iKant and the Deontology of Lying and Genocide 11

Yesterday would have been Immanuel Kant’s 288th birthday. 

Philosophical Humor

Today we will honor him with a brief reflection on his Duty Ethics (Deontology).

Kant, of course, is well known in epistemology for his distinction between Phenomenon and Noumenon — the representation of the thing known in thought and the unknowable thing-in-itself in reality — presented in the Critique of Pure Reason. He is also known, in ethics, for the Categorical Imperative, the basis of his deontology, in the Groundwork of Morals and Metaphysics and, subsequently,  the Critique of Practical Reason.

iKant: This short video presents a brief interchange between two robots explaining the basics of deontological (i.e., duty) ethics…

[PG-13Because children under 13 don’t read Kant, unless they are German]

Conclusion: Robots are incredibly adept at deontology.

Now, let’s pretend that we are not robots for just a moment and consider the following scenario.

You are living in Rwanda during the genocide in the early 90’s and you are hiding Immaculee Ilibagiza and three other girls of the Tutsi tribe in a small bathroom in your house. Militia from the Hutu tribe come to your home having heard rumors that you are hiding her there. They demand, “We know you are hiding her! Where is she?”

If you tell the truth, they will brutally kill Immaculee, the other girls, and maybe you and your family as well. If you lie and say, “I don’t know where she is, but she isn’t here,” you might save everyone’s life.

Must Read!

Immanuel Kant would say that it is immoral to lie in this or in any situation (and he is right about that). So you would have to tell the truth and allow her and her friends to be brutally killed.

Of course, if that is what had really happened, the world would not have received her faith-filled testimony,  Left to Tell. Something just does not seem right about that.

So there must be a subtle distinction that we are missing here… What is it?

If you still agree with Kant and find deontology simple, clear, and robotically straightforward, here’s another puzzle:

Tough one!


The answer to this week’s sudoku will appear next Monday…


  1. Immanuel Kant would say that it is immoral to lie in this or in any situation (and he is right about that).

    This statement is false. According to the Catholic Faith, one is not obliged to tell the truth to someone for whom has no right to the truth, such as someone who is trying to kill you or someone else.

    • @ Classical Teacher: Here’s the clarifying point, you missed:

      “So there must be a subtle distinction that we are missing here… What is it?”

      This does not respond to the problem but only raises the point that there’s a subtlety involved, namely, when witholding or distorting information is amounts a lie or not. The revised translation of the English edition of the Catechism does not clearly specify when that is (because of the subtlety involved).

      Quote from CCC forthcoming…

      So a question is being raised for discussion precisely on this point.

      E.g.,: “one is not obliged to tell the truth to someone for whom has no right to the truth, such as someone who is trying to kill you or someone else.” This would not be considered a case of telling a lying.

    • From The Catechism of the Catholic Church (III. — “Offenses against the truth”)

      2482 A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” (St. Augustine, De mendacio 4,5:PL 40:491) The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

      2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

      2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

      2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

      2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

      In sum, it’s always wrong to lie. The person who protects the innocent by not revealing the truth and resisting the pressure to make statements that would otherwise harm others, especially under coercion, does not sin in this regard — is not culpable of lying — given that the intentions of the questioning party and its right to know the requested information. In that case, the person who withholds information is resisting injustice and preserving the good of innocent people.

      The reason the revised English translation does not include this last stipulation is that misunderstanding or misinterpreting it can give anyone the pretext to lie in almost any circumstance. Hence the need for the cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Prudence, and especially in this case, Fortitude.

      • In response to Classical Teacher:
        Actually it’s the opposite of what you said. Where in the text of the Catechism does it say what you say it says?

        “one is not obliged to tell the truth to someone for whom has no right to the truth, such as someone who is trying to kill you or someone else.”

      • I was trying, in my poor words, to say what you said. I do not know where in the catechism it says that one is not obliged to tell the truth to someone who has no right to the truth. It is something I’ve been taught for many, many years by the good Sisters of St. Joseph, Sinsinaway Dominicans, and many good confessors. I am referring to instances when one’s life or other’s life is in emminent danger. Was I wrong?

      • You are not wrong at all. The distinction is very subtle, but what the Sisters taught you was right. In fact, the first edition of the English translation of the Catechism used to contain a clause stipulating that one was not lying in cases where the other person did not have the right to know the information he was requesting.

        That clause was probably removed in the revised translation, probably because it often is taken as a clever justification for lying — e.g., if I deem that the other person does not really need to know the truth. If the Catechism gave that impression it would potentially be deforming people’s consciences.

        Lying is a always immoral, just as stealing is. The classical example of when it is permissible to take something that does not belong to you without the owner’s consent is the case of Jean Valjean “stealing” a loaf of bread to feed his starving family.

        In that scenario, Jean Valjean was not stealing, because he had exhausted every licit means to provide for his family, but the cruelty and injustice of society prevented him from meeting that end. He had to provide for his family and this was the only way he could do it at that point. Therefore, his action is frequently interpreted not as an act of theft, but an desperate act of survival. However, when he took the silver candle sticks from the bishop, he was stealing, until the bishop mercifully told him “I meant for you to have them.”

        By analogy, the man who falsely told the Hutu militia that he did not know where Immaculee was did not lie. Rather, he was doing all he could do to save people’s lives in a desperate situation.

        In both cases, the distinction is subtle.

