A Review of Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy on Lying
Lying in engrained into the world’s culture. It has become almost a fundamental in every society and is present nearly everywhere worldwide. But, paradoxically, it is condemned as well. Every major religion, legal statute, and even communal norm advises against telling falsehoods. Philosophers as far back as Immanuel Kant pontificated upon the ideology of lying; within his frame of focus which was deontology or the focus of duty and morals being unemotional. His base idea was that universalization dictates the ethicality of an action (or inaction). But other great minds spoke against these ideas. John Stuart Mills revolved his philosophies around utilitarianism, the practice of achieving the greatest societal happiness even if at the dismay of the minority. So within the window of these two parties, lying must find a grounding of moral or immoral.
A lie can take many forms. Society classes lies in different ways. Small and almost unimportant “white lies” that hold no real consequences. Then other more grievous lies, lies that can tear apart families or even countries. At times it seems as though a person’s morals tell them to lie, that it is their duty to preserve the peace and that all reason stands to lie. As Immanuel Kant said on reason, “… Reason as a practical faculty…its true function must be to produce a will that is good, not for other purposes, as a means, but good in itself” (PP W2-3). SO how can a person know, truly know and understand, if lying is wrong if their reason stands to say that it is beneficial? Kant argues that reason is what makes us moral creatures; that being able to be devoid of emotion and make logical choices aids us to be rational. It must be argued that there should be another way to find if a lie is moral or immoral besides simply relying on one’s reason. Because although Kant says reason must be good in itself and not a means, it is nearly impossible for a sane human to completely remove themselves from any equation that they may be involved in. But, reason does cut off many types of lies. One could argue here that Kant is saying that any lie that only benefits you and you alone or simply causes harms to another is not moral. That a lie to be cruel or to only help one’s self is not an ethical choice and should not even be a rational choice. That reason should stand against making such untruths.
With solely-self-beneficial lies being branded unethical, the question of how one can discern between other rational choices of when lying is right or wrong comes into play. Kant has an answer for this as well. Hypothetically, a person (A) is helping another person (B) home. In one scenario, the two are walking home from a party. A is leading the way and is slightly lost, B asks if A is drunk. A lies and says no, it is a lie but they still arrive home safely. Now if this were to be universalized, with A driving home and lying about drinking, this becomes immediately immoral, unethical, and dangerous to all parties. Kant states in his paper “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” that “I ask myself: would I actually be content that my maxim (to extricate myself from a predicament by means of an untruthful promise) should hold as universal law (for myself and others)…” (Kant, 739). Kant is outlining that he believes a true basis of lying, from this a basis of morality, comes from the idea that an action must be dutiful and able to be universalized. That if this action is done once, it must be able to be done in every single possible circumstance of this occurrence. If this cannot be done every single possible time, then it is not universally ethical and thusly not ethical at its base. Kant would argue that a lie is always wrong. A person cannot lie because this maxim would be wrong in some circumstances. Be the lie as harmless as agreeing with someone when you do not; it would have to first be put into the scope of lying overall. So overall it seems as though Kant would be against all forms of lying. He would say that a lie that is only benefitting one’s self as a means to an end is immoral, as well as any lie that cannot be universalized. It seems, along those lines, that no lie could truly be universalized. Because, truly, how could a society thrive or even a community survive if within it all patrons know that all others are lying and that they are lying themselves? It would crumble to the dust; as no group of people regardless of size can exist together if truth cannot exist within it. By Kant’s writings, lying would always be wrong.
