Written at California State University of Fullerton, Philosophy 101, 2012
A Lie is Not Always Immoral
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant claims, in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), that one must always keep a promise because it is a “moral duty,” a notion I disagree to, and instead claim that an immoral lie becomes moral if the act is preceded by a moral intention; that hypothetical consequences must be taken into account when making a moral choice in order to prevent that an absolute law causes harm instead of good. To support my claim, that a moral intention precedes an immoral act, I will compare my statement with Kant’s absolute moral rules within three areas of topic. In the first section, comparing Duty versus Prudence, I will display the importance of intention when determining morality. In the following paragraph, using Faculty of Reason, I will demonstrate that no matter the outcome, intention will tell if the act is moral or not. In the third and final topic of Universal Law, I will conclude my claim by stating that a lie preceded by a moral intention is universal due to its acceptance in society, and hence, the lie is not immoral.
Duty versus Prudence
Kant based his philosophic theory of morals on the fact that “there is such a thing as morality–that there are laws that should govern our conduct–and, second, to discover and justify ‘the supreme principle of morality.’ This ‘supreme principle,’ which Kant announces he has uncovered, is now famous as the Categorical Imperative.” It deals with the concept of performing a moral duty, and is concerned with the morality of the act itself, not the intention.
Kant clarifies, “that morality is a system of rules that one must follow from a sense of duty, regardless of one’s wants or desires.” One cannot control, or foresee an outcome of an act, and so it must be excluded from any reasoning, therefore stating that a promise made with an intention not to keep it, to tell a lie, is an act of prudence and therefore wrong because it is founded on a hypothetical outcome. The opposite imperative to categorical, is the “Hypothetical Imperative, […] laws of reason is an analytic truth,” as Kant explains it, implies that to tell a lie, even with the intention that it might lead to a good outcome, is never morally justified because the result is never definite.
However, I claim that even though the outcome cannot be predetermined it is guided by its initiated act, and therefore consequences must be taken into account when a choice is presented. That if one were to follow the absolute moral rule, you shall not lie, without taking circumstances or probable harmful outcomes into account, creates an act based on self-interest without any concern of others, and so a character following a moral law becomes immoral. One may lie in order to prevent harm to others, and one might tell the truth with the intention to harm; both acts followed by probable consequences, and when analysed verifies the characters’ moral, which shows that only the intention behind the choice can be judged, not the act itself.
Kant would not argue against the existence of consequences, he himself implying that one must tell the truth or the action might cause harm to oneself, since one cannot know for certain that the lie produces the desired outcome; suggesting that even performing out of duty is from fear of a consequence, which I claim is less moral than an intention arising from a desire for a positive outcome. A moral law must therefore have room for flexibility where circumstances and hypothetical outcomes are analysed, and to be able to do this one must use reason, which brings us to the second part where I will demonstrate that no matter the outcome, the intention will tell if the act is moral or not.
Faculty of Reason
Kant argues, “that moral rules are absolute, […] and therefore lying is never right, no matter what the circumstances. […] That reason requires that we never lie. That a rational being should only act in a manner he wants others to act since that is the only rational thing to do.” Implying that when using reason, it would be obvious that following the absolute moral rule is the most rational choice because one would want everyone else to follow it, hence not lie. Although Kant’s idea sounds noble in theory, it would only be affective if it were absolute and respected by all. Something that might work in a society of drones but no rational mind of a moral character could disregard a possible harmful outcome. However, Kant does not seem to completely disregard the faculty of reason, encouraging its use when to realise that abiding to the absolute rule is the right choice; a contradiction since reason is not to be used when making a moral choice. Kant must believe that a person is rational enough to make the decision that the moral law is the one to abide, and that it cannot be any exceptions or it will lose its purpose, but that the same person is not rational enough to decide when not to lie, and when an exception can be made. He could not have thought very highly of man. I claim that any rational being is capable of making a moral choice after evaluating circumstances and consequences, and must be practiced. Kant might reinforce his claim by stating that reason can only influence us to make moral decisions; returning to the notion that an outcome is merely hypothetical, and so any rational being must rely on knowledge recognised, what he called, “a priori, (prior to experience),” and therefore not use one’s reason when making a moral choice.
I do support Kant’s idea that one should always act in a manner he or she expects others to act, which is the most reasonable, but I disagree that a rational being must never consider an outcome when faced with a moral dilemma, on the grounds that it can merely be hypothetical. Using reason, one must clearly see that any rational being should take all into account when evaluating a decision, and use hypothetical assumptions when trying to create the best solution for all in order to be moral. To demonstrate what imperative that brings the most good, and therefore is the moral choice, I will return to the subject of lies using the “Case of the Inquiring Murderer from The Elements of Moral Philosophy: A man is fleeing from a murderer and tells you he is going home to hide. Then the murderer comes, playing innocent, and asks where the first man went. Should you lie?”
