In The Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant claims 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 ). 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 the permissibility of lying advocated by Christine M. Korsgaard, Benjamin Constant, Rae Langton, Sissela Bok and Henry Sidgwick: (1) Infeasibility (2) Harm (3) Politeness (4) Compassion (5) Evil (6) Nobility (7) Charity. I will use the writings of Immanuel Kant, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, as well as essays by Wolfgang Schwarz and James Edwin Mahon to defend a claim I share with Kant—that lying is never morally permissible.
To begin, we must have a clear understanding of what a lie is for Kant. Lying is “intentional untruth in the expressions of one’s thoughts” (MM 6:429). 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. Note that Mahon’s fourth and fifth characteristics address what the listener believes, making explicit the characteristic of deception. Kant’s brief definition does not involve the listener or his beliefs. 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.
Now we need to understand some ideas about the Categorical Imperative. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the foundation of his ethical system. There are three formulas that I 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 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 liar (L) deceives a victim (V), he uses V’s reason as a mere tool. This would continue to be the case regardless of the consequences of the lie, or the 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). I believe 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, and a tool. " In summary, in order for an action to be considered morally permissible (1) the action that you wish to take must be in the correct form in order to have the obligation associated with a universal law, (2) it must not treat reason as a mere means, and (3) it must fit into a system of laws where your free will can initiate a causal chain of events. I agree with Kant that lying does not fit any of the formulas, and is therefore morally impermissible.
Using people as merely a means is a 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) To lie is to separate yourself from the humanity within you. It is our ability to reason that separates us from the animals. It is a necessary quality defining what it is to be human. Kant also connects the ability to represent thoughts using speech to our humanity. He claims that by lying we are using our tongue for a purpose contrary to its design. This claim does not seem to be able to carry the weight Kant needs it to, so he gives no further evidence and focuses his attention elsewhere.
Definitions concerning honesty
There are a few terms that we need to define prior to addressing justifications for the permissibility of lying. The first is reticence, a lack of candor or holding something back about what we think or feel. James Mahon quotes a correspondence from Kant that clarifies the difference between reticence and a lie in the doctrine of virtue: “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. Such an assertion is called a lie in the doctrine of virtue.” Kant claims that reticence is not necessarily deceptive. Another term is reserve. The reserved person allows someone to remain ignorant, but he is not necessarily deceiving anyone by refusing to set someone straight. Augustine and Aquinas do not consider reserve to be deception. “Augustine states that concealing the truth is not the same as a lie. Aquinas says that there is deception when a person expresses what is not true through the meaning of actions and objects, but not when he refrains from conveying what is true.” Reticence and reserve inhabit the ethical space between deception and candor for Kant. We must believe the declarations we make to be true in order to act ethically, but our declarations do not have to contain all of the truth we know. We may withhold information or refuse to answer in order to avoid lying. Reticence and reserve are particularly helpful methods of action to apply to the exceptions to universal application cited by Sidgwick. His exceptions only seem to hold because Sidgwick views veracity as complete candor tempered by sympathy. Our last term is complete candor. Complete candor is the complete truth without reserve or reticence. Kant thinks that complete candor is foolish and it seems to be ethically impermissible when applied to the Universal Formula.
Kant’s standard of never to lie is clear and simple but its constant application seems impossible, bringing us to the first objection to Kant’s position: infeasibility. Whenever a law or rule is so strict that most people cannot live by it, efforts to find loopholes will usually ensue; the rules about lying are no exception. St. Augustine taught that all lies are sinful and cannot be justified as morally right; yet he worked out an eight-fold distinction between lies. Aquinas agreed that all lies are sins that have different degrees of seriousness and that can be easily pardoned. His categories are (1) officious or helpful lies, (2) jocose lies told in jest, and (3) mischievous or malicious lies told with intent to harm. Both philosophers seem to acknowledge the inevitability of a moral standard breech, but neither Augustine nor Aquinas claimed that lies were morally obligatory or even permissible. If both Augustine and Aquinas believed lying to be sinful and not morally justifiable, why differentiate between lies? They were not looking for exceptions; they were helping believers to understand that lying can be serious enough to jeopardize salvation. Never lying is hard, but it is still possible to repent of the sin of lying and keep trying to meet the ethical mark.
