Monday, February 1, 2010

Kant and the Truth, the whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

By Hanno

Dr. Thomason, Dr. Butkus and I were having a discussion at Darrell's [blessed be his place] about Kant and his ethics. At the heart of the discussion was Kant's defense of the absolute requirements of the moral law. In particular, Kant argues that the moral law commands what we ought to do under any circumstances. One of those requirements is truth-telling: we ought to always tell the truth, in any possible situation.

There are two standard objections, though they have a similar structure. Each flows, as I discovered in our conversation, from a moral dilemma created from other moral duties that we have. The first is the classic, phil 101 example of the Gestapo knocking on the door of someone who is hiding Jews in the attic. The Gestapo asks 'Are you hiding any Jews?' The truthful answer is 'yes', which would result in your immediate execution, and the transfer of the hidden Jews to a concentration camp, where they, too, will face almost certain death. On the face of it, one can argue, this cannot be the moral thing to do. It may be argued, correctly, on Kant's view, that there is a moral duty to preserve one's life, and that there is a moral duty to preserve the life of others. Hence, there is reason to think you have a moral duty to lie.

This creates two problems for Kant. If so, the moral duty to always tell the truth is not absolute. There are circumstances where you ought not tell the truth, and the whole picture looks shaky. Second, on Kant's view, reason respects consistency. It is because the maxims can be consistently universalized that they carry the moral 'ought.' Reason has its own motive, separate from the desires of the appetites, which is respect for the moral law, and this respect is grounded in the consistency of moral laws. Just as reason is in awe of the axioms of geometry because they are consistent, and the laws of Physics because they are consistent, so too with the moral law. If this objection is right, the moral laws are in fact not consistent. There are real moral dilemmas. If you tell the truth, you violate one moral law, and if you do not, you violate another. The existence of moral dilemmas thus poses an existential problem for Kant's view: if the system is inconsistent, there is no reason whatsoever to always follow the moral law. Indeed, if the moral law is in fact universal, there may be no moral law at all.

There is another standard objection: the little white lie. Here, lives are not at stake. Indeed, something as trivial [!] as feelings are at play. We picture a situation where truth telling does no one any good whatsoever. In fact, it just creates misery. Telling the truth will make someone feel miserable, and will not make you feel good either. One need not be a consequentialist to accept such a situation. That is, one need not think that only the consequences of an action determine its moral worth. Instead, one need only accept that at least part of the moral worth of an action depends on its consequences [and not the whole]. In our discussion, it became clear that this, too, rests on conflicting moral duties [though I am this minimum consequentialist: if there is no consequence whatsoever, I see no reason why I ought to do as told.] The dilemma for Kant comes from a competing moral duty: kindness. We ought to be kind. But the truth is not always kind, it would seem. Indeed, Nietzsche stated that there is a cruel streak in always telling the truth, a cruel streak which is cloaked in moral righteousness. "I am just telling the truth: you are a horrible lay, and not really smart either." I think Niezsche was correct.

The response to these objections was to insist that there must be a way to tell the truth and meet the moral law. That is, perhaps there is a way you can both tell the truth and be kind. I am not sure how such a response works with the Nazi example, but if true, it works with the kindness example. But I will note: this seems to be an empirical question: is there a way of telling the truth in all circumstances while at the same time being kind? The global claim, yes, there must be, needs a defense, and if Kant is right, an a priori defense.

17 comments:

9 Finger Willy said...

I will grant you that "truth telling" for Kant is a perfect moral duty. But in order for you to create a problem for Kant you also need to show that preserving one's life (or the lives of others) is a perfect duty as well. If preserving one's life is just an imperfect duty then there is no problem for Kant: Do the right thing, tell the truth. And sometimes doing the right thing might have serious consequences....

T.M. Furman

Hanno said...

Sure. We call this a reductio: Since clearly the right thing is to save the life of others, it follows that Kant is simply wrong, but not inconsistent.

