. I will use the writings of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle as well as essays by Wolfgang Schwarz and James Edwin Mahon to defend a claim I share with Kant – lying is never morally permissible.
Lying according to Kant is “intentional untruth in the expressions of one’s thoughts” (MM, 6:429). Sidgwick has a similar definition based on the opposite of lying, truth-speaking. He defines truth-speaking as “a duty not to utter words which might, according to common usage, produce in other minds beliefs corresponding to our own, but words which we believe will have this effect on the persons whom we address” . Therefore, if we want to speak the truth, we should try to say words that we believe would help the listener to understand our thoughts. Mahon uses a list of five characteristics to help us understand the nature of lying in Kantian ethics. First, the speaker makes a declarative statement. Second, the speaker addresses another person, or at least what he believes is another person. Third, the speaker believes his statement to be false. Fourth, the speaker intends for the listener to believe the statement to be true. Finally, the speaker intends for the listener to believe that the speaker believes the statement to be true . In Kant’s practical ethics, intent makes all the difference between right and wrong action. Intentional representation of your personal thoughts as anything but the truth is a lie.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the foundation of his ethical system. There are three formulas that we will discuss pertaining to the Categorical Imperative – the Formula of Universal Law [the form of the maxim (G, 4:436)], the Formula of Humanity [the matter of the maxim (G, 4:436)], and the Kingdom of Ends [a complete determination of the maxim (G, 4:436)]. The Formula of Universal Law concerns itself with the form of ethical maxims. It requires that you “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (G, 4:421). Perfect duties must fit this form to create an ethical obligation for a free will. The exceptions to never lying posed by Korsgaard, Constant and Sidgwick address this formula in their arguments. We will discuss them in detail later in this essay.
The Formula of Humanity concerns itself with the matter of maxims, in other words, the substance of the actions dictated by a maxim. The formula requires that you “act so that you treat humanity, whether in our own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only” (G, 4:429). Humanity in this passage refers to the capacity to determine ends through rational choice . When a person lies, he treats his victim as a means to an end that the victim did not choose of his own volition. According to Korsgaard, “any action which depends for its nature and efficacy on the other’s ignorance or powerlessness fails the [humanity] test. Lying clearly falls into this category of action: it only deceives when the other does not know that it is a lie” . Lying is not ethically permissible because when one person deceives another, he uses their reason as a mere tool. This would continue to be the case regardless of the consequences of the lie or circumstances surrounding the lie.
The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends requires you to “act in accordance with maxims that can at the same time have as their object themselves as universal laws of nature” (G, 4:437). For me, Korsgaard makes this concept clearer than Kant:
The Kingdom of Ends is represented by the kingdom of nature; we determine moral laws by considering their viability as natural laws. On Kant’s view the will is a kind of causality. (G,446/64) A person, an end in itself, is a free cause, which is to say a first cause. By contrast, a thing, a means, is a merely mediate cause, a link in the chain. A first cause is, obviously, the initiator of a causal chain, hence a real determiner of what will happen. The idea of deciding for yourself whether you will contribute to a given end can be represented as a decision whether to initiate that causal chain which constitutes your contribution. Any action which prevents or diverts you from making this initiating decision is one that treats you as a mediate rather than a first cause; hence as a mere means, a thing, a tool.
In summary, in order for an action to be considered morally permissible, the action that you wish to take must be in the correct form in order to have the obligation associated with a universal law; it must not treat reason as a mere means; and finally, it must fit into a system of laws where your free will can initiate a causal chain of events.
The intention to deceive is the quality that makes lying wrong for Kant. The intent to transmit untruth divides a person from his humanity making him a “deception of a human being”.(MM, 6:429)
The human being as a moral being cannot use himself as a natural being as a mere means as if his natural being were not bound to the inner end, but is bound to the condition of using himself as a natural being in agreement with the declaration of his moral being and is under obligation to himself to truthfulness.” (MM, 6:430)
For Kant, to lie is to separate yourself from the humanity within you. Our ability to reason and to express our ideas through speech separates us from the animals. It is a quality that is defines what it is to be human.
We must address an additional point in order to understand Kant’s ethics. He believed that the ultimate good, the moral target, is a good will
…which consists in acting solely from respect for the moral law of reason, even in opposition to our benevolent natural feelings and in complete disregard of happiness, whose worth, like that of all goods other than a good will, is merely conditional and dependent on being combined with a good will. (I, xxii)
He makes it clear here that happiness is a subordinate end to a good will. He thinks that if happiness were our goal, then instinct would be a better way to get us there; but men have reason to guide their actions, not instinct like the animals. We need to use our reason to make the most of ourselves as human beings, which would “honor our humanity as an end in itself”(I, xxii).
(This is where I will address the justification that Telling only the truth is too hard – Bok and Aristotle
Sidgwick thinks that veracity is a good habit, but he claims that truth-speaking “cannot approve itself to the reflective mind as an absolute first principle” . He gives two reasons for his position. First, he sites lack of agreement on both the nature and scope of the obligation. Is the obligation based on how closely the speaker aligns his statement with the truth, or only the truth as he knows it? How responsible is the speaker for possible inferences that the listener will make based on what he says? Second, he feels truth-speaking fails in universal application. He sites children, madmen, invalids, enemies, robbers as those whom Common Sense allows the telling of untruths. He claims that advocates need to rely on untruths to present an adequate defense. He sites common politeness as an exception to truth-speaking as well as people who ask questions that they have no right to ask. General happiness is the ultimate good for Utilitarians. The pain caused by both lying and veracity can create difficulty when attempting to justify either as a duty in utilitarianism. Both can cause harm and decrease the general happiness as well as bring pleasure and increase the general happiness. In some cases it could also be argued that it would increase the general happiness more to lie than to tell the truth, such as in the case with public officials during natural disasters, wars, or acts of terrorism.