Modern ethical evaluation does not allow concerns about sin and salvation to get in the way of rational exploration of moral ideas. In the absence of a divine sovereign, moral laws need to have the form of universal law in order to create obligation for a free will. Moral laws have to be set to a higher standard; it is part of their nature. They give us an ideal to work toward. To make a moral law more in accordance with human nature is to strip it of a condition necessary for morality. Some would argue that it is unjust to impose ethical expectations onto a moral agent when the agent cannot be successful in meeting the expectation, so the agent has no moral obligation to meet the expectation. This is where we should ask if it is possible for a moral agent never to lie. Outside of psychological pathologies, it is possible never to lie, but it is improbable on a practical level. Since not lying is possible, it is not unjust to impose the moral expectation. Never to lie is presented in the proper form of a universal law and carries with it a just moral obligation. However, the moral standard itself is not the problem for many people; it is the consequences of meeting this standard.
Kant argues that harmful consequences to self or to others 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 as a moral being:
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). It seems like Kant is splitting ethical hairs, but he makes this separation because his ethics will demand that we acknowledge human dignity before we act. The harm that comes from a refusal to lie is not ethically wrong unless the truth was told in order to intentionally harm someone.
Sidgwick, a Utilitarian, disagrees with Kant about lying if telling the truth causes harmful consequences. Sidgwick thinks that veracity is a good habit, but he claims that veracity “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 veracity fails in universal application. He designates children, madmen, invalids, enemies, and 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 veracity, 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 the pain caused by lying and the pain caused by veracity 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.
Sidgwick claims that Common Sense allows for the telling of untruths to invalids; telling them the truth would produce unnecessary harm. One of the reasons that complete candor seems intuitively cruel is because it can cause intensification of the fears and insecurities of the ill or dying. However, can we really go so far as to suggest that we have permission to lie to the dying or ill? The condition of illness or impending death does nothing to eliminate a human being’s humanity. Kant would not allow lying in this circumstance because it does not pass the test of the Formula of Humanity. An invalid still has life and a capacity for reason, however limited it may be. Being reticent treats the invalid with dignity without overburdening him emotionally. This is principle also holds true for children. To argue that a diminished capacity for reason makes lying permissible makes it much too easy for L to justify lying to V. All L has to do is convince himself that V is less rational than L. This is why Kantian ethics demands that we must recognize humanity as equal in all human beings.
Sidgwick claims that politeness allows the telling of untruths. According to Kant, even the uncomfortable social situation of possibly offending someone who asks “How do you like my work?” can be sidestepped by the automatic recitation of what is expected by social customs. Mere social pleasantries do not meet the definition of lying for Kant because “No one is deceived by it” (MM 6:431). In this situation, I part ways with both philosophers. I believe it is not only possible but also ennobling for someone to give truthful praise after taking a moment to reflect. This is the moral high ground. A canned response does not recognize the human capacity for rational thought and reflection. Therefore, to respond without thinking is to deny the humanity within you.
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. Liar L relies on V’s assumption that L is being truthful in order to use V’s ignorance to L’s advantage. However, according to Christine Korsgaard, under specific circumstances it still might be possible to lie and have the maxim retain universality.
She argues that 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. But how can you be certain you are addressing a deceiver? Korsgaard seems to assume that you do not know that the person at the door is a murderer. This is different from modern scenarios that depict a NAZI at the door asking if there are any Jews in the house. Although modern people equate NAZIs with murderers, a NAZI was also easily identifiable by insignia or uniforms and it was common knowledge why they were looking for Jews. The murderer at the door in Korsgaard’s essay was not easily identifiable as such and was only under suspicion of being a deceiver for not divulging why he was looking for your friend.
Lying is not the only option left in the murderer at the door scenario. Korsgaard fails to address a truthful answer to the murderer’s question, or a response of shutting the door to protect the murderer’s target as a viable alternative to verbally responding to the murderer’s question with a lie. Both of these actions do not require lying and can be effective in thwarting evil. Upon hearing you declare at the door that you have the person he is looking for inside, the murderer could very well wonder if you were lying. He might find it odd that you would knowingly divulge such information. Some might respond with the protestation that the murderer may shoot through the door or come after you if you take the above actions. That might be the case; but there is no guarantee that the murderer at the door will leave you alive if you tell him a plausible lie, so even the possibility of death is no reason to take an ethical low road. Even if one knew with certainty they were addressing a deceiver, why does Korsgaard claim that it is permissible to lie to the murderer at the door when her scenario only holds under one of the three formulas, failing Kant’s test?
