Lying, Deception and Kant


Alexander R. Pruss


August 30, 2001



†††††††††† Kant believes that his moral theory prohibits lying under all possible circumstances, even those where there is a murderer at the door wondering if the innocent victim is in your house.† After all, if everybody lied, even just to murderers at the door enquiring about the whereabouts of oneís actions, then the lying could not succeed since no murderer would believe what one says, and hence the action violates the first form of the Categorical Imperative (CI).† Likewise, the lie violates the second form of the CI by failing to respect the rationality of the murderer, since that rationality is exhibited through the self-legislation of ends whereas by lying we manipulate the murderer into actions directed at our own end, which end is opposed to the end that the murderer has legislated for herself;† thus, the liar fails to treat the murderer as an end.[1]† I will not discuss the third form of the CI explicitly, as I take it to be essentially equivalent to the second form.

†††††††††† That lying even in such an extreme case is a violation of the CI is taken by many to be an argument against the CI.† After all, the thought goes, in such cases one has a duty or at least permission to lie, and any moral theory that prohibits such a lie is immoral or at least overly strict.† One line of defense a Kantian could take would be to argue that, pace Kantís own beliefs about the matter, it does not violate the CI to lie in these circumstances.† For instance, Korsgaard advocates a two-level theory on which the first form of the CI would apply under all circumstances and the second only when one is not defending oneself or another against evil, and argues that the first form of the CI is not violated in the case where the murderer makes a secret of her murderousness, since even were everybody to lie in those circumstances, the murderer would not expect the person at the door to lie as the murderer would expect her interlocutor not to know her murderous plans.† I have argued elsewhere that this account misunderstands how Kantian universalization is supposed to work[2], but for the purposes of this paper it suffices to note that this account will, as Korsgaard explicitly notes, forbid lying to murderers who make no secret of their intentions.† Yet, surely, the person whose intuitions say that lying is acceptable to save a life will insist that if one has Jews hidden in oneís house, then it is acceptable to lie to the Gestapo when they ask whether there are any Jews in the house, even though the Gestapo knows that everybody knows their murderous intentions.

†††††††††† So Korsgaardís account will not defend Kant successfully.† The Kantian does need to bite the bullet and say that there are lies that are forbidden even though many people think that such lies are a duty.† But this bullet is one that can be bitten.† After all, lying is a heinous crime.† In speaking a sentence assertorically, one vouches for its truth to oneís interlocutor, thereby inviting the interlocutorís trust.† But in lying, one invites the trust while simultaneously breaking with it;† this is true even if the interlocutor is a vicious person.† A lie is thus an intentional invitation of trust and a breaking of faith.† It is, hence, an act of treason, and the traitor is traditionally thought of as the lowest of all moral beings, often even by those for whose benefit the treason is wrought.† The liarís interlocutor has a right to feel betrayed.† A lie is worse than the breaking of a promise that had been made in good faith, because the person breaking the promise is no longer inviting the otherís trust, while the liar simultaneously invites trust and betrays it.† Once one realizes that lying is a form of treason, one may no longer wish to oppose Kantís claims that lying is wrong.[3]† Moreover, the Kantian may say we should not put much weight on our moral intuitions about difficult cases, and the fact that a consistent and comprehensive moral theory, with good rational backing, together with the above considerations about treason, says lying is always wrong does give strong evidence that the intuitions about lying being sometimes right are mistaken.

†††††††††† In light of these considerations, I take it that Kantís opponent is not justified in pointing to Kantís view of lying as a refutation of the CI.† However, I shall argue that there is a more serious objection to Kant, namely that Kantian ethics is unable to see the morally significant difference between lying and deception.

