Imagine the Gestapo pounding at your door, demanding to know if you are hiding Jews. Fearful for your life as well as theirs, you resort to Kantian ethics to aid you in your decision: should I tell the truth, which Kant values so dearly, or lie to these people in order to save the Jews whom I have been helping? Although Kant appears to strongly condemn lying for any purpose, a further investigation of his various Formulae and their indications reveals that, in this instance, lying may be morally permissible. By examining Kant’s rules for a moral life, in particular the Formulae of Universal Law and of a Kingdom of Ends, one proves the ability to make a logical exception to the Kantian edict against lying. Upon these grounds, you may morally lie to the Gestapo in order to protect Jews seeking refuge.
Within this hypothetical lies a moral dilemma rising from the inevitable conflicts of duty. It is likely that in approaching a solution this dilemma, one will first refer to Kant’s test of the Categorical Imperative, that is, unconditional command. Applying the test, the contradiction that Kant so despises presents itself blatantly; the indication is that it is wrong to lie in the given situation. In objection to this conclusion, one may proceed to formulate a two-fold argument relying on this very Formulae as well as the Formulae of the Kingdom of Ends.
The first aspect of the objection, that which is derived from the Universal Law concept, questions the assumptions on which the test of the Categorical Imperative is based. Second, the presentation and definition of Kant’s Formulae of Humanity and of a Kingdom of Ends reinforces the argument that it is acceptable to lie to the Gestapo. Rejoining these dual arguments, one constructs an acceptable maxim that allows for lying under certain circumstances. In this manner, the elementary interpretation of Kantian ethics is proven inadequate, showing that deeper analysis provides method for exception.
Kant’s most basic concept, the Formulae of Universal Law, defines principles of morality. A Universal Law being defined as a law that can be extended to the entire rational population, the Formulae states, “I ought to act in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a Universal Law.” (Kant 4:402) This statement carries many implications, among them the forbiddance of lying. On the surface, the Formulae indicates that to lie (to conceal information) is in itself morally wrong; therefore, it cannot be permissible under any circumstances. Explained by way of logic, it is wrong because, given the hypothetical, if everyone were to lie, then truth– that which is exploited– would be eradicated. Should that which is exploited be eradicated, then the perceived purpose in the exploitation is as well. In this circular manner, Kant points out the illogistics of such a contradiction and bases his argument against it.
In order to assess the hypothetical presented in this question, it is only logical that it be first tested by means of the Categorical Imperative. As the human intuition is inclined to find exceptions for oneself, testing of maxims not only points out logical contradictions but also keeps one’s maxims separate from inclination. Utilizing the four step test presented by Kant, one begins by stating one’s maxim, i.e. “I will lie to the Gestapo in order to preserve the life of a Jewish family.”
Clearly, this is far too specific to become universal; thus arises the maxim “It is permissible to lie to save the lives of others.” Kantian ethics then prescribes the question of the Universal Law, namely, whether all rational beings could live by this creed. Innumerable examples have demonstrated that lying for any end remains contradictory to itself; therefore, lying is refuted by the rationality of morality. Hence, it is shown that on an elementary level it is morally impermissible to lie to the Gestapo.
This proof, however, is wholly dependent on even more basic assumptions. Kant denounces lying on the premise that lying undermines another being’s will, will being defined as the independent capacity of a being to choose his or her actions. (Sherman, notes) In addition, the Categorical Imperative operates under the belief that all beings respect the Universal Law themselves. With these two assumptions in mind, it is becoming to evaluate the background data with which one is supplied. In this example, one must consequently question the free will of the Gestapo; if one does not have a free will, then that will cannot possibly be undermined. According to Kant, a good will is the only determiner of morality, and those who possess this will are rational beings. Above all, the autonomous nature of the free will is exalted.
