Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Right to Lie

Kant claims that because lying somehow self contradicts itself according to the categorical imperative that lying is immoral. In class I asked if lying can be considered immoral in itself. Consider this: a sick man wants to find your puppy so he can harm it. He asks you where your puppy is and says that if you don't tell him where your puppy is he will cut off your hand (this guy is real messed up). Could lying possibly be justified as still immoral but permissible in extreme circumstances? Kant's imperative leaves no room for exceptions, how much do you value arm?

Lying allegedly produces a contradiction because a known falsity said, heard and consequently believed by the receiving party produces a false idea in the mind of the receiving party. Is there anything inherently immoral about another person not knowing the truth of something? What imperative do we have to stand by our word at all costs? It doesn’t take a genius to understand that in some cases telling the truth would be plain stupid.

In my opinion, lying can be a powerful and versatile tool for manipulating one’s circumstances—poker being a prime example. Associating an inherent value with an idea was dismissed when Sartre declared existence to precede essence. The immorality of lying may be factored into a utilitarian analysis, if one is so inclined, but perceived results should be considered as well. I propose that lying in itself holds no moral value, that its moral or immoral value corresponds directly to its positive or negative consequences. Lying does contain some innate negative consequences. Being regarded as an honest person has great benefits when aiming to be trusted. Lying, especially when unnecessary, places trust on the line because the hearer now has the lie to compare with the truth, should the truth come to his knowledge. This, along with any self-incurred guilt—Raskolnikov—is the only inherently immoral component in lying.

Other positive or negative consequences of lying strictly dependent on circumstances may be ignored; as it has been demonstrated, telling the truth is just a privy to adverse results. Lying and telling the truth are neutral in value. A prudent person knows the right way to lie. Don’t buy into Kant’s categorical imperative. Telling the truth benefits the receiver of the truth. Having the option to lie when appropriate benefits you. Don’t let Kant live you life for you.


  1. I’m glad you continued this conversation on the blog Cole. First of all, if you are (as you say you are) defending the moral permissibility, how do I know that you aren’t lying now? How do I know that your statement “It is permissible to lie” not also a lie? While this may sound pithy, I think it gets to the heart of what Kant means when he argues that lying is categorically wrong. Arguing from a position defending lying is necessarily self-contradictory because it is asserting a proposition as true, while at the same time asserting that it could be false.
    Given your sick person/puppy example, there are many creative ways to solve the problem without lying. A strict Kantian might argue that we have a moral responsibility to convince this sick person that he is making a mistake at get him to listen to reason. This, however, is not a very practical solution. The Kantian does have a kind of loophole. If the sick person is so deranged that he/she cannot listen to reason, then he/she is not (even if not currently) a moral agent, thus we are not obligated to tell the truth. This position is dangerous if applied generally, but may have success in specific, contrived situations.

  2. I like that loophole. And yes maybe I am lying. Tell me though, would my lie be that I don't believe lying is morally permissible but I lie when I argue that it is? Or would I be lying on the grounds that what I was saying was objectively false? In the case of the former, were we to disregard Kant's categorical imperative, we would still be left with a practical imperative to tell the truth. Utilize the truth when you want to convey the truth, lie when you don't want to tell the truth. Who cares whether I believe what I say? You to know not to lie to your mother, you don’t need a categorical imperative for that. You know not to lie when you want to tell the truth. In the case of the latter, I would ask you what makes the permissibility of lying objectively false. If you say it’s because if lying were permissible we would never be able to understand each other because we would never know when people were lying, I would say that is exactly how it already is. Further, claiming that a world without the categorical imperative of truth could not function begs the question. If you say permitting lies forms a self-contradiction because affirming the claim annihilates all truth-value, I tell you truth-value is not derived from any actual truth, it is an idea formed in the mind based on observation. I don’t need the categorical imperative to determine whether or not someone lies or whether or not I should lie. Further, it is naïve to imagine that the truth cannot contradict itself. The Truth may both exist and not exist. I don’t know. Can anyone give an honest reason not to lie?

