‘Never tell a lie’ – but what if telling the truth will cost a life?

On the whole, philosophers are polite. So, why would one philosopher describe another this way: ‘a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his theory, and instead grotesquely defends the inhumane’?  

That’s hard-talk. And I agree with most of it (though might be more respectful). The clue to what that devastating criticism is about is in the heading of this blog. I’ll explain all shortly.

In the last blog post I mentioned that I’m currently studying ‘dirty hands’ which I described this way: ‘You get dirty hands by doing something morally bad, but which is necessary to achieve a good outcome (or to minimise a bad outcome).’ I used an imaginary scenario of a terrorist arrested while planting a bomb. The authorities discover there are six or more other bombs, all hidden but all on timers to explode within 24 hours. Interrogating the terrorist isn’t working. He won’t talk. The last resort is torture. Torture is both evil and illegal but, in these circumstances, where the lives of at least hundreds are threatened, could torture be justified?

The answer to that question may lie in what this blog post is about: rules.

We have had lists of rules from ancient times. The Judeo Christian tradition has its Ten Commandments; Islam its Shariah law from the Quran and the Hadith; the United States its Constitution; our roads and streets the Highway Code; our homes their ‘commandments’ about dirty laundry or mobile phones at the dinner table. Rules – loved and loathed – are an inescapable aspect of life.

So, if we are rule-observing people, and there is a rule (law) against torture, the dilemma with the terrorist is solved. He can’t be tortured. Issue over.

Except it isn’t.

Before we get to why it isn’t, who is the philosopher whose moral theory is described as ‘inhumane’?

In some ways this philosopher seems an odd candidate to arouse wrath. Born in 1724, he lived and died in Königsberg, Prussia.[1] Though his town was a busy centre with a population of 50,000, it was remote from the economic and culture centres of German life. As a young man, our philosopher altered his birth name because he preferred a more accurate Hebraic form.[2] He was no more than five feet tall, always suffered poor health, and was so regular in his habits it was said neighbours set their watches by his comings and goings. His early lecturing was on subjects as diverse and strange as fireworks, fortifications, and physical geography.

My guess is that the image you’re developing is not of a giant among philosophers. But Immanuel Kant is thought of as one of the greatest philosophers ever. One writer calls him ‘the central figure in modern philosophy’ and another says he provided ‘some of the most powerful and influential ideas in the history of moral philosophy’.

Why is Kant so influential, and why so controversial? I can answer that, but I’ll limit my explanations to issues related to moral decision-making, especially as it affects dirty hands.

Kant was a deontologist[3]. That kind of philosophy focuses on duty. For anything we do to have moral worth, it must be done exclusively because of duty. It can’t be because we feel good, or from sympathy, or for self-interest – just from duty.

What exactly will that mean? Here are three short scenarios that explain Kant’s thinking.

The shopkeeper    A child enters the shop who doesn’t understand what things cost. The shopkeeper could easily overcharge him, thus making more profit. But he realises that if people find out, it’ll damage his reputation and his business. So he charges the child only the correct price.

Wealthy woman 1    This wealthy woman loves her riches and has no sympathy for the poor. She wants to keep all her money for herself and let the poor get by as best they can. But she recognises she has a duty to help the needy, so supports the impoverished in several ways.

Wealthy woman 2    The second wealthy woman also enjoys all the good things her money provides, but from her youth she has sincerely cared for the poor and finds deep contentment in supporting those who have little.[4]

Now, from the information I’ve given about Kant, which of these acts would he believe had moral worth?

My first answer was Wealthy Woman 2. I liked her attitude and her concern. But that’s not Kant’s judgment. All three – he would say – did what duty required (they all acted in accordance with duty) but only one acted solely from duty. And that person is Wealthy Woman 1.

What was wrong with the others?

For Kant the shopkeeper’s actions lacked moral worth because he was motivated by self-interest. He only charged the fair price because it might have harmed his business if he didn’t. His self-interest might just as easily have led him to overcharge if he’d believed he could get away with it. Hence, Kant doesn’t credit his action as morally worthy.

Kant’s reason for not acknowledging moral worth in the actions of Wealthy Woman 2 are, strangely, not much different from the case of the shopkeeper. Kant recognises her virtuous instincts, but to do something kind because you are attracted to do it, because you find pleasure in doing it, is to act out of self-interest. To do good because it feels good doesn’t generate actions of moral worth. He writes: ‘All so-called moral interest consists solely in respect for the law’. Notice the word ‘solely’ in that sentence. No motivation carries moral worth except that which is done solely to respect the law. For Kant, pleasure and pity are no better than acting out of self-interest, so the actions they inspire are morally worthless. The law must be the motive. Our duty is to obey the law, no matter what we think or feel. (By the way, by ‘law’ Kant usually does not mean the law of the land; he means the moral law – doing what is right.)

I’d like to argue with Kant on some of those points, and especially about Wealthy Woman 2! But, for now, what matters is only to understand that Kant is committed to the view that morally right actions are done from duty, and from no other motive.

So – skipping past much of what Kant says about reason and the good will – I’ll jump to the maxim he laid down as the dominating principle for deciding between right and wrong actions. It’s called the categorical imperative.

It’s very short, so please read it, after which I’ll explain what Kant means. Here is the categorical imperative: ‘I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law.

