The categorical imperative and the Nazi at the door

Jodi was explaining to me this evening that ethicists find fault in Kant’s categorical imperative, the first formulation of which is (if I’m paraphrasing correctly) that you should act in a way in which you can will everyone else to act. The problem, they say, is that Kant forbids lying because nobody really wants to live in a world in which everyone lies.

This prohibition on lying, they say, fails a common-sense thought experiment. If you were hiding a family from Nazis (it’s always Nazis with these people), and you answered the door to find an SS officer who asks you if you know where the family are, most people would say that it’s right to lie in this circumstance, whereas Kant would identify the act as lying and conclude that it’s wrong to lie.

But I think this analysis misframes the scenario. There’s no reason to focus on how well your answer to the SS officer corresponds with fact, or with your best knowledge of fact (whether or not you are lying). I would call this action “working to stop a genocide” (in a broad sense), or “preventing murder” (in a more specific sense), and I can easily will that everyone would act in these ways.

I suppose I’m not the first to think of this defense, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has some idea about Kant. Am I being reasonable here?



Filed under Uncategorized

6 responses to “The categorical imperative and the Nazi at the door

  1. creases

    Two quick points.

    What Kant says is not just that you don’t want to live in a world where nobody lies, but it’s actually logically inconsistent to suppose a world where everyone lies. A lie is only a lie if it’s offered as something to believe, but in a world where everyone lies, no one would ever believe what anyone says, which means they couldn’t be lies. It’s the logic part that he thinks is important, because the moral law has to come from our own power of practical logic. Kant explicitly refers to situations where one party lies for the sake of convenience, or to get the upper hand on someone else; he doesn’t talk about cases where you might be saving someone’s life.

    Second point. You’re right that it all depends on how you frame it. The debate then becomes whether that is to Kant’s credit, or a flaw in his system. Normally, what we demand of an ethical system is that it tell us what is right and what is wrong. Let’s call that the result. If the result depends on how you emphasize elements of the situation, then you can get the result you want by contriving the question. This is normally considered a weakness in the system; at the very least, we should say this means ethics as Kant puts it can’t be a science, which is what he wanted it to be.

    — Your friendly neighborhood phil grad student

  2. tealfroglette

    we discussed this in political philosophy in my class at franklin college in switzerland for several days. Essentially if somebody asked, will you make frog legs i will not lie and i will tell them hell no, and no they can’t bring them to my house. IF somebody brings them anyway i would probably refuse to serve them and make them take them out of my house even tho it’s wasting something that’s already dead.

    But if somebody wanted to go catch my tree frogs or other frogs to eat them i would refuse to tell them where they are and lie up a storm if i thought it would save the frogs from being chewed on.

    And i really hate lying, but like you, in order to stop evil, i just might.

    I will not tho in general to appease somebody’s feelings etc. I’m very bad at that fake bs kinda southern charm underscored lying crap ‘oh have you been sick, i was wondering because your yard has gone out of control’. Read as ” Nina your yard looks terrible”.

    Why? because TOad refuses to do the yardwork i can’t, such as swing a hug weedwacker until i nag him to death…….

  3. tacit

    Heh. Funny you should mention this; I’ve had this exact conversation, with this exact hypothetical scenario, on a mailing list about six years ago.

    There’s an old saying whose source I do not know that says “the Devil’s work has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all.” This betrays a very common idea about lying: that when a person lies, he does so in the service of an evil end, for example to enrich himself or to evade responsibility. The objection to lying is actually predicated on this idea; it’s an objection, once removed, to doing such things as enriching one’s self at the expense of another, or evading responsibility, or removing informed consent from another, or whatever.

    But the lie itself is not really the thing; it’s the objective of the lie that matters. A lie can be made in the pursuit of a noble cause, such as to prevent genocide; far from an attempt to dodge responsibility, in the particular case of the Nazis, i submit that the lie is the action of greatest courage, because the consequence to the liar is potentially the greatest. Telling the truth in this case makes one a hero of the state; the lie makes one the enemy of the state, and in Nazi Germany, perceived enemies of the state tended to meet a very sticky end indeed.

    In most cases where a person must choose between a lie and the truth, one can usually tell which is the morally more defensible course of action by moving in the direction of greatest courage. If one has broken a lamp, stolen money from the church coffers, or impregnated the boss’s daughter, the lie is the direction away from greatest courage; it is an attempt to evade responsibility for and the consequences of one’s actions. If one is hiding a family of Jews from the Gestapo, the lie is unquestionably the direction of greatest courage.

  4. guaharibo

    I’ve got nothing for you regarding theory. If I had people hidden in my house and Nazis asked me if I knew where they were I’d say “No” with the comfort of having not lied because at that exact moment I did not know where they were standing, huddling, etc. Simple, evasive, not 100% the accurate but still true.

  5. watamelonmonkey

    I think Kant’s response to this would be, “Okay, say I lie and tell the SS officer ‘nope, no Jewish people here.’ The SS officer takes my word for it and leaves. The Jewish family upstairs is freaking out about an SS officer downstairs and decides to flee the house. While they are escaping into the alley, they run right into the SS officer as he is leaving the home. They are then captured and all because of a lie. Had I said ‘yes, I am hiding Jews in my attic’ the officer would have gone upstairs to check it out, thus giving the family the opportunity to escape.”

    I would say in most cases, a lie like this is necessary in order to defend human rights. However, this above argument (as told to me by West Gurley) is also convincing. I think Kant’s point is that the same outcome is possible whether or not you tell the truth or a lie; but, being honest is best.

    If one wanted to move away from the Nazi discussion, think about an average example that might happen to you everyday. A woman asks you if the jeans she has on makes her butt look big. Well, you believe they do, but in lieu of not upsetting her you say “no.” This lying thing becomes an issue of ‘well, do we put more emphasis on being truthful OR do we put more emphasis on being tactful?’ If you tell her the truth, she may become upset, but you did not lie. If you decide to lie, so she doesn’t feel bad, someone else may mention her butt looking rather big in her jeans. Then, not only is she hurt by their comments, she will also be hurt by you not being honest with her in the first place. I mean is the world really going to end if you tell one “little white lie?” I think Kant would say yes; a lie is a lie. At least if one tells the truth, they will never have to endure the repercussions of the lie.

    I could be off…not that I am sure if this answers any question that you may have asked. I find Kant’s categorical imperiative (first formulation) to be quite burdensome and heavy. Yet, his “Observations on the Beautiful and Sublime” is exquisite. I am in awe of that piece; it’s one of my favorites in philosophy. Kant is not my favorite philosopher. I find myself forcing myself to like him in the same sense that I force myself to try to enjoy Hemingway. I did this with James Joyce and it worked, so there must be something to it. Also, I don’t know if either you or Jodi have read it, but “Slowness” by Miland Kundera is lovely. “Slowness” is a lot more light in subject matter (as opposed to Kundera’s brilliance in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) and it is very short; a one night read.

  6. h_postmortemus

    Yes, your being reasonable.

    Philosophy, as I’ve generally seen it, is rarely reasonable or sensible and usually about mental masturbation.

    Er, no offense. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s