• TheMadFool
    12k
    Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative (CI). The CI basically states that only those actions are morally good that can be universal law. Have I got that right?

    So, lies are a definite no-no because if lying became a universal law, nothing would make sense.

    To this specific don't (do not lie), the philosopher Benjamin Constant invented the Problem of Lying to a Murderer(PLM).

    Benjamin said that the CI makes one duty-bound to disclose the location of a potential victim to a murderer and that is, obviously, wrong. Kant replied that the person must tell the truth, in spite of the horrible consequences. His reasoning is based on not using people.

    What I think is Kant's CI can't be isolated in this fashion, as required by the PLM. It's like formulating a law and comparing it to an exception to the law, that particular exception being a case of suspension of the law and not a special case where the law is not applicable.

    Imagine a law that applies to all women in America. What is reasonable is to find an American woman, a special case, to which the law is inapplicable. What isn't reasonable is to find a woman in Algeria and produce her as an exception to the law. The PLM does exactly this.

    What I mean is if the CI is enforced universally, there would be no murderer and so the issue the PLM raises becomes nonexistent. No murderer, no need to lie to a murderer.

    Therefore, this particular criticism doesn't damage Kantian morality, at least not to the extent advertised.

    It appears that Kant's moral theory is quite sound if universally applied. It's the morality of a perfect world. A world without murderers, thieves, deceivers, etc.

    Other moral theories, consequentialism for instance, don't seem to possess this quality - that of being applicable in practical terms.

    What do you think?
  • SomXtatis
    15
    Yeah, I think the criticism (as presented) is mostly disrespectful honestly. Is this really the point where one of the greatest thinkers in history starts stumbling? Well, not that respect is much of a strong point for bad philosophers in general, and I'd be doing the same if I said I understand Kant, having not read his works in a few years now.

    With that, I'd say that yes, I think Kant's view is for another type of world, that of moral agents, of which one takes part of as one acts morally. Since the real world however provides all sorts of situations, the obligations would seem to necessarily get mixed up with one another. I don't see how it's a problem for the theory that it's wrong to lie to a murderer insofar as she is a moral agent. Blindly following a dogma is certainly not a commendable reason for acting morally, and I'm sure Kant was not of that opinion, so we can't just list up the universal laws and start acting only on them all. Were chained to the natural world after all, and never completely free agents (and so as citizens of the moral world), because the natural world demands us other things, and sometimes we need to pick one of many bad options and admit that we can't be perfectly free and perfectly good.

    So to me the criticism seems to miss the point, which is about a constant structure beneath the actions, not about the acting-out of them. Which seems close to the point made in the opening post.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    Your "solution" is wrong. Kant specifically says that one is duty-bound to lie to a would-be murderer. So you can either accept this as a reductio ad absurdum against Kant or accept the entailment.

    Nowhere does Kant claim that the categorial imperative only applies in a perfect world.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k

    The thing is that Kant was not trying to produce a theory of applied ethics, I recall reading this in his introduction to the Groundwork, or 2nd Critique. So to judge him on the basis of lying to a murderer is not charitable.
  • tim wood
    7.7k
    Benjamin said that the CI makes one duty-bound to disclose the location of a potential victim to a murderer and that is, obviously, wrong. Kant replied that the person must tell the truth, in spite of the horrible consequences. His reasoning is based on not using people.TheMadFool

    No, not "obviously" wrong. Specifically, part of Kant's argument as that you don't know that it's wrong.

    And the idea that a particular, situation-specific CI is somehow predetermined and thereby somehow fixed, is also an idea not found in Kant. Articulating appropriate CIs is both not-so-easy and something of an art.

    So far as the Lying to the Murderer problem goes, I'm guessing the right CI in that situation is entirely situation dependent. That is, it depends on what you know.

    Bottom line: criticism of Kant - or any great thinker - should often be considered as possibly a measure of ignorance with respect to what he actually wrote and argued. "Criticism," here, to be distinguished from questioning, which seems an entirely respectable and legitimate approach
  • TheMadFool
    12k
    Kant specifically says that one is duty-bound to lie to a would-be murderer.Michael

    Perhaps he ''failed'' to see the full power of the categorical imperative. Applied universally, it precludes any conflict of duty.