By ‘maxim’ Kant means a plan of action or conduct. So, divided up, what he’s saying is this: Your plan of conduct / is right only if / you can will that plan of conduct / to be right for everyone.

In other words, no action is right unless you could intend that everyone else should behave the same. His imperative is often called the universalisability principle: what is right for you must be capable of being right for everyone everywhere.

Kant explains his point by using promise-keeping, or, rather, promise-breaking. Promise-breaking can’t be right because you can’t wish for everyone to promise-break. If no-one kept promises, no-one would make promises because no-one would believe them.

So, for Kant, no action is right unless you can will that action to be done by everyone. He is hard-line about that. He is often called an ‘absolutist’; for him there can be no exceptions to obeying the moral law.

During Kant’s lifetime people argued that his principles were too strict. And the instance that was often mentioned was about lying. Surely, they said, there must be times when lying is exactly the right thing to do. Kant answered his critics with a short essay titled ‘On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives’. In it, he imagined a situation to illustrate how someone must tell the truth no matter the consequences to themselves or others. Essentially his story is this:

There’s a loud banging on your door. You open it, find a man there in a panic because he’s being pursued by a murderer. Clearly he’s serious. He must hide. So you bring him into your home. A minute later, there’s more loud banging on your door. You open it, and here is a man already covered in blood, wielding an axe, and demanding to know where his victim has gone. How do you answer him?[5]

Realistically, there are only two possible responses. One is that you misdirect the murderer – tell him his fugitive ran up the street, then turned left. The other is that you admit you have him in your home, and the murderer steps inside. What follows is bloody.

Kant is unwavering. The householder must tell the truth, even knowing the fugitive will immediately be murdered. Kant cannot allow a lie. He writes: ‘To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is… a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency’.

Thus, doing what’s right, what the moral law dictates, is for Kant ‘a sacred unconditional command …not limited by expediency’. No thought at all should be given to the consequences of your action. It doesn’t matter how convenient, how attractive, how important they are. None of that is the point. All that matters is that you do what’s right. And what’s right is what the moral rule requires.

So ask Kant if a terrorist should be tortured in order to find unexploded bombs? The answer would be a firm ‘no’.

What about all dirty hands issues? There are at least three clear conclusions which we can draw from Kant’s rule-keeping principle.

  1. Since every dirty hands action is normally morally forbidden, Kant’s absolutist position would reject them all.
  2. Since a moral act takes no account of outcomes, the fact that bombs will explode if not found quickly is irrelevant. All that matters is that whatever is done must pass the universalisability test. You couldn’t will that everyone be tortured, so it would be wrong to torture the terrorist. Of course that means dreadful consequences may follow, but, for Kant, no fault will rest with the person who followed duty.
  3. Kant’s absolutism can actually increase the number of wrongs. If the terrorist is not tortured, one evil act is prevented. But when the hidden bombs explode, hundreds or thousands of evil acts (deaths) will occur. Avoiding one wrong will have allowed many wrongs.

My guess is that many of us would agree that moral rules should be kept, but at least some of us would allow for exceptions in extreme circumstances. That might not be an exception for torture, but could be permission to lie to save the life of the fugitive sheltering in your house.

Kant, of course, would allow the bombs to explode and the fugitive to be murdered. That’s why the critic called him ‘a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his theory’. She went further by referring back to the persecution and extermination of Jews in Germany and other countries by the Nazis, and asked if those who were hiding Jews in their homes should readily have admitted their presence to any Nazi who asked. How could Kant justify a moral theory that would send even one Jew to the gas-chambers?

I agree that an absolutist deontology – like Kant’s – is intolerably severe. A theory capable of maximising rather than minimising harm can’t be right.

There are deontologists who are not absolutist. They allow exceptions in extreme circumstances. Then there are others who call themselves threshold deontologists – they adhere firmly to rules until the consequences reach a pre-determined level of awfulness, after which they take whatever is the best action. A similar view holds that there’s a sliding scale for decision-making: stick to the rule when harmful outcomes are minor, but when the harm builds and becomes unacceptably dreadful, do whatever gives the best outcome.

Some, of course, accuse those who allow exceptions as not rule-keepers at all. If you believe a moral rule is right, then it’s always right.

But what might be called common sense morality doesn’t hold that view. Life is messy, and we have to change course in the light of fresh circumstances. A current TV drama includes a story about a nurse falling short in her duties, almost being fired but reprieved when the boss finds out the nurse is suffering domestic abuse. Theoretically, because the nurse failed in her work, she should still be fired, but mercy prevails over justice and she gets help as well as retaining her job. That’s a low-level yet real circumstance, but at all levels exceptional situations occur and we may never know for sure what we’ll do until they happen.

In the next blog I’ll consider a different moral theory: consequentialism. It is not at all about rules, other than a principle to do whatever leads to the best outcome. Sounds promising? It is. But it’s also highly problematic…

[1] Today Königsberg is Kaliningrad, Russia.

[2] He changed it from Emanuel to Immanuel.

[3] The word deontology blends two Greek words, deon (‘duty’) and logos (literally ‘word’, but may also mean ‘science’ or ‘study’). Hence a deontologist studies duty.

[4] I’m indebted to Alex Barber of The Open University for these examples.

[5] This is Kant’s scenario, but I have added details to make it more vivid.