I think, too, you can argue there is a perfect duty to preserve one's life. Out of context, Kant says so in his views about suicide. But I think the Gestapo example is not suicide, precisely because it is the Gestapo that will be doing the killing, and not you. True, you can make strong inferences about the outcomes of your choice, but that is not the same thing. And to the extent that we are thinking of outcomes, we are not being Kantians, but consequentialists.

Still, it is the consequentialist that gives us the right answer: lie.

Krista said...

The prohibition on suicide makes it look like preserving your life is a perfect duty, although I don't think so. The way he puts it in the Groundwork, you can't kill yourself because in doing so you're elevating your own happiness above your moral personality (ending your miserable life will make you feel better). Putting your own happiness or self-concern above your moral self is the source of radical evil (in the Religion) and that seems to be the primary problem with suicide. Kant also says in several places that we admire the man who dies for his principles: if he has a perfect duty not to die, then why do we admire him? Moreover, Kant claims we cannot have duties to do things we are naturally inclined to do anyway and preserving our lives is one of those things. I'm with Todd; I don't think we do have a perfect duty to preserve our own lives.

We have imperfect duties to help other people and we have perfect duties to not to kill other people, but does that amount to a perfect duty to save lives? Unlikely. If it did, Kant would be a utilitarian: "Though the heavens may fall, save lives".

Is he wrong? If you think that the point of morality is producing the best results all things considered (saving lives, sparing feelings), then yes. But that's a substantive claim that needs defending. It's nice when good things happen, but that doesn't mean it's right to make them happen.

The murderer at the door -- oy vey. Like it or not, Kant argues that you cannot lie to the murderer because -- counterintuitive as it sounds -- you are NOT responsible for the victim's death if you tell the truth, but you might be if you lie. Even though a consequence of your honesty is murder, it's not your deed. The murderer and only the murderer is responsible and, according to Kant, no court can punish you (obviously not so in our courts) because you did nothing wrong. If you lie, you then take control of the situation because you are now manipulating the murderer using misdirection. Once you assume control, you are then responsible for what the murderer does, as though he is your puppet. When you assume control, you assume responsibility.

Crazy? A little, but I actually don't think it's indefensible.

One more thing and then I promise I'm done. Nietzsche thinks Kant is cruel because Nietzsche has a substantive philosophical anthropology in which we are not in control of ourselves as much as we think. Kant, of course, has a different substantive philosophical anthropology in which we are more in control of ourselves than we think. Nietzsche needs to pony up the argument for why Kant's vision is wrong and his is right.

Hanno said...

"Once you assume control, you are then responsible for what the murderer does, as though he is your puppet. When you assume control, you assume responsibility."

That's crazy. The murderer does not lose his agency when you lie to him.
This assumes that control is all or nothing, as is responsibility. That is clearly not the case.

Hanno said...

OK, during the holocaust, there were thousands of people in every occupied land who hid Jews. Each one put their lives on the line, each one knowing instant execution awaited them if discovered, and the death of all they hid. Each one has stories to tell, because the nice truth telling neighbors all let the Gestapo know their suspicions, that so-and-so might be hiding Jews. In the stories, the Nazis search the house, sometimes repeatedly, interrogate the occupants. They shared scarce food. You can look up the documented stories under the name "righteous among the nations" or "Yad Vashem."

Now are you seriously arguing that those people, following their compassion for the suffering and the innocent, were morally wrong for putting an 'imperfect duty,' preserving human life above a 'perfect duty,' telling the truth?

And if they get caught, as many did [one was caught when her own daughter 'told the truth' about her mother, that she was hiding three Jews, which immediately led to the mothers summary execution, and the Jews were sent to Auschwitz], it was the responsibility of the person hiding them?

And this position is defensible?

Hanno said...

"Well" says St Peter, "I see you are guilty of killing three Jews by trying to hide them, and lying about it. For the crime of murder, you will spend eternity in Hell."

