What would Kant do when two categorical imperatives conflict? Could he ever justify lying?

  • Suppose a German SS officer knocked on my door, asking me whether I had any Jews. And suppose further that I had two Jews in a secret compartment in the attic that he'd never be able to find. Everybody will agree that I must lie and say I haven't any Jews in my house.

    But I'd have to disobey Kant's categorical imperative "do not lie", because I felt obliged to "not betray innocent people leading to their death".

    Both imperatives can be supported if I ask myself the question "what if everyone did it?". If everyone lied whenever they felt like it, society and civilization would collapse. Therefore I must never lie. But society would be a grim, inhumane place if everyone cooperated in killing the innocent. Therefore I must never betray those under my protection.

    How can this be solved? I remember hearing two "solutions":

    1. I must heed both imperatives and choose a third option, thereby violating neither: "I refuse to answer you". This would result in my death, but I would have upheld both imperatives.

      I find this absurd; I do not think Kant would have wanted this. And yet, when challenged by Constant with a similar situation, he said that one should challenge the murderer or refuse to answer. In this case, that would lead to my house being burned down, the Jews dying an even more horrible death.

    2. The "do not lie" imperative is too broadly formulated: it should be "do not lie, except when your lie would save another's life". I find this very weak: the power of a categorical imperative would be that it is a broad statement. It should be a universal law.

      The fundamental problem would seem to be that each rule saying "I wouldn't want everyone to do this" has a reasonable exception, and that it should not be left to each single person to determine what the exceptions are depending on a particular situation. I believe Schopenhauer offered similar criticism.

    How did Kant solve this problem while keeping his categorical imperatives intact? Or, if he didn't, how could it be solved hypothetically?

    Just because two imperatives are categorical, I don't think we need to abandon an order or priority. It may seem messy but I think you end up with a night in which all cows are black otherwise.

    @Joe: I'd want some kind of prioritizing as well; but then it seems we have to dump the universality of the imperatives...

    Good question. The categorical imperative has always bothered me for this reason, it seems to point to solution 1, which seems to sacrifices the self (and others) for no greater reason than because *if* everyone did it all the time it would be bad. I'd love to hear what a Kant scholar has to say on the topic.

    Isn't this just another case of no finite number of rules can cover all the possibilities? If Kant was logical he would either Lie or not Lie, in either case he would end up breaking his own rules. What if the you lie to save the life of somebody going to take more lifes? that exception would need another excpetion.

    @Dimo, @Arjang: I agree with both of you (obviously). I hope someone will come to enlighten us...

    You have effectively broken do not lie when you choose to provide shelter and hide them where they could not be found.

    An interesting point @Chad, so to a Kantian, even putting yourself in a situation where your actions are not entirely upfront and clear is a violation of the CI? It makes sense in a way, but seems to me makes the CI all that more of an utterly impossible ideal.

    Actually the act of concealing there presense is an act of deception thus a lie. Difficult is not the same as impossible.

    Did he ever justify *anything*? Or, instead does herely merely present a viewpoint to be either agreed or disagreed with, void of truth value, like so much gossip?

  • Cody Gray

    Cody Gray Correct answer

    10 years ago

    Kant himself (and many other deontologists that follow in his footsteps) would never ask the question: "what if everyone did it?" In fact, it's quite irrelevant to their moral calculi. He famously decrees 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. In the doctrine of right an intentional untruth is called a lie only if it violates another's right; but in ethics, where no authorization is derived from harmlessness, it is clear of itself that no intentional untruth in the expression of one's thoughts can refuse this harsh name. [ ... ] By an external lie a human being makes himself an object of contempt in the eyes of others; by an internal lie he does what is still worse: he makes himself contemptible in his own eyes and violates the dignity of humanity in his own person. [...] By a lie a human being throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a human being.
    (Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 1996, p 182)

    As you observe, from a strictly Kantian point of view, there is absolutely no way that a lie can ever be justified. It is a complete violation of human agency, insofar as it manipulates someone (effectively treating them as a means rather than an end in and of themselves) into believing something for whatever reason. While it could be argued that the overall goal of the lie is a moral good, Kant would reject it a priori for its means, which he would consider sharply and incontestably immoral. That immorality outweighs and precludes any morality that might come later from the results of the action.

    Thus, it makes absolutely no difference with respect to the morality of the original decision (i.e., whether or not to lie to the soldier) whether the eventual outcome of your decision is utter social chaos or collapse. That's an ends-based calculation, one that Kant says you can't possibly know at the time and shouldn't possibly matter when assessing the morality of one individual action.

    At least one of the justifications that Kant would (and did) provide for this particular moral choice is that you are not responsible for the death of the two Jews, even if your telling the truth leads to their brutal murder by the Nazi soldiers. The consequence may be undeniably horrible, but it wasn't your crime and you weren't directly responsible for its execution. Essentially, he's saying, "that's on them, not you."

    However, if you lie, you now take ownership and responsibility in the atrocity. Or, in other words, you become morally culpable for the immoral actions of the Nazi soldiers because you are essentially manipulating the soldiers yourself through your decision to lie and distort the truth. And once you've made the choice to distort the truth, you've established control over the situation and you should be held responsible for whatever immoral outcome may result. This is the infamous causing versus allowing distinction.

    All of that to say that this is really not a contradiction or dilemma for a strict Kantian. Of course, that hardly means that it fails to be one for most of us, who take a far less extremist view of morality.


    It's also worth considering that a neo-Kantian would take issue with your example on technical level, arguing that it's not a good example because the Holocaust is an exceptional situation, a special case, if you will.

    More specifically, the German state at the time formed an illegitimate government, and the SS officers were acting as agents of this illegitimate government, this state that is on face unjust. Given such case, one could argue, his entire corpus of ethics does not apply, as it was only intended to apply to situations involving a just government. (For more on this, see Kant's "Doctrine of Right" and Metaphysics of Morals 6:264, etc.)


    Finally, if a Kantian discussion of this exact question interests you, you might find this recently-published article to be a worthwhile read.

    Excellently put, and very informative. Thank you.

    Thanks! It seems you and Mfg agree with Chad. You get the tick because you explained the problems and possible Kantian replies most completely. (My personal conclusion must be that Kant's potential answer would be poor. That consequences should not matter at all is simplistic; for how can it be determined whether an intention is evil if we disregard what results the agent expects? That categorical imperatives are suspended in certain societies would seem too complicating and arbitrary for a "universal" rule. But that must be why Constant and Schopenhauer found his moral philosophy lacking.)

    @Cerberus: Those are far from the only two who found his moral philosophy to be quite lacking. As I observed, though the scenario you describe did not appear to present a strong dilemma to Kant himself, it is certainly one to the vast majority of us who take a less hard-line approach. Under a strictly deontological framework, there is indeed no room for a consideration of expected consequences. But schools of thought like virtue ethics and even David Cummiskey's neo-Kantianism, which attempts to combine elements of consequentialism with Kant's thought in his book *Kantian Consequentialism*.

    I think no one can really solve the dilemma - because in reality you are never 100% what will be the outcome of your actions... If killing someone has a 51% chance of preventing the dead of two others, should you do it? In the end you will have no moral guideline and everything is just guesswork and possibly lying to yourself. - So if you say everything regarding the outcome is guesswork the only absolute thing left is our untainted direct action, this is the only thing we can control and should be perfect ;-)

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM