Would you lie to a stranger? What about your friends? Your family? Most people can agree that lying is wrong most of the time, but are there are certain cases in which lying is acceptable? According to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, the answer to this question is an irrevocable “no”.
…But hold on. Ever?
In order to understand what Kant was saying, we’ll have to dive into his thought process.
Immanuel Kant is a significant philosophical figure with contributions extending from the branches of metaphysics to aesthetics. Academics spend years (perhaps decades) studying only small segments of Kant’s ideology but, for the purposes of this article, we will look primarily at what Kant thought of morality.
A portrait of Immanuel Kant. (Image Source: Becker)
During Kant’s era, a popular idea was that moral behaviour should be guided by the greatest overall well-being for the greatest number of people, a concept known as utilitarianism. Philosophers like Jeremy Bentham championed this concept, which is still used as a guiding principle on issues like foreign aid. Bentham believed that the backbone of this idea was pleasure and pain (both physically and spiritually). Specifically, he believed that to be moral, you should strive to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest amount of people. In this way, pleasure acts as a kind of measuring stick for morality, keeping the pleasure of all individuals in mind — including ourselves. As a simple example, a moral individual might calculate that the pleasure they receive from punching someone in the face would not outweigh the pain that person feels from being punched. Bentham later applied this idea to governance, suggesting that policy should be drafted to maximize overall pleasure and minimize overall pain.
Safety measures on ships are supposedly built in the utilitarian sense — to help save the most amount of people on the ship, given an accident occurs.
Kant was not entirely happy with this approach. He believed that egalitarian behaviour should be driven by rational, moral principles. He held that the validity of good behaviour should not be based on calculations of pleasure versus pain, but on its intrinsic moral worth. He also held that an action can only be moral unless the action could be made a universal law. For example, punching someone in the face might make you feel better, but it would not be acceptable for everyone to go around punching each other in the face. In this way, the reason not to punch others should not be ‘it will make other people feel pain’, but that the action is intrinsically wrong in itself. From this thought process, Kant came up with ‘the categorical imperative’ – an unconditional set of principles for all moral individuals to abide by. A core message derived from categorical imperative is as follows: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Today, this can be interpreted as treating other people as having a life of their own, full of emotion, pain, and desires. Lying, as it happens, is a huge part of this, because Kant believed that by lying to someone, you are effectively treating them as a means to your end, or more simply put, as a tool for getting what you want or need. Consider the following example:
Your friend, Jamie, has offered to let you borrow money. You tell her you will pay her back, but you have not intention of doing so.
This is a classic example of treating others as means to your end. Jamie doesn’t know that you won’t pay her back, but you do. By deceiving her, you don’t recognize Jamie as an end in herself, rather as a tool to get more money for yourself. This is inherently tied to the concept of autonomy, a complex idea that is generally understood to mean the capacity to live by direction of one’s own reasons and motives. Through deceiving people, Kant believed, we are disregarding their autonomy.
Now, undermining the trust of your friend is a pretty obvious example, but Kant’s ‘no lying’ concept has all kinds of nuanced implications as well. Consider the following two examples:
Sulking – Everyone does it. A friend has done something that’s bothered or upset you, but rather than addressing the problem, you pretend as if nothing has happened. From the silence, you begin to resent and avoid them, until the relationship becomes unbearable.
‘Sulking’ by Edgar Degas. (Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Kant’s recommendation: Kant would have thought this was a moral disservice to yourself and your friend. By not telling your friend about the issue you have, you are withholding your true feelings in order to avoid an immediate personal discomfort. Bringing up issues immediately and honestly avoids deceit between you and your friends and ultimately makes things a lot easier to manage emotionally in the long run.
Exaggeration – It happens all the time. An initially modest story becomes embellished, dramatized, or contorted into something far different from how it originated. There are benign versions of this, of course, like adding a bit of flair to keep a narrative interesting for your audience. But when the narrative is intentionally contorted to alter a version of reality, there can be more adverse consequences.
President Donald Trump distorted the facts when he claimed his presidential inauguration was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”. Luckily we have aerial photography to make our own judgement on reality.
(Image Source: The New York Times)
Kant’s recommendation: Exaggeration involves lying about the true conditions of a particular event. By applying exaggeration to a story you share with someone, Kant would say you are effectively altering their perception of reality. For example, you might say, “I saw James hit someone” when you actually only saw James having an argument with someone. Even if you think James would be capable of hitting someone, it does not excuse the fact that you did not see him hit someone. In this way, you gave your friend an unrealistic impression of James that is closer to your own impression, perhaps based on the motivation to have someone agree with you. Effectively, you are treating your friend as a means to your end, rather than as an individual capable of creating their own perceptions. Kant might say that avoiding exaggeration has a lot to do with respecting the capability of your friends and family ability to make judgements. Giving them a chance to make their own judgements about reality can establish trust.
At this point, Kant’s philosophy of never lying might seem a little less crazy, but should lying really be avoided at all costs? This was challenged by a philosopher named Benjamin Constant, who came up with the following example:
An axe murder comes to your door and asks you where you friend is hiding.
‘The Murderer’ by Edvard Munch. (Image Source: abcgallery.com)
If this were the case, you would (hopefully) lie about your friend’s location, so as to save them from being murdered. Constant argued that this example shows that Kant’s ‘no lying’ principle could not be applied universally, since it would be nearly impossible for us to protect ourselves (against murderers, thieves, etc.). When confronted, Kant held that lying should still be avoided even in this case, since his philosophy is concerned only with the intent and the will of an action, rather than its consequences. In other words, lying should be avoided not because we want good things to happen, but because it is the right thing to do, no matter the outcome. Not surprisingly, this is where Kant’s ideology gets more controversial, and ‘doing what is right’ becomes blurrier the further we push extreme cases.
For this reason, some philosophers have come up with altered versions of Kant’s philosophy. For example, William David Ross argued that we should follow more elastic moral duties, such as fidelity, reparation, and gratitude, that are not necessarily unconditional. As well, he acknowledged that these duties may conflict with each other, and that certain cases (like being confronted by a murderer) must be judged differently than other, more benign cases. However, Ross’ philosophy has also been widely criticized because his moral duties have no sense of hierarchy.
Interestingly, some philosophers believe Kant’s ‘no lying’ principle has been misinterpreted from the beginning. For example, Helga Varden believes that Kant thought lying was unconditionally immoral only from the perspective of the categorical imperative, but not from the perspective of justice or ethics. Indeed, she holds that Kant may have thought lying is permissible when you’re pushed into an “unjust constraint”, meaning when someone demands information from you, which they have right to do according to Kant’s ideology on our right to freedom.
Varden’s perspective on Kant (from the perspective of justice) is that lying (or remaining silent) may not wrong a person, since it is ultimately your right to share information or not to.
There are many interpretations of Kant’s ideology and we could fall further and further into the rabbit hole of his moral debates. Still, regardless of these long-running controversies, we should be grateful to Kant for providing us with a new way of thinking about truth. In it’s most basic form, the categorical imperative suggests that we should acknowledge others as ends in themselves, and perhaps with that thought alone, we can begin to create a more ethically-conscious global community.