Is there a paradox in Kant’s ethics? Must we tell the truth?
A clear objection is certainly that Kant himself stipulated several examples of duties – to not deceive another, for instance. The reason for this was not some inane theological position that lying is wrong, that it is one of the commandments that has come down from god, etc. Kant’s ethics is concerned with logical consistencies. He thus gave an example of borrowing money without any intent of paying back. To deceive another is considered morally wrong because if this rule were to be followed by everybody (universalised, as the first formulation of the categorical imperative stipulates), there would be no possibility to borrow money any longer – nobody would be lending money if they were to know that there is no possibility of them getting it back. To put it in Kantian terms, this would lead to a contradiction.1 My claim is that, even though Kant gave specific examples, they were only meant as to highlight the importance of the resulting contradiction; his aim was to emphasise that to follow the categorical imperative cannot lead to a contradiction. The examples he uses are thus not examples of specific duties; but rather examples of resulting contradictions. Or to put it differently, there are no knowable maxims prior to moral actions.
Centrality of autonomy
It is now time to return to Kant’s moral philosophy as revolving around autonomy. It is clear from our axe-man example that we are never free to answer either positively or negatively – we are not free because we are restrained by the actions of the murderer. The sad reflection here is that we have forgotten how to approach freedom without directly being involved with choice. Especially in the Western societies, freedom is first equated with whether we have a choice between various positions, so that we may freely choose one of the many positions that are presented to us. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with choices (though being presented with too many choices may lead to paralysis); the problem is that this is not the type of freedom that Kant had in mind.
For Kant, freedom is essentially passive – freedom consists of a predisposition. This may sound paradoxical, but it is not (unlike my blog would suggest). Kant’s view is in fact not even unique. Already in Aristotle we find an ethical theory that has more to do with our disposition or attitude towards the contingency of events, than it does with choices between alternatives. For Aristotle, virtue was something one attains through actions – if one acts bravely in face of danger, for instance. But such action is not something that one has chosen to do, though it is still the case that one has done so freely. The essential point here is precisely that such action has come about from a disposition that one has, perhaps, learnt or has taken to be his duty. This is exactly where the categorical imperative (in all its formulations) comes to play such a crucial role – it creates the disposition according to which one will act. But as you note, it does not require any choices to amount to freedom. Quite the contrary, one’s actions further cement the disposition that would lead to future actions.
The great danger here is when one cements a disposition to such a degree that his/her action is no longer a free act because it follows an already common predisposition that has been taken to be one’s own – in no sense would such actions be called free; at best they would be something specific to a particular actor, further ‘enslaving’ them into a particular role. What is required, therefore, is to remain open to the categorical imperative in each action (indeed, it is very demanding!).
What this tells us about the example of the axe-man is that acting according to the maxim ‘do no lie’ renders us ‘automatons’ rather than autonomous. In Kant’s ethical theory, the only possibility of acting morally is by regarding it one’s duty to remain autonomous in each specific situation. But it also tells us that a hypothetical situation that is discussed in classrooms is almost meaningless – at best, it makes one aware that one can only marginally be prepared to an axe-man at the doorstep; at worst, it wholly distorts our ability to understand Kant. A hypothetical situation necessarily misses the very point that Kant is making; namely, that a decision on an action is dependent on an actuality of the situation – i.e. that only the person standing in front of the axe-man can act according to the categorical imperative (and thus tell the truth or lie), only that person can have the ‘sudden realisation’ mentioned before, only that person is actually free.2
This is indeed to say that no action can be taken as a moral standard for other ‘similar’ situations – an act of bravery in face of danger, for instance, is not a specific enough situation to exert moral authority over other ‘similar’ situations. Telling the truth (or lying) to the axe-man similarly loses all standards of morality precisely because that moral action is only specific to that situation. The reason for this is that any action is by necessity in the phenomenal realm (while the categorical imperative is in the noumenal one).
The strange thing is that we are all aware of this. We may not have had a murderous axe-man at our doorstep, but I am certain we all have that awkward moment when we acted in the same way as we did in what we thought to be similar circumstances as the past ones, only to realise how foolish we must have looked to our friends and passers-by.
Three further possibilities/solutions
There are several other possibilities to answer the question: must we tell the truth to the murderous axe-man? The first one actually comes from someone I dismissed early on in this article, Benjamin Constant:
“It is a duty to tell the truth. The notion of duty is inseparable from the notion of right. A duty is what in one being corresponds to the right of another. Where there are no rights there are no duties. To tell the truth then is a duty, but only towards him who has a right to the truth. But no man has a right to a truth that injures others.” The πρωˆτον ψενˆδος here lies in the statement that “To tell the truth is a duty, but only towards him who has a right to the truth” (my emphasis).
The last sentence is self-explanatory; though it should be mentioned that Kant did not accept this ‘solution’ as such. His answer consists in pointing out that one is responsible for consequences of lying while telling to truth relieves them thereof.
“if you lied and said he was not in the house, and he had really gone out (though unknown to you) so that the murderer met him as he went, and executed his purpose on him, then you might with justice be accused as the cause of his death. For, if you had spoken the truth as well as you knew it, perhaps the murderer while seeking for his enemy in the house might have been caught by neighbours coming up and the deed been prevented”
This is certainly a very weak argument, for while you may feel guilty over telling a lie, and indeed indirectly cause the harm done – you would feel much worse looking at the axe-man doing what he came to do.
- In less specific terms, lying leads to deceitful language, where everything uttered could or could not be a lie, making all of our communication rather senseless – quite possibly, we would entirely stop communicating with one another.
- In this (and not much else), Kant’s ethical theory is strangely close to Nietzsche’s notion of overcoming – only through overcoming can we in fact be free.