kant’s murderer at the door: is there a right to lie?

I was asked on Facebook:

Start­ing with the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Imper­a­tive as the basic of ethics, would Kant not be wrong about the mur­der­er at the door?


The ques­tion is: Is there a right to lie when­ev­er I think I am or some­one else is in dan­ger. The answer is: No, because any­one could think that I could think I was in dan­ger any­time. So this was a prob­lem to accept­ing con­tracts, because any­one could right­ful­ly say to be in dan­ger and there­fore right­ful­ly lie. Keep­ing con­tracts is accord­ing to Kant a demand­ment of prac­ti­cal rea­son. So you have to trust that oth­ers act accord­ing to that demand­ment. Accord­ing to the Cat­e­gor­i­cal Imper­a­tive, a right to lie can’t be a uni­ver­sal law. Seen it that way Kant’s not wrong about the mur­der­er at the door.

But in the “mur­der­er at the door” sit­u­a­tion, it is some­one else in dan­ger, not your­self (for exam­ple you are in Nazi Ger­many and you are hid­ing a Jew and the SS comes, should you lie about hid­ing a jew or tell them the truth). Is lying to save some­one else wrong? I know Kant would say yes, but I am won­der­ing if his sug­ges­tion that we should not fails his own cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive. Isn’t it a uni­ver­sal law to pro­tect inno­cent people?


It’s not the ques­tion if it’s wrong, it’s the ques­tion if its right­ful. In a state of law lying intend­ed to save some­one would­n’t be right­ful to Kant, because it would elim­i­nate for­mat­ing con­tracts, just like I said it before.

But Kant would­n’t call Nazi Ger­many a state of law. I think he wrote some­where that he thought such a state would­n’t be pos­si­ble at all. Accord­ing to Kant Nazi Ger­many was intrin­si­cal­ly a state of war. It was fatal that the Ger­mans did­n’t get that.

There could be a uni­ver­sal law to pro­text inno­cent peo­ple but with­in a state of law it could­n’t include a right to lie or an emer­gency law (Notrecht). I guess there can be sit­u­a­tions in a state of war where you can’t act accord­ing to what you think is a right­ful action. But that would­n’t be a sit­u­a­tion that phi­los­o­phy can solve.

I guess that may bethe prob­lem with deon­to­log­i­cal ethics. There are some sit­u­a­tions that it just does­n’t apply.


I dont think this is a prob­lem with deon­to­log­i­cal ethics. There are just sit­u­a­tions that are not gen­er­al­iz­able, which is the ground for philosophy.

Immanuel Kant — Über ein ver­meintes Recht aus Men­schen­liebe zu lügen.

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