Kant has a two-pronged approach to claims of exceptions to the maxim never to lie. First, he argues that harmful consequences are not the grounds for claiming that lying is the greatest moral violation. While harming another violates the duty one has to others, harming others does not violate a duty one has to himself.
And so, since the harm that can come to others from lying is not what distinguishes this vice (for if it were, the vice would consist only in violating one’s duty to others), this harm is not taken into account here. Neither is the harm that a liar brings upon himself; for then a lie, as a mere error in prudence, would conflict with the pragmatic maxim, not the moral maxim, and it could not be considered a violation of duty at all. (MM, 6:429)
The duty that we have to others, beneficence, is to make their happiness our end (MM 6:452). According to our means we are to “promote the happiness of others in need without a hope of return” (MM, 6:453). While these might seem like splitting ethical hairs, Kant makes this separation because his ethics will demand that we acknowledge human dignity before we act. Second, his reticence argument seems to work in the exceptions cited by Sidgwick, whose exceptions only seem to hold because he views truth-speaking as complete candor tempered by sympathy, which is different from Kant.
(Here is where I will address the justification of calming the dying or ill)
Kant’s supreme principle of the doctrine of morals is to act on a maxim that can also hold as a universal law. - Any maxim that does not so qualify is contrary to morals. (MM 6:226) If you contemplate an action that cannot be made a universal maxim without contradiction, the action should be dismissed as unethical. It would be wrong. Kant claims that if everyone lied, then no one would believe what anyone said. On a practical level, lying would not work anymore. A liar relies on their victim’s assumption that they are being truthful in order to use the victim’s ignorance to their advantage. However, according to Christine Korsgaard, under specific circumstances it still might be possible to lie and have the maxim retain universality. She argues:
to lie to a deceiver is permissible (NOT obligatory) in order to counteract results of a liar’s deceptions. Considering the case of the murderer at the door, if the murderer lied, the deception would work because the murderer supposes that the person answering the door does not know they are addressing a murderer – and so the murderer does not conclude from the fact that people addressing murderers always lie, that you will lie. Because the maxim to lie to a deceiver is universalizable, it is ethically permissible .
It seems that Kant’s claim that it is never right to lie cannot look to the Formula of Universal Law for its strongest grounds.
Korsgaard affirms Kant’s claim that lying of any kind is not permissible when measured by the Humanity Formula and Kingdom of Ends which are the highest ideals to set as goals; the Universal Law Formula serves as a standard in non-ideal circumstances such as dealing with evil. This idea of a double-level theory was modeled after Rawls’ division of moral philosophy in A Theory of Justice. “The point is to give us both a definite and well-defined sphere of responsibility for everyday life and some guidance, at least, about when we may or must take the responsibility of violating ideal standards” . Since we can rarely be certain of deception, her exception doesn’t seem to offer any practical help. It also seems to increase a person’s justification for lying based on subjective rather than objective reasons. Kant’s maxim never to lie keeps us on the safer ethical ground.
(Here is where I will address the justification of lying for the greater good – Langton)
In the essay On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy Kant addresses a claim made by Benjamin Constant that “To tell the truth is a duty, but only to one who has a right to the truth” (SRL, 8:426). The use of the phrase “right to the truth” seems to put truth into the same category as property or a possession that may be exclusive to one person. Kant claims that we cannot consider objective truth a possession; however, the subjective truth of a particular individual may be described in those terms. Kant asks and answers the questions:
• Has one the right to be untruthful when one cannot evade answering a question with “Yes” or “No”?
• Is one obligated to be untruthful when coerced to make a statement in order to prevent a threatened misdeed?
His answer is unwavering. “Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being’s duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or to another that may result from it” (SRL, 8:427). He considers lying an “offense against humanity” because it corrupts the source of all rights founded on contract (SRL, 8:426). This argument concerns itself with legal definitions of lying that necessarily include harmfulness as a characteristic. It is his position that if you tell the truth and accidental harm follows, that you cannot be held responsible for the harm; however, if you lie and any harm results from the lie, you can be legally held responsible for all of the harm as well as the lie.
Kant does not leave us without options when faced with temptation to lie. He feels that reticence is ethically permissible and preferable to lying. Reticence is a lack of candor, holding something back about what we think or feel. “What the honest but reticent man says is true but not the whole truth. What the dishonest man says is, in contrast, something he knows to be false” . A reserved person is not necessarily deceiving by allowing someone to remain ignorant. If the declarations of a reticent man are truthful and are not intended to deceive they are ethically permissible, but Kant does not declare reticence a duty.
My tendency is to side with Kant regarding his maxim concerning lying. If other people are likely to form beliefs or make decisions based on what you say, you have a duty to speak the truth as you know it. Although complete candor could possibly produce harm or pain or serve the purposes of evil, I believe these consequences also arise because of lying, and the justification cannot work both ways without creating a contradiction. Reticence, which is permissible in Kantian ethics and agreeable with Common Sense, seems to fill in the ethical gaps between complete candor and deception. Though some may believe that white lies make it easier to get along with other people, I would prefer to live among people who told the truth and who expected the same from others.