†††††††††† An innocent victim is fleeing a murderer.† The victim comes to cross-roads.† She lays a false trail leading to the left, dropping her handkerchief and leaving footprints in the mud.† Then she carefully goes on the right-hand road, ensuring no footprints are visible for a while, hoping that the murderer will see the false trail, come to believe that she went left, and thus permit her to escape.† The victim has done nothing wrong according to most peopleís moral intuitions.† Observe that the act is in a significant way different from lying.† For while asserting a sentence commits the speaker to the truth of what the sentence expresses, laying a trail and dropping handkerchief does not commit one to anything.† In doing it, the victim does not invite the murdererís trust.† The murderer when following the false trail does not do so out of trust in the victim but out of trust in the inductive generalization: ďWhere there are footprints, there likely a person has gone.Ē† Following an inductive generalization is very different from trusting a person.† The murderer would have no right to feel betrayed by the victim were the murderer to learn what happened.† Here we have deception but no lie and no moral wrong.†

†††††††††† Or consider the victim hiding in the bushes from a murderer with a shotgun.† She puts her hat on a stick and hangs props it up a yard away from herself, so as to ensure the murdererís aim goes awry.† In doing so, she intends that the murderer should be deceived as to the victimís location.† But she is not lying.† There is no trust violated.† The victim did not commit herself to anything.† Indeed, no communicative act was engaged in.† Surely what the victim did was right, and the murderer would have no right to feel wronged or betrayed.

†††††††††† However, in both of these examples Kant has to judge the act wrong, since it violates both forms of the CI in exactly the same way lying does.† If all people escaping from murderers stopped to lay false trails, then the false trails would no longer succeed at deceiving murderers, and likewise if all people hiding from murderers were to produce false physical evidence as to their location, then such physical evidence would not be believed: the murderer would shoot everywhere but under the hat.† And the deceptive act, just as an act of lying, fails to respect the rationality of the person deceived.† It attempts to manipulate that person to ensure that she should act in a way contrary to the ends that she has set for herself.† It thus uses the other person as an automaton for achieving the deceiverís ends, and hence fails to respect the other person as an end.† Therefore, Kant would have to condemn intentionally deceptive acts on exactly the same grounds as he would condemn lying, regardless of which form of the CI is in play.

†††††††††† Observe how Korsgaardís solution fails to help in the above cases of deceit.† When the pursuer is running after a victim, the pursuer is apt to know that the victim knows that she is being pursued.† When someone is hiding from a murderer who is shooting, again the murder may well know that she knows that the murderer is trying to killer her.

†††††††††† But, pace Kant, there is a morally significant difference between lying and deception.† Even a person who thinks lying is always wrong will allow the innocent victim to hang her hat away from herself to draw off her enemyís fire.† There is good reason for this.† Prima facie both lying and deception are wrong.† The prima facie wrongness of mere deception consists in the intention that another person should hold a false belief.† The prima facie wrongness of lying, however, consists not only in this, but also in the intention to make the other person trust one while planning to betray that trust.† Hence, lying is prima facie wrong in two ways, while mere deception is prima facie wrong in only one of these ways.† Absolutists who forbid lying under all circumstances are often criticized for valuing truth over life.† But if the absolutist prohibits lying while allowing mere deception under emergency conditions, then she is not guilty of this.† For it is not truth that she values over life, since deception also deprives the deceived person of truth, but what she values over life is keeping faith with a person whose trust one is soliciting.

†††††††††† Within the framework of the Categorical Imperative, regardless of whether one chooses the first or second formulation, Kant must forbid all deliberate deception, and this is an objection against Kantian ethics much stronger than the one based on the fact that he must forbid all lying (perhaps with the exception of Korsgaardian cases where oneís interlocutor is deceiving one about her intentions).† In the context of the second formulation, Kantís reason for prohibiting lying and deception will be that the rationality of the other person is not respected.† But, pace Kant, one need not always to respect the rationality of a person in that respect in which she is acting in an irrational way, and the murderer, insofar as she is searching for her victim in order to kill the victim, is acting irrationally.† The value to be preserved in the prohibition against lying, if one insists on an absolute such prohibition, is not the value of respecting the rationality of the other person but the value of refraining from false solicitations of the otherís trust.† Kantian ethics, thus, tends to focus oneís attention on the less relevant aspect of lying: the deception rather than the betrayal.

[1]These account of the violation of the CI follow Korsgaard ??ref.


[3]See my ...??