Of the various debates that have reigned in the works of philosophers and theologians, none gains prominence than the issue of morality and ethics. The debate on what is good or what is bad in the eyes of the society remains a tricky issue having in mind that morality and ethics are value laden concepts that are bound to vary depending on time and space.
The significance of truth telling is also another debate that raised concerns and was addressed by philosophers. Aristotle, Plato, john Stuart mill, Emanuel Kant, St. Thomas and Nietzsche among many others have all written profusely on the issue and given varied opinions while trying to discredit their opponents’ world view. They all have held divergent views on the issue, views that have either been rubbished or hailed by preceding scholars.
Emanuel Kant is steadfast in his conviction that human begins should always tell the truth, under all circumstances. In the worst-case scenario, the only other alternative to telling the truth is to remain silent. The pioneer of the categorical imperative debate states that it is everyone’s noble duty to always stand by the truth, everyone has an obligation of telling the truth no matter the possible consequences for telling such truth.
Telling the truth is apriori, or a universal moral good that has stood the test of time in its validity. By categorical imperative, Kant says that we should apply our reasoning or hard logic to know what is good and we should not be swayed by those who hold a different view. Telling the truth is the only ‘good’ and nothing should change this (J. H. W, 1986).
To Kant, telling the truth revolves around morality, a concept he claims can a times be beyond human comprehension. Telling the truth is a moral issue whose decision is made, devoid of any emotions. To him, the action and the decision to tell the truth is made out of a strong, solid and emotionless judgment. A person’s decision to tell the truth or to break a promise should be driven by what universally is morally admissible. If we choose to tell a lie, it is imperative that all human kinds be allowed to tell a lie, which is just impossible as it is not the right thing to do.
The same case applies to breaking promises, if we choose to break promises, it is only prudent that this should be made the norm and all people make it a rule to break promises. This is the premise upon which the categorical imperative operates from. On this argument that we should always tell the truth, Kant has the social institutions in mind and on what is morally acceptable rather than delving in the practical situations, which might have their own unique characteristics Stuckenberg, (J. H. W, 1986).
It is the Kant’s absolutism and inflexibility in this debate that has led to many people claiming that it has some inherent flaws. The argument that it is an absolute duty for all human beings to tell the truth no matter the consequences has been largely criticized. The morality and logic of always telling the truth is in question. In the world war two for example, it would have been unreasonable if you replied to the affirmative if asked by the Nazis whether you were hiding a Jew in the house knowing very well that was tantamount to sounding a death knell. Kant does not leave a room for telling a lie for example, with an intention of saving a life. This is the bone of contention that many scholars have with the Kantians argument.
Contrary to Emmanuel Kant’s argument on telling the truth as being a categorical imperative, Joseph Stuart Mill argues from a utilitarian worldview. Utilitarianism is a doctrine promulgated by the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is based on the belief that what is right to a person can only be judged in accordance to its consequences; whether it results to a greater good for the larger portion of the population.
Utility is more or less satisfaction in the economic sense. This is a radical shift from the Kant’s deontology that rigidly transcribes morals in the action of telling the truth. In this, Mill was disagreeing with almost all the ideas of Kant on veracity. To Mill, morality of the issue at hand is not a sine qua non for telling the truth, rather it is the satisfaction to be reaped from the resultant course of action and the greater good.
Mill’s view on telling the truth revolves around utilitarianism, whose righteousness is judged from the consequences. Telling the truth is good and is morally right but it is not the only option. Rather, the decision to tell the truth emanates rather not from hard reasoning or logic as per Kantians categorical imperative, but rather it is to be judged from the consequences. When in a dilemma over what decision to make and what to do under certain adverse circumstances, human beings should make a choice not guided by morals but rather by measuring the intensity of the consequences. The decision to be made should be guided by either the choice that will increase the greater good or result to lesser suffering.
The same case applies to telling the truth or in breaking promises. Mill, according to utilitarianism, would say it would not make sense to tell the truth and then increase the suffering of a large number of people, it would be good if a lie was told and a promise broken to increase the greater good. A wrong hence would be permissible if it increases the happiness of the larger portion of the population.