But Kant can be wrong. Instead of universalization, imagine simply that ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all people prosper from feeling ethically able to lie. Point one percent may suffer, they may feel as though they can trust no one or no one can truly trust them and hate this society with every fiber of their beings, to be at odds with everything. But that is a small percentage. Overall, this society is happy. This society is thriving and growing and doing well. People are no always lying but they do not need to always tell the truth. A fib or lie can even help to further them as a people. A debated lie through American history is that of the killer of President Lincoln, if John Wilkes Booth was caught before his death or not. The lie told to generations of this country is that he was cornered and killed in a barn. This made the country at the time feel safer and have closure, as well as giving closure to the general nation now. But, it is believed by historians and Booth’s descendants that he escaped and lived out his days. This is a lie that millions know, but harms the history of the living family and historians who study that era. But it helped and eased the masses. Philosopher John Stuart Mills argued that “According to the Greatest Happiness principle …the end [consequence] of human action, is necessarily the standard of morality” (PP W2-3). He means by this that if the greater number of people are happy, if they are content through this action, it is a moral one. This means that even if a group is disadvantaged or even harmed, it matters less because the majority matters more than the minority. Through Mills’ scope, it would appear that lying is moral sometimes. Though, this is a much wider scope than Kant’s. A lie must benefit more people than it could potentially harm, otherwise it would be deemed immoral by Mills. If a leader were to lie about why his country were going to war, this would be woefully immoral as it would cause an unneeded loss of life. Yet, if a leader were to lie in order to end a war, this would be protecting lives and cause a greater benefit than it would harms. This also makes sense, a lie should not be necessary unless it is beneficial to others. Kant’s basis of reason would agree that if one’s duty or generalized mental personal morality benefits a large group and one feels that they should proceed with an action as it is ethical, then one should do so. Kant and Mills would see somewhat eye-to-eye on this, the idea that helping others is a good thing to do. Mills’ outlook is that of majority rule, so though it may seem cold towards the minority it is reaching for a greater happiness, the greatest happiness even.
Though, the two would not agree on the ideas that the other put forth. Kant would strongly protest against any ideal that allows for a maxim or action to not be universalized. If a group, no matter how small, must be spited for an action then it would not be moral by his point of view. It simply would not even be agreed upon by him. Likewise Mills would dispute universalization. If a lie can help most people then it has done its job, it does not have to appease all every single time if it can appease most at any time. The two ideologies could not coexist. Thus a question remains. Is lying ever wrong? Mills would say that lying is wrong only if it does not benefit the masses. Kant argues that lying is wrong if it only benefits the self and cannot be universalized across all occurrences. But I believe that there is a deeper question to be answered within this pondering, if lying must be queried as ever being wrong, as must truth.
If a lie is said to be immoral then telling of the truth must be moral. If lying is said to be moral on condition, as it has shown to be, then so must truth. So deeper than lying and truth-telling there is a more fundamental outline that defines their morality and ethics. Intent. As Thomas M. Scanlon says. “When an agent believes his action is likely to be harmful, if the action is impermissible what makes it so is not the agent’s belief but, rather, the fact that there was, under the circumstances, good reason to believe this harm was likely to occur” (Scanlon 838). This means that if a person is rational and knows what they are doing could be bad, it is because they know that if they do what they do, they intentionally allow this bad thing to occur. Lying cannot be narrowed into simply moral or immoral, as it is so broad a scope with Mills and so narrow with Kant. The guidelines of lies by those two make the action of lying impermissible or overly allowed. The truest definition of what would constitute as allowable by a moral basis is that of the intent of the liar. If the liar cannot fathom the harms they could cause, but the lie would harm more people than it would benefit, it makes little sense for them to be marked unethical. If another were to intend on the lie being moral every single time it could possibly occur but are wrong, is it truly immoral? It follows that the sense of morality in lying carries not upon the shoulders of the lie itself. The lie is words in the air or upon a page that could have any number of effects upon the recipients of it. What defines a lie, or the act of lying, is that of what the creator of the lie intends for it to be.
Lying is neither moral nor immoral. Truly at the end of the differing theories and ideologies, lying is amoral. It holds no concrete summation of being benevolent or malevolent. It simply is, just as telling the truth. It is a form of communication that, as stated before, has existed through every society that mankind has raised and razed. But the intent that is sculpted around the lie is what defines it. When the liar means well and means to help, when their sense of reason dictates that what they are doing is right and will help others besides just themselves, it is a moral intent and thus a moral action. So to the question, is lying ever wrong? The answer, a solid and unchanging way to morally know if a lie is permissible or not: is it?
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