For You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part I, please go here.
When we last left our hero – Kant – he was stuck…
A murderer had asked him for the whereabouts of his next innocent victim. Kant knew that if he told the murderer where the victim was hiding, the victim would certainly be killed and he – Kant – would in effect be sending this victim to her death. But at the same time, if he did not tell the murder the victim’s hiding place, he would be lying.
Kant, as we know, draws his superpowers from the categorical imperative and the categorical imperative states BOTH that we should not murder AND that we should not lie.
Faced with this cosmic conundrum, what is our intrepid hero to do? Find out in this episode of You Kant Do That on a Blog, Part II…
Just when Kant finds himself trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place – murder and lying – Kant’s super friend Captain Obvious arrives.
Captain Obvious argues: Not telling the murderer where the victim is hiding is not technically lying – it is merely withholding information (namely the whereabouts of the victim). There is a distinction between the two and therefore, Kant is saved from the challenge to his categorical imperative.
But Kant isn’t out of the woods – like in so many times in the past, Captain Obvious is half baked. The difference between lying and withholding information is only semantics (no matter how much Bill Clinton would like you to believe otherwise) and Kant would make no distinction between their moral content. In addition, the categorical imperative against lying would, when rigorously applied, also extend to a prohibition against the withholding of information.
Just then, Plausible Man shows up. He argues that telling the murderer where the victim is hiding does not amount to murder (in legal parlance this would be considered “accessory to murder” rather than murder itself) and therefore, the categorical imperative actually allows Kant to tell the murderer where the victim is hiding.
Close Plausible Man, but this is neither horseshoes nor hand grenades. This still doesn’t get Kant out of his jam because it is once again a technicality and not a substantive argument. We can easily tweak our hypothetical so that the result of Kant telling the truth would be the active killing of another.
For example, we could imagine a scenario in which a person with a terrible heart condition asks Kant to tell her the truth about his family who was just killed in a car crash. The truth would cause her such emotional stress that she would certainly die from the news. This scenario would make Kant the “proximate cause” of another’s death and remove Plausible Man’s technicality argument.
No, the only person who can save Kant is himself; but does the categorical imperative give him enough power to get out of this jam? Interestingly, the scenario presented above – a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his next victim (aka “the inquiring murderer hypothetical”) – was actually posed to Kant by Swiss philosopher Benjamin Constant while Kant was still alive (albeit a 73-year-old curmudgeon). As you can imagine, it was a major philosophical challenge – as close as you’re ever going to get to a modern-day throw down between two 18th Century European philosophers.
To defend his moral philosophy against Constant’s attack, Kant actually wrote an essay called On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives in which he actually argues that the categorical imperative requires us to tell the hypothetical murderer the whereabouts of his next victim.
But this seems to run counter to everything our intuitions tell us – most people would probably rationally argue that, in the hypothetical of the inquiring murderer, the moral obligation is for us to NOT tell the truth. I guess a Kant defender would say that our intuitions are wrong and that the categorical imperative sometimes forces us to make moral decisions that run counter to our intuitions. But this seems like a cop out.
So how do we reconcile Kant’s moral framework with our intuitive belief that we ought to not tell the murderer the truth?
I believe the way to do this is to go back to Kant’s own writings in the Groundwork and look at what he says about the difference between perfect duties and imperfect duties.
According to the Groundwork, Kant defines perfect duties as those actions that, when evaluated according to the First Maxim, produce inherent contradictions. In other words, these are actions that cause inherent contradictions when they are rationally applied as universal laws.
For example, the murder is a perfect duty. If we ever tried to apply murder as a universal law, it would lead to an inherent contradiction. Murder presupposes life – namely that there are humans alive to murder and to be murdered. Yet if murder were applied as a universal law, then everyone would be dead and there would be nobody left to murder or to be murdered. It would be inherently contradictory to apply murder as a universal law because we cannot rationally conceive of a world where murder is universally allowed. Because we cannot rationally apply murder as a universal law, it is not permissible under the First Maxim.
Imperfect duties, on the other hand, are actions that, when evaluated according to the First Maxim, DO NOT produce inherent contradictions. Put it another way, these are actions that DO NOT cause inherent contradictions when they are rationally applied as universal laws.
Lying is an imperfect duty. If we tried to apply lying as a universal law, it would NOT lead to an inherent contradiction. Lying DOES NOT presuppose truth-telling – if everybody lied, one could still lie and not produce an untenable position. In fact, we can rationally conceive of a world where lying is universally allowed – it would be a world where everyone lied to everyone else.
But we might ask – if lying is an imperfect duty, then why should we not lie? The answer is – although we can rationally conceive of a world where lying is universally allowed, no one would rationally want to live in such a world. Despite the fact that universalizing lying is not inherently contradictory, lying still cannot be rationally applied as a universal law and therefore is still not permissible under the First Maxim.
The difference between perfect and imperfect duties is very, very subtle. Both of these duties are not permissible under the First Maxim because they cannot be rationally applied as universal laws. The difference is how we arrive at the conclusion that they cannot be rationally applied as universal laws.
In the case of a perfect duty (such as murder), we cannot even rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed because it would produce an inherent contradiction. And because we cannot even rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed, we cannot rationally apply it as a universal law. In the case of imperfect duties (such as lying), we CAN rationally conceive of a world where such an action were universally allowed. But because we would not rationally want to live in a world where such actions were universally allowed, we still cannot rationally apply it as a universal law.
The distance between perfect and imperfect duties may be very small, but there might just be enough space there for Kant to squeeze through to get of his predicament. Let us suppose that perfect duties take precedence over imperfect duties. Since the prohibition against murder is a perfect duty and the prohibition against lying is an imperfect duty, Kant would be allowed to lie in order to avoid committing murder.
Unfortunately, Kant is silent about all of this. His discussion of perfect and imperfect duties in the Groundwork does not cover whether one type of duty can supersede the other so there is no way of knowing if the exhaustive (and probably also exhausting) explanation above would actually sit well with Kant.
I would think that Kant would probably hesitate to endorse such an explanation, even if it succeeds in getting him out of the inquiring murderer hypothetical. Kant’s whole purpose in conceiving of the categorical imperative is to construct an absolute rather than framework for morality (such as the utilitarians). To then bring in the possibility – even the possibility – of certain duties trumping others would create a slippery slope which threatens to destroy the absolutist moral framework that Kant has so carefully constructed.
Constant’s inquiring murderer hypothetical is a real poison pill that presents a potentially lethal problem for Kant’s moral philosophy. The explanation that Kant gives in On a Supposed Right – that the categorical imperative requires us to tell the murderer the whereabouts of his victim – doesn’t seem to agree with our intuitive understanding of morality. I have tried to present a way of reconciling Kant’s moral framework with our intuitive morality – by separating murder and lying into perfect and imperfect duties, respectively. But even this leads to potential problems in that it fundamentally relies on a prioritization of perfect vis-à-vis imperfect duties that could plant a relativist seed that could threaten to take down Kant’s entire absolutist moral framework.
A sticky wicket to be sure, but we all knew that nothing about Kant was ever going to be easy or clear.
Alright, I am exhausted by all this heavy philosophical lifting. In the next installment, I will redirect attention to a simpler matter – applying Kant’s moral philosophy in the real world. This will probably be a feat somewhat akin to trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse.