Kant on Lying

Posted on Posted in Ethics, Kant, Kantian Ethics

Just to set the record straight, Kant doesn’t think you can never lie. Or more technically he thinks falsifications are not lies. Lying is always immoral but the times in which one is inclined to think a lie is morally permissible are the times that Kant is going to say that you are not lying but falsifying. Allen Wood does a great job explaining this in a chapter of his book Kantian Ethics. I came accross this book review and thought it would be worth putting this up just in case anyone ends up here by trying figure out Kant’s actual views on lying. Sadly this is one of most caricatured views of Kant. In general Wood’s book is excellent for anyone interested in Kantian Ethics, or I would say ethics more generally because you can really study ethics without studying Kant. Anyhow below is excerpt from the review that summarizes Wood’s chapter on lying (You find the rest of the review here.):

While each of the chapters devoted to an ‘applied’ moral issue challenges some common misperception of Kant, Wood’s account of Kant on lying strikes me as so incredibly valuable that it should be summarized here immediately. Long before he wrote his notorious essay on lying — the one that sadly lends itself to being misunderstood — Kant originally offered, as his own preferred example, the following completely straightforward case of lying (Metaphysics of Morals 6:431). An officer comes to the door inquiring of a servant whether the master of the house is at home. In Kant’s view, if the servant intentionally answers untruthfully, allowing the master to slip away and commit a crime, then the servant is guilty of being an accomplice to the crime. In a context such as this, Kant’s view is that the officer can rightfully demand that the servant answer truthfully, in the sense that the servant, and not the officer, will bear responsibility for the actions that result from the officer’s believing what is said.

Kant refers to the type of answer required in this sort of quasi-legal context as, in Wood’s translation, a “declaration” (AussageDeklaration) (p. 241). According to Wood’s specification of this Kantian notion, “a declaration occurs in a context where others are warranted or authorized (befugt) in relying on the truthfulness of what is said,” and a declaration can “make the speaker liable by right, and thus typically subject to criminal penalties or civil damages, if what is said is knowingly false” (p. 241 my emphasis). But, according to Wood, Kant’s technical conception of a lie (Lügemendacium) is the conception of “an intentionally untruthful statement that is contrary to duty, especially contrary to a duty of right” (p. 240). Hence any knowingly false  ‘declaration’ is a lie, since it will be contrary to a duty of right; and the following traditionally incendiary Kantian claim is merely an analytic proposition: All lies are contrary to duty.

By contrast, an untruthful statement that does not amount to a ‘declaration,’ is merely a falsiloquium — merely a “falsification” (p. 240). While many of the details of Wood’s discussion of lying remain (regarding especially what a proper Kantian response should be to the different case of a murderer at the door) it should certainly be enough here just to include a passage from Kant’s ethical lectures that I, at least, had never seen (nor seen anyone mention) before I read this book. (The citation is Ak 27:447.) Regarding the general topic of committing a falsiloquium, of saying something intentionally untrue when there is no ‘declaration’ in play, Kant says that:

I can also commit a falsiloquium when my intent is to hide my intentions from the other, and he can also presume that I shall do so, since his own purpose is to make a wrongful use of the truth. If an enemy, for example, takes me by the throat and demands to know where my money is kept, I can hide the information here, since he means to misuse the truth. That is still no mendacium.

What this means is that if someone shows up at the door with murderous intent, and if, in addition to that,she is not in a position to demand a ‘declaration’ from me, then I can indeed, on Kant’s view, tell her something intentionally untruthful. As Kant understands this technical notion, that is still no lie.

 

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