Thus, any who do not operate on their own accord, who follow instead the rules, commands, or dictates of another, are not capable of being moral beings. It can suitably be stated that the Gestapo are not agents of free will; in contrast, they are very much agents of heteronomy. Rather than following the moral policy of self-determinism, they are merely agents of the government which commands them. This resolved, it can be argued that it is permissible to lie, given that one is not lying to another being who is exercising their free will. For so long as all rational beings follow a policy of truth and honesty toward one another, there is no weakening of the will or of morality; as it has been determined that the Gestapo do not represent their free will, it cannot be contradictory or corrupting the free will to lie to them.
In considering this problem, one also recognizes conflicting duty to humanity. Defined by the Formulae of Humanity or End-In-Itself, this duty requires that one must “act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (Kant 4:429) Further defining this duty, the Formulae of the Kingdom of Ends states that this idealistic kingdom is “a systematic union of various rational beings through common laws.” (Kant 4:433) Separate from but relating to the imperative regarding Humanity, this Formulae emphasizes the duty of the rational being to the “kingdom;” in resigning one’s sovereignty, but not free will, to this kingdom of universal laws, one subscribes fully to the principle of acting only in accordance with Universal Law.
Reinforcing the tenets of the Formulae of Humanity, the imperative proceeds to recognize the dignity that is found in the priceless nature of the rational being. Through the application of both imperatives, one reinforces the proof that the Gestapo are not worthy of respect. In addition to their heteronomous nature, they fail to observe the common laws of humanity that require one to respect the ability of every other to be an end. Consequently, the Gestapo demean the dignity of the individual and are deferential to the establishment of a Kingdom of Ends. Furthering the previous point, it cannot be considered immoral to act upon one who does not respect the sovereignty of the kingdom, who ignores the common bounds of morality.
As the Formulae of Humanity and of the Kingdom of Ends dictate, all maxims must promote the respect of every rational being. More discriminate than the Universal Law formula, these formulae determine the central theory in Kantian ethics. Arising from pure reason, these portray humanity as the only unbiased end that, in turn, limits the fallible, emotional ends derived by the individual. Within this perception is the need of all to respect the humanity of the self and of others, as well as the edict to not contradict the free will. More than the Universal Law, these require one to act only if rationally, only if to further the ends of humanity. The Gestapo fails in both of these; through a heteronomous will, they deny not only the free will of the Jews and their abilities to be ends but their own free will in the process. This said, it is through permitting this lie that one is respecting the kingdom of ends.
It is now possible to construct a suitable maxim to dictate one’s action. As it has been shown that the Gestapo have abused their right to respect, one may start to formulate the maxim that “it is permissible to lie to agents of a dictatorial order, who lack free will, and therefore lack any sort of practiced rationality to be corrupted.”
Returning to the test of the Categorical Imperative, this maxim lacks the contradictions that failed the original maxim. For if everyone to follow this imperative, it cannot be deduced that the free will of any single being would be weakened. Even in the case of those possessing but not applying rationality, their free will is not threatened, only the heteronomous command that they act upon is undermined. Furthermore, this statement of intention complies with the need for generality and universality. It is not situation-specific, does not rely on any notion outside of rational thought, and can be applied to a whole population of rational beings without consequence.
Analyzing Kant’s Formulae of Universal Law, Humanity, and Kingdom of Ends, one delves deeper into the moral considerations of Kantian ethics. What appears to be a simple question of lying becomes a moral dilemma; the conflicting duties of honesty and humanity must somehow be resolved. In doing so it becomes evident that the simple imperative not to lie is made obsolete through the rebuttal of elementary assumptions.
This rebuttal draws on Kant’s own definition of the three Formulae and discredits the former maxim through definition and analysis. The Gestapo are proven on these grounds to be separate from the realm of rational beings, thus allowing for the deception of them within the imperatives of Kantian ethics. Relying on this proof, an acceptable maxim is formulated. A deeper examination of the criterion results in a maxim diametrically different from that anticipated; through definition and analysis, one arrives at a suitable end of which Kant would approve.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary Gregor.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Sherman, Nancy. “Untitled Class Notes.” Georgetown U. 2001.