• Clint Ryan
    There is a common problem that people point out in Kantian theory. I heard it in my first college philosophy course and it never set well with me. I always felt that it was misleading and finally after puzzling over it for many years and listening to Simone de Beauvoir's "The Ethics of Ambiguity" I think I discovered why it seemed wrong to me.

    The common critique is often referred to as The Murderer at the Door. It is a rebuttal to the Kantian idea that you can never treat someone as a means to an end, which therefore means you can never lie. In this argument, if a murderer came to your door and asked you where your children are, you cannot lie so that he won't find your children, because that would be treating the murderer as a means to an end. This means that you must tell murderer where your children are, and then since your action led to their suffering, you would be at least partly morally responsible for their deaths as well.

    My issue lies within the dichotomy: you either have to lie, or you have to tell the murderer where your children are. You know that the murderer is going to harm your children in order to fulfill his own bloodlust, therefore treating the children and you as a means to an end. You are not a mindless puppet that has to do what everyone tells you. Just because you can't use them as a means to an end, doesn't mean you have to allow yourself to become a victim. The dichotomy, you tell him where your kids are or you lie about where the are, is false. There is a million other things you could do beside those two things. The argument sets it up so that these two things are the only options but they are not, that is just being forcefully assumed. Instead of lying or telling him where your kids are, you could just tell him no. You could say that you know what his plans are and that you will not allow yourself to be treated in such a manner. If he is using you as a means to his own end, you don't have to allow that. You aren't lying. You aren't telling him where your kids are. You are simply refusing to do what he tells you to do. You are not a remote controlled robot. If someone came up and took your debit card from you and told you to tell them your pin number, you don't have to tell them. You could say no. I will not tell you because you are going to steal from me.

    This is my first article on this site and I have been thinking about this for a long time now but I would like to hear some other perspectives and ideas about this.
  • Wayfarer
    I think in some ways it’s an artificial problem - like a ‘thought experiment’, the idea of which is to bring out the nature of the dilemma inherent in Kant’s injunction. It’s somewhat like the ‘trolley problem’ which likewise poses an apparent dilemma in order to make you think through the issues involved. Pragmatically, there are, as you say, many courses of action, including not saying anything at all. But I think the idea’s value inheres in the way it makes you think through the implications of Kant’s dictum, rather than its being a practical instruction or course of action.

    (Actually a couple of artworks come to mind. One is a novel that was enormously popular in the 1960’s - The Magus, by John Fowles. Another is Sophie’s Choice, which I think won an Oscar in the 1980’s. Both stories revolve around similar kinds of forced choices, and what the characters do in response to being forced to make an appalling choice.)
  • TheWillowOfDarkness
    Kant makes almost exactly this argument, but goes even further. (You can tell them whatever you want, outright lie, since they are only interested in hearing what they want).

    Alas, I cannot remember where it is, but I recall him suggesting in situations of such coercion, the person demanding the answer is only concerned with what they want to hear, rather than gathering truth. Thus, it's not really a lying to the coercier because they were never asking for turth in the first place.
  • wax
    you could ask the murderer for a cup of tea and a chat about how he sees his future panning out and what he is doing with his life.

    I'm not sure that lying to the murderer would be using him in any way really.
  • Marchesk
    Who cares if you have to lie to someone threatening your kids? Is this something you're going to feel guilty about? No. Is it something society will judge you for? No. Will there be any legal ramifications. No. Will God deduct brownie points for getting into heaven because you lied under duress?

    What good does it serve to always follow Kant's maxim anyway? You can say under ordinary circumstances it's best not to treat people as a means to an end. That's a nice ideal. But it's just that, an ideal that someone came up with.

    Is the point that Kantian ethics are impossibly ideal? Probably. So is the golden rule and the ten commandments.
  • Terrapin Station
    I see it as lying/dishonesty if one isn't forthright about what one has in mind, and one instead diverts, manipulates, etc. But, I don't see lying as a categorically bad thing. In fact, I think that lying is sometimes a good thing.
  • Herve
    You can lie when you do not do what you say, because you do not know. The murderer can say he is not a murderer if he does not know he is one (is it lying ?). Then you can learn to lie. If you know the murderer will come, you can learn what you can answer: "that your children are not there". You can also learn not to answer questions... So since we are all liars (we have learnt), I do not think Kant is right. But if you look back in history, it was a problem for the people living in south america when the spanish men came: they were not liars. They learned quickly.

    We are not a remote controlled robot, we are an autonomous robot. We can do what we have learned to do (to pray god, to vote, to figth the climate...), and when we do not know, we can learn. If you have not learnt to lie, Kant is right.
  • luckswallowsall
    Lying is only bad when it causes harm.

    Lying usually causes harm but it still causes nowhere near as much harm as murder.

    Anyway, to deal with the OP's attempt at a rebuttal of the common critique.

    It's true that it's a false dichotomy to say that you either have to lie to the murderer or let him murder someone. But the thought experiment specifically deals with a situation where the only way to stop the person being murdered is to lie to the murderer. In such a case it is certainly preferable to lie because lying causes a whole lot less harm than murdering does.

    Consequentialism is ultimately the only metaethical position that makes sense because if following certain rules or having certain virtues led to more harm than good then we wouldn't think such rules or virtues were ethical at all.
  • dePonySum
    Generally speaking, when someone resists a thought experiment by trying to argue that actually you have further options, it's possible to modify the thought experiment so as to remove those options.

    For example, in this case, let's say that instead of a murderer at the door you're chatting to a random person. Unless, during that conversation, you tell that person at least a small lie, a mad genie who is watching the whole thing via a crystal ball will kill your family. The genie is unstoppable and will do this thing unless you tell a lie. The lie must be a lie in every sense.

    You can't 'get out' of thought experiments by pleading other options. So long as there is at least one possible situation where your two options are lying or your family being murdered, than the thought experiment stands.
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