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; because she claims the Universal Law Formula alone serves as a standard in non-ideal circumstances such as dealing with evil. She modeled this idea of a double-level theory 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, or of the future actions of evil people, I do not see how her exception offers any practical help. It also seems to base a person’s justification for lying on subjective rather than objective reasons. All L needs to do to justify lying to V is (1) to convince himself that V is trying to deceive L or (2) to convince himself that V would have killed L. Kant’s maxim never to lie keeps us on the safer ethical ground.
Rae Langton focuses in on the Kingdom of Ends by using an example from Kant’s life contained in his personal correspondence concerning Miss Maria von Herbert. She is arguing that lying is permissible if it produces a higher good. Langton describes how Maria lived within an evil, sexist system that made it necessary for her “to keep something back for the sake of the friendship.” Maria allowed her new beau to believe her to be sexually pure (which was not true), which ethically falls under Kant’s definition of reserve, not a lie as Maria claimed in her original letter. Maria decided to correct her lover’s false impression, resulting in the loss of a good relationship. Maria was beside herself and threatening suicide; the loss of such a good friendship made life without it unbearable. Langton thinks that Herbert should have lied in order to preserve the good relationship; progress toward the Kingdom of Ends could be enjoyed on a practical level although living up to the ideal had to be sacrificed. Langton reasons, "If she tells the truth, evil circumstance will see to it that her action will not be taken as the honest self-revelation of a person, but the revelation of her thinghood…If she tells the truth, she becomes a thing, and the friendship—that small neighborhood of the Kingdom—will vanish. (Then Langton quotes Kant) We possess an inalienable dignity which instills in us reverence for ourselves and [Maria] had a duty of self esteem: she must respect her own person and demand such respect of others, abjuring the vice of servility." Langton then concludes that Maria may have a duty to lie. There are a few flaws in Langton’s argument. First, where were Maria’s self-esteem, respect for her own self, and a demand of such respect from others when she allowed herself to be used sexually outside the bonds of marriage with lover number one? Maria never claimed to be deflowered without her consent in her correspondence with Kant yet she claimed “there was nothing unfavorable to her character in [the lie]” . Second, is Langton implying that maintaining sexual purity is an arbitrary, irrational requirement of a sexist society? Based on what evidence? She is assuming that women in Maria’s society were used merely as things and not recognized as rational agents. While that might be the perspective of some modern women, Maria made no claims to being used merely as a tool in her letters. As a devotee of Kantian ethics, Maria would have been familiar with both the concept and the terminology. Third, it seems that Langton is saying whenever the ideal of the Kingdom does not fit our current circumstances it is worth sacrificing our ethics if we can enjoy good things now. This goes in complete opposition to the ultimate good or moral target in Kantian ethics, namely the 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)
Kant 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).
The final argument Kant addresses for the permissibility of lying is in his essay On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy. He 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, we may describe the subjective truth of a particular individual 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 to be an “offense against humanity” because it corrupts the source of all rights founded on contract (SRL 8:426). This argument concerns itself with the legal definition of lying that necessarily includes harmfulness as a characteristic. It is Kant’s position that you cannot be held legally responsible for the harm caused if you tell the truth and accidental harm follows; 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.
I believe that Kant’s ideas about humanity are the key to understanding his ideas about why lying is always wrong. As I reflected upon his ideas, it occurred to me that there was another component of our humanity that must be considered when trying to determine the morality of an action. Not only do human beings have the unique capacity of reason, we have an “imperfect duty to ourselves to develop and increase our natural perfection, for a pragmatic purpose and to increase our moral perfection, for a moral purpose only” (MM 6:445). Human beings are capable of improving themselves or becoming better. Every human being has an obligation to acknowledge the dignity of every other human being regardless of his or her circumstances or behavior. While it is true that human beings can also fall, it is essential that we behave as if we see a potential for good. This is the moral high ground. We must avoid valuing another human being as less than ourselves. Person A views the dignity of B as subordinate to his own when A intends to harm B. That is what makes it morally wrong. Seeing others as our equals enables us to act morally.
Kant does not make that claim that never lying is easy. Moral imperatives are intended to elevate the character by design. Morality demands that we acknowledge the dignity in every human and refuse to value his rational potential as less than our own. Kant does not deny the availability of morally permissible options when faced with temptations to lie. He claims that reticence is ethically permissible and preferable to lying. He also claims that 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. Duties are moral obligations, and as strict as Kant’s ethic sound to the modern ear, he does not push the duty never to lie to the ethical extreme of complete candor. I agree with Kant regarding his maxim on lying. Although complete candor could possibly produce harm or pain or serve the purposes of evil, 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. While some may believe that 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.