    I mean, as per the categorical imperative, murder is wrong. So, if applied, this would free the world of murderers. The categorical imperative makes lying wrong and so, there would be no liars. The point is there's no reason to lie in a world without murderers. In other words, there will never arise a conflict of duties, as presented in the ''lying to a murderer'' thought experiment.

    And in which world will there be no murderers or thieves or deceivers or liars? Such a world is what I refer to as perfect.
  • TheMadFool
    12k
    Thanks for your comments. What do you think of my post just above?
  • Michael
    9.8k
    And you're still wrong. According to Kant, one's duty doesn't depend on others being dutiful. It is wrong for me to lie even if others lie. It is wrong for me to kill even if others kill.

    The categorical imperative is "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law", not "act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law, but only if others do the same".
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative (CI). The CI basically states that only those actions are morally good that can be universal law. Have I got that right?

    Not quite. Only those actions whose maxim conforms in form to the demands of duty can be moral and that form must pass the test of non-contradiction in order to be legislated as a universal law.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    It should be noted that Kant's response to Benjamin Constant's objection was approximately 12 years after he wrote the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, it is extraneous to this work.
  • MikeL
    644
    The person can always choose to say nothing to the would be murderer, and then everyone is happy.
  • MikeL
    644
    And if staying silent is not an option, there is vagueness. Does Kant say anything about the specificity of the truth? You don't have to say the potential victim is hiding under their bed at 10 Dowling Street, you could just say they are in a 40,000 mile radius of here.
  • TheMadFool
    12k
    And you're still wrong. According to Kant, one's duty doesn't depend on others being dutiful. It is wrong for me to lie even if others lie. It is wrong for me to kill even if others kill.Michael

    How about if we look at it from another angle. The categorical imperative is a moral imperative i.e. it's supposed to be applied universally - morality is about existence in relation to another, about society, the collective.

    Morality isn't about individual, solitary existence. What is the point of not lying or not killing when you're the only person in existence. In other words, morality reduces to nonsense at the individual level. This is implied by the categorical imperative: if lying is universal, nothing will make sense; chaos will ensue and this is exactly what's happening with lying to the murderer thought experiment - it is one instance where the categorical imperative is being applied to one person when, actually, it should apply to all.

    that form must pass the test of non-contradictionCavacava

    Everything must pass the test of non-contradiction.

    The person can always choose to say nothing to the would be murderer, and then everyone is happy.MikeL

    Yes, but if you're compelled to give an answer the problem remains.
  • MikeL
    644
    Yes, but if you're compelled to give an answer the problem remains.TheMadFool

    See the comment directly above your last post.
  • TheMadFool
    12k
    I suppose a vague reply is a possible solution to the problem but isn't it a weak response? I mean a vague reply is simply trying to save Kantian morality as opposed to confirming its validty - avoiding the essence of the issue raised by the problem of lying to a murderer.
  • tim wood
    7.7k
    Perhaps he ''failed'' to see the full power of the categorical imperative. — TheMadFool
    Can you think of something probably more likely than Kant's failure?
    Applied universally, it precludes any conflict of duty.... The point is there's no reason to lie in a world without murderers....or liars. Such a world is what I refer to as perfect.
    Kant argued similarly from a different direction: a perfect being has no need for any CI. You seem like you might enjoy reading some Kant.

    A point about "conflict of duties": Kant argued that where/whenever such a conflict seemed to arise, the higher prevails and the lesser falls away.
  • szardosszemagad
    150
    The CI basically states that only those actions are morally good that can be universal law.TheMadFool
    Your ensuing reasoning is solid, and acceptable. It reminds one of the prisoners' dilemma, but is more general, and with a more wide-spread applicability.
  • TheMadFool
    12k
    Can you think of something probably more likely than Kant's failure?tim wood

    From the rest of your post, it seems that Kant was aware of the gist of my solution.

    One more thing...