  2. This always fascinating subject leads me to take the liberty of posting here a portion of a legal ethics paper I once did. This part deals with lying in business negotiations, from the point of view of morals, as opposed to the specific rules of the bar (which also discourage lying). Apologies for the length.

    The topic of lying in negotiation brings us back full circle to the application of ethics thinking generally. When considering this particular topic, Harvard Professor Sissela Bok’s book-length treatment of lying is considered the current standard treatment of the subject. One can summarize her findings of the currently held positions as follows:
    • all lies are impermissible as expressly forbidden by God; lying endangers one’s immortal soul; it is not excusable to do evil that good may come of it;
    • truth is a duty one owes to all other persons because of their dignity as humans; a lie thus is never justified;
    • while a clear lie is always evil, it is not evil to make statements the wording of which is subject to mental reservations, thus allowing the recipient to understand one thing while the speaker means another; and
    • certain lies may be excused by factors such as avoidance of harm, promotion of justice and a fair result.
    Professor Bok’s book covers surveys the broad vistas of lying, but within the narrower confines of negotiating practices, it seems that practitioners usually excuse their lying on the last summarized ground: that it is fair because the parties to the negotiation have at least tacitly agreed that lying is permissible in the context – or, stated legalistically, that the parties waived their rights to absolute truth.
    The negotiating process is not so easily characterized as a simple game of liars lying to liars, however. In fact, as Prof. Bok points out, there are many different kinds of negotiation, ranging from an Eastern bazaar, where “false claims are a convention,” to negotiations in which one party at least expects the truth and bargains in good faith. Or the parties may know the “rules” of a negotiation may permit lying, but may not have consented to those rules. She summarizes that
    [t]he fact that someone is himself a liar does not by itself add strength to excuses for deception, such as the harmlessness of the lie, the existence of a crisis, or voluntary neutral consent in clearly delineated circumstances. Alternatives still have to be weighed, moral arguments considered, the test of publicity taken into account.

    She concludes that lying in a negotiation, or to other liars in the bazaar, may be excusable if employed to avert a true threat of harm, but usually is not otherwise excusable.

    As noted by Professor Bok, the point of view of Thomistic philosophy is more stringent. In this view, to lie is to make a perverted use of the faculty of speech, whose very function is to communicate truth. Thus it is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified by excuses such as that the person to whom the lie is told was not deserving of being told the truth, or that the rules of negotiating game specified that lies could be told.

    Dublin Professor Michael Cronin summarizes this argument in the following way:

    Speech, therefore, has this as its essential characteristic, viz., that from its own nature, and in every act, it purports to represent a man’s thoughts. We may prevent it from doing so by telling a lie, but even when we do so, of its nature, it carries with it this implication, it purports to represent our thought. And consequently this being the inner, inseparable, and natural implication of speech, the condition without which language is not language and has no meaning, its natural object and end must be to represent a man’s thought. When by speaking falsely we frustrate speech of its natural object, using it, not to represent our thought, but the opposite of our thought, then speech is an act falling on “undue matter” and is evil. The lie, therefore, is of its nature evil.

    This discussion may stand as an example of why the present writer believes that general ethical thought, as well as the Bar Rules, should be considered by the lawyer. It is said that Kant, as the exemplar of deontology, would deny that a lie is ever appropriate. The consequentialist might well have a different view, depending on the good to be achieved in the particular circumstance. The virtue ethicist could well approach the problem by referring to the virtue of truthfulness as one of those virtues most important to sustaining relationships, and thus not lightly, if ever, to be abused.

    Aristotle himself has the following to say:

    But each man speaks and acts and lives in accordance with his character, if he is not acting for some ulterior object. And falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and worthy of praise. Thus the truthful man is another case of a man who, being in the mean, is worthy of praise, and both forms of untruthful man [i.e. the boastful and the ironic] are culpable, and particularly the boastful man.

    Let us discuss them both, but first of all the truthful man. We are not speaking of the man who keeps faith in his agreements, i.e. in the things that pertain to justice or injustice (for this would belong to another virtue), but the man who in the matters in which nothing of this sort is at stake is true both in word and in life because his character is such. But such a man would seem to be as a matter of fact equitable. For the man who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing is at stake, will still more be truthful where something is at stake; he will avoid falsehood as something base, seeing that he avoided it even for its own sake; and such a man is worthy of praise. He inclines rather to understate the truth; for this seems in better taste because exaggerations are wearisome.

    It is argued that the problem with virtue ethics is that it is an ethics too closely connected with the Greek polis or other small communities and does not provide a system that would function well for the person (let alone lawyer) living and working in the 21st century American pluralist liberal democracy. A virtue theory that could be applicable to a democracy, however, is suggested by Michael Slote, based upon the ethical thought of the Stoics. He notes that a principal virtue for a democracy is individual work and self reliance, or independence, and a principal vice is its opposite: parasitism. Thus in our lying example, we could conclude that by lying to gain a benefit from a negotiation, the lawyer is parasitically appropriating the other party’s goods to his own side, without actually working (honestly) to earn such goods, and thus is acting in a manner contrary to the democratic virtue. With this consideration of work we can end this discussion for now with the following remark from the noted Italian jurist Piero Calamandrei, as quoted in Judge Rubin’s article:

    The difference between the true lawyer and those men who consider the law merely a trade is that the latter seek to find ways to permit their clients to violate the moral standards of society without overstepping the letter of the law, while the former look for principles which will persuade their clients to keep within the limits of the spirit of the law in common moral standards.

    [footnotes omitted.]

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