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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