  3. Most interesting to me is the distinction (or lack thereof) between morality and moral permissibility. We barely touched on this in class and I think it deserves further conversation; Beyond language itself, what is the actual difference between something that is moral and another that is only morally permissible? By accepting an action as morally permissible, are we not submitting to its potential and/or inherent morality? It seems to me like we’re allowing for a third and fourth category beyond simply moral and immoral… Can lying be both immoral and, at times, morally permissible? On the other hand, can telling the truth be a moral thing, but at times, the morally impermissible option? This seems to allow for every “immoral” action the opportunity to become “morally permissible” in a given circumstance. If that’s the case, then why deem anything “immoral” at all? The qualification of “moral” and “immoral” loses its meaning.

    Finally, I have to content on the last point in your comment, Cole. It seems to me that if “truth” contradicts itself as you suggest, then, by definition, it would not be truth. I haven’t thought long and hard about this yet, this is just my initial reaction.

  4. Sarah, you're right insofar as capital T 'Truth' that both exists and doesn't exist can't possibly be true. I would disagree with your admission that something can be immoral and at the same time morally permissible. At least according to Kant, such a claim be a contradiction.

    Addressing your concern Cole, Kant is not interested in describing how the world is, he is interested in how the world should be. The Kantian must admit that lying exits in the world. Claiming anything to the contrary would be ridiculous. However, just because something is a certain way, it does not follow that it should be that way. Also, when communicating with someone, one must at least assume that the other person is telling the truth. If you genuinely believe that the other person might be lying, how can you make any sense out of what he or she is saying? You hear a proposition they say, but you cannot accurately ascribe a truth value to it. What value could such a proposition possibly have? It doesn't really matter whether you have a correspondence theory of truth or a coherence theory (which you seem to advocate), a true statement must be true. If a statement can be either true or false, one has no rational basis for believing it or not.

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  6. Believing in Truth is like believing in God. Its an idea each one of us possesses individually. Talking about an actual Truth of the world outside of this is like talking about God. If there were no truth than that would be the truth, and that's a paradox.

    We assume people are telling the truth, unless we suspect they are lying to us. Yet whenever we communicate, it is not just the basic black and white truth value of statements which give the conversation its content. Sure, most of the time what we say is true (because we are morally compelled, its more useful, what have you) but the astute listener should not depend so heavily on trusting the speaker. Rather, the listener should always read between the lines. The truth claim presented is only a sliver of what is really going on. The astute listener should not be so crude as to only discern truth from lies. He must discern why what has been said has been said. This is the key to listening. If it is true, why is it true? Why have I been told this? Why have a been lied to? Knowledge is a personal endeavor.

    We all know how to tell our own version of a story while keeping it "true." Lying is real, without lies our lives would be miserable. We would not be free, communication would break down. Further, most people don't even know the truth enough to talk about it. But there's no way Kant would tell everyone lying is permissible. If lying is permissible then you don't need to tell people.

  7. You talk about 'knowledge' and 'truth' as if they are something unique to each and every person. If this is the case, than such knowledge or truth would be useless because you would not be able to communicate it to others. Truth or knowledge must at least be intersubjective if it is to have any real meaning.

    I disagree with your position that we would not be free if we didn't lie. We would still be free to make a choice about what truths to tell, as well as how to tell them. Kant's definition of freedom is not that you can do whatever you want. He has a more robust definition that includes giving oneself rules and principles. You can only act freely when you give yourself the moral law. You are then not only free from impediments (negative freedom) but also free to act in ways you deem appropriate (positive freedom). You seem to be elevating the negative freedom and disregard positive freedom. I do agree with you though that the truth value of a proposition is only part of what is going on while communicating. There are many other things going on, however Kant doesn't focus as much on them.


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