If one would follow the absolute moral rule, the answer in this dilemma would be: you shall not lie. Consequently, telling the truth, not including probable consequences, and convey where the first man went to the murderer. Which leads to two possible outcomes:
1. The murder finds the man at the revealed location, and kills him.
2. The murderer does not find the man at the revealed location, because the first man had relocated himself.
The reasoning of telling the truth brings a 50/50 chance of enabling the killer to perform his immoral act. However, if one were to lie, a rational choice in a desired outcome of not enabling the murderer, once again the reasoning provides two possible outcomes:
1. The murderer does not find the first man because he was sent in the wrong direction.
2. The murderer finds the first man because he is in the process of relocating himself, and the murderer accidentally crosses his path, and kills him.
The evaluation reveals, that even after a rational analysis of the situation, and potential outcomes that leads to a well-intended lie, it still brings a 50/50 chance that the murderer will kill the first man.
However, if one were to evaluate the two comparisons, it becomes clear what the moral choice should be if one looked upon the intention rather than the act. In the first scenario, when telling the truth, one would perform a moral duty, indifferent to the possible outcome that a man is about to be killed, forming the choice based on self-interest to remain moral. In the second scenario when telling a lie, reason provided the best choice based on the desire that the first man is not to be killed. The conclusion then being that the outcome might be undesirable when following a moral law and when violating it, something that in agreement to Kant makes the outcome irrelevant, but also proves that an intention is to determine if the act is moral or not, since the intention to do good precedes indifference.
To prove my claim further, that the intention is to be judged and not the act, imagine that a man confronted by the same murderer, for personal reasons wishes to harm the hunted man and therefore tells the truth, deliberately enabling the murderer to kill his victim. Would he still be considered to be moral? Consequences exist and reason provides most probable outcomes, and therefore intention must be considered when claiming what constitutes a moral action. A moral rule should never precede an immoral character.
The problem when taking circumstances into account when making a moral decision is finding morally unified exceptions. Something Kant must have been aware of when forming the theory of absolute rules, attempting to abolish exceptions in order to minimize immorality. But what happens when an exception becomes universal? Which brings us to final topic, the universal law, where I will conclude my claim by stating that a lie preceded by a moral intention is universal due to its acceptance in society, and therefor the lie is not immoral.
I will begin this section once again affirming Kant’s categorical principle, in order to display than an exception can become a universal law. “Can you also will that your maxim should be a universal law? If not, then it must be rejected, […] because it cannot enter as a principle into a possible universal legislation.”
If applying exceptions into the categorical principle it would become clear that if all were to abide by those exceptions, they would become absolute, and thus moral. The complexity of a social structure creates a grey area where reason must be practiced in order for a character to make a moral decision. Governments have therefore created legislations as ground for their civilians to base their reasoning upon, for example; you shall not cause harm. In that context, let us reform, you shall not lie, and we get: you shall not lie with the intent to harm. To simply say, you shall not lie, might cause harm and are therefore viewed upon by society, in those circumstances, as immoral. Hence the deviated law is constituted as a universal law based on its moral intention.
To use the absolute rule, you shall not lie, in the context of societies universal law; it would contradict itself since none would abide by it if it might cause harm. Society includes exceptions in their universal law so that a character is able to break a moral law without becoming dishonest. These exceptions are based on Kant’s categorical idea that one should act the way one want others to act, and no one wants others to point a murderer in one’s direction. Therefore, when creating a moral rule, one must include universal exceptions based on an intended outcome.
To review previous paragraphs with clarity, I would first like to return to the initial inquiry: Is making a promise with the intention not to keep it immoral, and therefore we must always keep our promises? In the first section, comparing Duty versus Prudence, it became obvious that intention is of importance when to define a moral act. Consequences may not be predetermined but guided by an act based on a desired outcome; hence, to tell a lie with the intention to prohibit harm becomes a moral act. When concluding that intention determines morality, the second part, Faculty of Reason, reinforces my claim displaying that even if the outcome turns out to be negative, the choice of violating the moral law would provide moral to the character, and thus provides the greatest morality. In the third and final topic, the Universal Law, I stated that if all follows an exception, the exception becomes a universal law, and that within the right circumstances, one is expected to lie, and thus a scenario of making a promise with the intention not to keep it becomes a moral act. Therefore, an immoral lie becomes moral if the act is preceded by a moral intention, and so a lie is not always immoral, and a promise can be broken.
Bailey, Andrew (2011). 'Immanuel Kant.' First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy. Ed. Andrew Bailey. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, pp. 636-642.
Kant (2011). ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals.’ First Philosophy: Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy. Ed. Endrew Bailey. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, pp. 647-670.
Rachels, James (2003). 'Are There Absolute Moral Rules?' The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 117-129.