    Interpreted this way, Kant's moral theory, if applied universally, is more practical than competing theories. I guess the ''applied universally'' part is impractical.

    Consequentialism seems impractical because the full scope of an action's consequences are impossible to determine. For instance, the effects of an action can, theoretically, continue to the end of time itself.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k


    As I understand Kant, the maxim of one's action is striped of all empirical content, it becomes a formal principal, and only as such can it be willed as a universal law.

    Kant's moral system is built on freedom of action. If so then to lie to an ax murder is neither moral nor immoral because in this circumstance one is not free, so there is no moral choice, in my opinion.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    If so then to lie to an ax murder is neither moral nor immoral because in this circumstance one is not free, so there is no moral choice, in my opinion.Cavacava

    Kant disagrees:

    Truthfulness in statements which cannot be avoided is the formal duty of an individual to everyone, however great may be the disadvantage accruing to himself or to another.

    ...

    To be truthful (honest) in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency.

    ...

    Each man has not only a right but even the strict duty to be truthful in statements he cannot avoid making, whether they harm himself or others.
    In so doing, he does not do harm to him who suffers as a consequence; accident causes this harm. For one is not at all free to choose in such a case, since truthfulness (if he must speak) is an unconditional duty.

    ...

    The "German philosopher" will not take as one of his principles the proposition (p.124): "To tell the truth is a duty, but only to him who has a right to the truth." He will not do so, first, because of the ambiguous formulation of this proposition, for truth is not a possession the right to which can be granted to one and denied to another. But he will not do so chiefly because the duty of truthfulness (which is the only thing in question here) makes no distinction between persons to whom one has this duty and to whom one can exempt himself from this duty; rather, it is an unconditional duty which holds in all circumstances.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k


    Maybe so, but as I already stated, this is extraneous to his earlier work (1785) the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morales , which is the basis of his moral system.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    Maybe so, but as I already stated, this is extraneous to his earlier work (1785) the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morales , which is the basis of his moral system.Cavacava

    It was entailed by his earlier work, which is why Constant brought it up. This later article didn't change his system; it reaffirmed it in light of the objection.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    Yes, but in my opinion Kant had a better answer.

    The following from his Groundwork, Part III

    Consequently as practical reason or as the will of a rational being it must regard itself as free, that is to say, the will of such a being cannot be a will of its own except under the idea of freedom. This idea must therefore in a practical point of view be ascribed to every rational being.

    The threat of the murderer effectively relinquishes "a will of one's own"
  • Michael
    9.8k
    That's just him arguing that we have free will. It doesn't provide him with an excuse to lie to the murderer.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    Kant's ethical system is based on freedom of action, which I contend is non-existent when immanently threatened by an ax murderer.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    In fact, he even says "What else then can freedom of the will be but autonomy, that is the property of the will to be a law to itself? But the proposition: The will is in every action a law to itself, only expresses the principle, to act on no other maxim than that which can also have as an object itself as a universal law. Now this is precisely the formula of the categorical imperative and is the principle of morality, so that a free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same."

    One is free insofar as one follows the unconditional duty to tell the truth, even if to the detriment of oneself and others. The man who lies to the murderer isn't free, whereas the man who tells the truth is free.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    Kant's ethical system is based on freedom of action, which I contend is non-existent when immanently threatened by an ax murderer.Cavacava

    Given that Kant disagreed, I'm confident in claiming that you're wrong.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k
    He disagreed 12 years later. The work stands on its own, and I am confident that you are wrong.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    The work stands on its ownCavacava

    And that work entailed the duty to not lie to the murderer, as Constant recognised, hence his objection. Your suggested "out" seems to be a misunderstanding.
  • Michael
    9.8k
    You're saying that one is only obligated to obey the categorical imperative if one has free will (in a weak sense, where ordinary coercion negates free will), whereas Kant is saying that having free will just is obeying the categorical imperative.
  • Cavacava
    2.4k


    No, I don't think so. Freedom can't be compromised and still be freedom, such a person cannot be a free agent, and any resultant action can't be construed as moral or immoral. I think this follows from Kant's system.

    You argument from authority fails.
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