It would be right to tell a child a lie in regard to his paternity for example; if there were enough reasons to believe that telling such a lie would be the best for the unity of the family. In the Nazi example given, it would have been right for one to lie to the Nazis to save the life of a Jew and put a stop to the suffering of thousands more. However, despite the argument on utilitarianism, Mill cautions against telling lies. Absconding from the truth is hurtful to our interpersonal relationships. Telling a lie can result to enmity. He says that telling a lie or:
..any even unintentional, deviation from truth does that much toward weakening the truth worthiness of human assertion, which is not only the principle of all present social well-being but the insufficiency of which does more than any one thing that can be named to keep back civilization, virtue, everything on which human happiness on the largest scale depends (Mill, John Stuart(1861), 1961).
This above argument by Mill seems to stem from the relationship between telling the truth and integrity. Integrity revolves around trust and when one looses trust in the eyes of other people he or she has also lost his integrity. Lies damage trust and so does breaking of promises. He however does not intertwine morality with telling the truth, he maintains that dilemma of either telling a lie or remaining honest is to be resolved by the consequences and the impact on the greater good.
None of the two philosophers Kant and Mill took a controversial turn on telling the truth and keeping promises as Fredric Nietzsche. To him lying ‘is condition of life’. There is no truth in the world. People survive by telling lies. This has led to the birth of post modernism. It is a world characterized by lies due to the scarcity of knowledge.
However on a sour note, he was to take his debate to a higher notch by declaring that ‘God is dead’. He however recognizes the importance of telling the truth and keeping promises, but like Joseph Stuart Mill does not see its correlation with morals. Truth is necessary and nothing should come before it. Nietzsche does not in any way theorize or moralize on telling lies but neither does he demonize it as Immanuel Kant does in the categorical imperative. He recognizes that man in all his weaknesses cannot avoid lies. Telling lies sometimes is the only way out for human beings. Lies are necessary for life to progress smoothly and for us to overcome the challenges in life.
On keeping promises, Nietzsche recognizes that human beings just find it hard to keep their word or tell the truth to a point that telling lies is the order to the day. Although people do not want to be lied to they still tell lies. He however insists that it is not good to deceive especially if such a lie can have a devastating or fatal impact. Those that keep their words and are honest have made exemplary accomplishments, because it is just hard to be truthful in a world surrounded by fallacies. That is why he claims that ‘God is dead’, because it is not possible to establish the truth in regard to what He stands for (Hollingdale, R. J., 1985).
Nietzsche manages to take a radically different stand compared to the two predecessors on ethics. To him, telling the truth is not a common characteristic of the mankind especially in a world surrounded by lies. People tell lies when it fits them and they are not in any way constrained by morals. But the greatest deception is where human beings lie to themselves.
Looking at these three philosophers reveals that only Immanuel Kant is entangled in morals and ethics. He maintains that telling a lie is just not right. No any adverse condition warrants telling a lie or breaking a promise, not even when the consequence is death. The only option to telling a lie is in keeping quiet. Telling the truth is a categorical imperative that has to be upheld no matter the consequences. There are just no two ways to that.
John Stuart Mill is a bit flexible when it comes to telling the truth. Guided by the utilitarian principle, the decision on whether to tell the truth under specific circumstances should be based on the possible outcome. It should be made after the consequences for such a decision have been weighed. Should it emerge that such a lie will contribute to maximizing the utility of the greater masses or the greater good, then it is permissible. A promise is to be upheld or broken on the premise that breaking it or keeping it will lead to more satisfaction for most people. The views of those scholars are divergent; the only similarity that exists in their contribution is only because none demonizes the truth.
Mill, John Stuart. (1861). 1961. Utilitarianism In The Philosophy of J.S.Mill. Marshall Cohen, e. New York: The Modern Library.
Hollingdale, R. J., 1985. Nietzsche. The Man and His Philosophy.
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Stuckenberg, J. H. W, 1986. The Life of Emmanuel Kant. London: Macmillan, 1882. Reprint, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.