"And you, Mr. Gestapo officer, you might have joined her. Its true you shot the old lady, and put the Jews on the train sending them to their death. But you were not responsible, because she lied to you. BParadise awaits..."

Krista said...

The holocaust is a special case. It's an illegitimate government, so that's where my state of nature argument comes in. The Gestapo weren't just murderers; they were agents of an unjust state.

Kant makes it clear that what he's doing in that essay has to do with lying understood under the umbrella of the doctrine of right, not the doctrine of virtue. So, St. Peter wouldn't enter into it and neither would compassion for the victim. What exactly a lie is as far as the courts are concerned is a bit odd, but Kant thinks it's somehow different than a lie we tell with regard to virtue. It has more to do with what can be legally attributed to you.

Hanno said...

I'm afraid you lost me, but I suspect your answer would be much longer than a blog response.

Hanno said...

Does the case really change if the people knocking on the door are from the KKK and not from the government? Or random psychotic, natural born killers?

Krista said...

It changes insofar as Kant's answer can change. He has a lot more resources to deal with the Nazi case. We don't have to just look at the lying essay; we can appeal to what he says about legitimate governments in the DoR. In the case of the KKK and the random psycho, we would be limited to the lying essay.

Just to make things weirder, in the DoV the prohibition against lying falls under the duty to oneself. So lying as a matter of virtue isn't a failure of a duty you have to other people. It's a failure of a duty you have to yourself.

Crazy? Crazy like a fox!

Hanno said...

If in fact there exists a state of nature, and for Kant this makes it irrational to be moral... then it must follow that the Nazis, too, are in a state of nature. In which case, they owe no moral obligations to others, either. Which then makes it not wrong to act as they did...

But will you grant that if Kant's view makes hiding Jews during the Holocaust immoral, then something is deeply wrong with Kant?

C. Ewing said...

Lying as duty to one's self seems fishy at best. Lying is a speech act obviously directed at another person with the intent of deceiving them. If Kant has issues with control, then obviously I can't control--not with anything remotely approaching certainty, anyway--whether or not I was successful. If the issue is one of denying another their freedom to choose, because they are not allowed an informed choice, then that might fall into harming another's autonomy. I can see that.

But let us say your friend comes into the room. He is furious with his wife. He has discovered that she has been cheating on him. And he asks you where the gun is. Do you tell him? If the idea is to respect another person's autonomy, and they need to be informed in order to make their choices (and certainly, they do) then I should tell him.

Am I permitted to say nothing? If I have an imperfect duty to not assist him in killing, then it seems like my contributing information (some form of beneficence?) might also be imperfect. Are we just left with a judgment call here? One imperfect duty seems to conflict with another. One the one hand, I could be helpful, and tell him where the gun is. On the other hand, that would contribute to his shooting his wife, which I surely should not assist in.

Can I opt out? Kant doesn't seem a big fan of opting out of one's duties. Saying nothing, which would certainly be possible, seem to be precisely that. You've chosen not to decide. Is that a choice a moral agent is allowed to make?

In the case of virtue (some form of personal purity in this case?) it seems like you're weighing your clean conscience, "Well, I didn't pull the trigger!", over another person's life. If we respect, even admire those who sacrifice their lives for others, why would we not have the same sort of admiration of those who sacrifice their personal purity? You can always dust off your conscience at some later date, save puppies, help old ladies across the street or what-have-you. You can't undie. It seems like a lie is a less weighty sacrifice.

But I'm not clear on how Kant went about determining what is imperfect and what is perfect in terms of duties. And it has been a while since I've bothered to read any of his work. Perhaps, there's something to it, but I kind of doubt it.

Krista said...

Hanno: Hiding the Jews isn't immoral; it's non-moral. There can be no morality at all in a state of nature because your external freedom is impossible (that argument is in the Doctrine of Right -- you have to set up a civil society to ensure freedom of action in the first place). All you have in the state of nature are power relations, so if you don't have the power, then you have to do what you can to survive and figure out a way to get civil society up and running. That's not to say that you can't help other people; it's certainly possible. But, talk of moral duties just can't apply.

