Is there a paradox in Kant’s ethics? Must we tell the truth?
There has been quite some misunderstanding in undergraduate courses on Kant’s moral philosophy. The general argument presented there is that Kant as a deontological thinker places greater value on duty/rules than on anything else.1 So the general argument that is presented to undergraduates in order to make them think further, is that Kant would under no circumstances allow lying. Those who study philosophy have certainly heard the famed axe-man scenario: A well-known murder knocks on your door, standing there with an axe in his hands, and asks where your children are so he could murder them. Now according to the general interpretation of Kant, one is not allowed to lie about this and has to answer truthfully, and lead this axe-man to his children’s certain death.
That’s the worst reading of Kant possible, perhaps it is even better never to have read him at all; and I am very curious how my students end up with this belief when entering my classroom. Perhaps it is because of that brief interchange with Benjamin Constant; though most probably it is because of taking the easy way out instead of thinking further on the issue. So in what follows, I will try to posit why Kant’s moral philosophy is largely misunderstood.
Phenomenal and noumenal realms
Just as when reading Aristotle’s ethics, one should first recognise that at the heart of his moral philosophy is not simply life, but ‘good life’; or that the core of Nietzsche’s moral philosophy comprises of revaluation (and thus not rejection); so too with Kant, the first realisation should recognise that his moral philosophy centres around human autonomy (and not simplistically duty). Keep this in mind, as I will return to it later. Duty certainly plays a fundamental role, but this is only insofar as it furthers our autonomy in actions. The reason for this is that the world is comprised of causal relations. Kant engages with Aristotle’s ethics and rejects the emphasis on virtue – one can be virtuous, but unlucky. One could do everything to further his virtuousness, but still fall prey to the causal relations in the world, where his hands are tied. So in order to break from this inane causality of the world (the ‘phenomenal’) one has to regard the categorical imperative as duty/law – put differently, the possibility of being autonomous (i.e. free) depends on the very causal relations in the phenomenal realm, and in order to free oneself from the phenomenal realm, one needs to regard the categorical imperative as duty/law.
The problem that Kant faces is that the categorical imperative is not within the phenomenal realm – it corresponds with the thing-in-itself, the ‘noumenon’ (i.e. it is independent of our awareness).2. So what Kant in fact faces is the challenge on how to make this dual relation work – how to account for autonomy in light of the causal relations of the world (the phenomenal realm) and the irretrievable notion of categorical imperative (the noumenal realm)? Or how is one to even abide a law that is independent of our awareness of it? I have to point out at this stage that we are not simplistically dealing with armchair philosophy here. Kant in fact engages with an incredibly important question in ethics that can be translated into, for instance, our contemporary organisation of international institutions. Are the United Nations declaring universal laws of human rights? Or are these laws dependent on particular cultures and thus cannot be universal? What when time passes, and we realise that some laws were too restrictive on some populations (African American slavery is but one of many examples)?3 How are we to reconcile these ethical points with political action? Are states responsible for their actions even if they follow rules (such as the UN forces in Srebrenica)? I do not have clear answers to these questions, but it is all the more important to recognise that we are not simply dealing with some issues that are removed from reality.
So how is one to abide a law that is independent of our awareness? Kant’s position is, at least to a degree, to remove the law from its pedestal. The law is no longer imposing itself on the individual action through precise rules, but rather presents itself as a sudden realisation of what is right – each situation is a unique circumstance. In turn, the possibility of human autonomy would be meaningless if laws imposed themselves without taking into account what our unique historical conditions were. We may certainly follow certain guidelines in our daily routine, we may even think of how we would act in different situations, but each situation is different (it is not every day that a murderous axe-man appears in front of my door). Ultimately, the historical condition necessitates a take on the law as something appearing to us as a ‘sudden realisation’.
We can see already that Kant is not prescribing duties to be obeyed indiscriminately. But, Kant continues, this must also apply to the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative belongs in the noumenal realm and cannot be known as such. Even though Kant gives several formulations – or perhaps, precisely because Kant gives several formulations – the categorical imperative functions according to the same type of sudden realisation rather than set divine rules.4 This is indeed to say that the categorical imperative is an ‘empty’ set of duties/rules – empty precisely in that sense of not having commandments as we are used to. There is no duty/rule to not lie (or steal, or kill, etc.) precisely because the categorical imperative belongs to the noumenal realm which is not approachable by human rationality – it is a realm that is independent of our awareness, we cannot experience it, let alone understand which duties/laws are in it. A position that one must tell the truth to the murderous axe-man, then, is not only simplified, but also utterly false.
- For Aristotelians, good ethics is about virtue, whereas for utilitarians good ethics follows the simple (simplistic?) doctrine ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number of people’.
- Kant uses noumena and thing-in-itself almost always interchangeably; for the purpose of this article, I do the same even though there are minor differences.
- Recall that the US Constitution starts with the inalienable rights of all men. But at the same time, almost all of the Founding Fathers held slaves – which in the Constitution are defined as “persons held in service or labor”. It may sound logical today to have largely abolished slavery worldwide (though other forms persist), but it is certainly plausible that we are still restrictive on parts of the population without our own awareness of it.
- There are three formulations, and they are very nicely detailed in various places online. I have no major objections to the formulations that you would find on Wikipedia, for instance. Instead of reproducing the analysis here, though, I would like to stress that the interchange with Constant that you find on Wikipedia as well, is not the final word on the matter and only specifies the criteria addressed by Constant.