C. Ewing: I think Kant would say that what you ought to do is try to talk your friend out of shooting his wife. You can say, "Look, you're angry right now and you're making a bad decision." You can refuse to help your friend because even though you have an imperfect duty to help other people, it doesn't mean you have to give them whatever they want. Kant thinks speech is a powerful thing; we aren't limited to truth-telling, saying nothing, or lying. We have a lot of options. You aren't telling him where the gun is, but you're being honest with your friend when you tell him he's too angry.

Kant distinguishes between an "external lie" and an "internal lie". Internal lies are the ones that appear in the DoV and they don't bring any kind of harm to others (Hanno's favorite: little white lies). Those are the ones that violate a duty to self.

C. Ewing said...

The internal/external distinction seems to just be a misnomer. Little white lies are still directed at others. If they only violate a duty to self, then that just seems bogus. The very fact that they violate a duty to self seems at least questionable. It's not self-directed. If the question is one of virtue then it seems like any time I don't follow through on a duty or act against duty it would be such a violation, and as such, all appropriate actions or even inactions would be infractions. And so, everything morally pertinent could potentially be a violation of my duty to self, provided I don't act in the proper manner. And certainly, that seems like it's overreaching. Everything may stem from duty, but it all concerns a duty to self? That's rather odd.

Little white lies certainly have the potential for harm, even if it's a minor and rather insignificant harm. They can also be betrayals, which if relationships/trust can be harmed, can certainly be harms of that sort. But I admit, that requires a particular liberty with the definition of harm. Whether or not it harms "others" seems of little consequence. I've never understood the intuition that self-harm might be permissible when other-harm is not. How am "I" a special case? I'd need some sort of argument for that.

Of course that brings up the self-sacrifice issue. How is it substantially different from the suicide case? Certainly, martyrdom might be seen as just a form of suicide. If I jump on a grenade to save my fellow soldiers, didn't I just kill myself? How is that not a suicidal action? As such, how is that a special case and why is it permissible?

If you redirect the conversation to your friend's anger, then you have opted out of the previous discussion, which was specifically focused on the location of the gun. As such, have you violated any duty? You were directly confronted with a very specific question, and you have avoided answering it entirely. Anything other than a response to that question seems like a cop out.

This: There can be no morality at all in a state of nature because your external freedom is impossible and this: That's not to say that you can't help other people; it's certainly possible. seem contradictory. If it's possible for me to help others, how is my external freedom not even possible? Isn't it evident by my ability to be helpful? What is the definition of "external freedom"? If I can be beneficent and I don't at least have a prima facie duty to do so then it seems like a dodge.

FJ said...

For one to be a "moral" actor in the Kantian Sense one must treat ALL other people as "ends unto themselves" and never "means to an end". To then turn around and judge the innocent truth-teller's actions by the end result of immoral NAZI third party actors is in itself immoral (as you are seeking a specific "end" result). Had the Kantian yielded the info under torture, would you have still labelled his subsequent revelations "as immoral"? I doubt it.

FJ said...

Either western civilization is right and mankind has "free will," or he doesn't. Condemn Kant, and you deny all possibility of free will and morality.

People can choose answers which yield bad results. Don Quixote is not the problem. It's manipulating Don Quixote to serve anyone but his own ends that is the problem.... as Sir Isaiah Berlin so precisely articulated in his famous letter to George Kennan. Mr. Kennan subsequently convinced the US to apply a foreign policy of "containment" that lead to the collapse of the USSR.

Anonymous said...

Claiming that you are not responsible for the murder that would result from telling the truth to the Gestapo (because the Gestapo would be committing the murder, not you), is as good an example as I have seen in 50 years of people counting angels on pinheads with no connection to reality whatsoever.
I am as fond of abstract debate as the next person, but this is nothing but self-indulgent navel-gazing. I can think of stronger terms, too.