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The Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy

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Insists that lying is wrong in every circumstance. But despite Kant’s fervent belief, it is not hard to see how lying can be a beneficial, mutually advantageous, and in fact moral act that still consistently complies with Kant’s own moral imperatives. Because Kant’s philosophy does not specifically define what a “lie” is, we are led to believe that speaking an untruth, no matter what the context, is strictly immoral. But speaking untruth does not necessitate the negative connotation that has become associated with the idea of lying. Omitting unintentional lying (i.e. expressing a misconception, or otherwise unwittingly speaking an untruth), deliberate lying takes many different forms. It is necessary to distinguish several of those forms, which vary in severity. First, there is the simple white lie, which is defined as “a trivial lie that is told for diplomatic or well-intentioned reasons.” These are typically inconsequential responses made in an effort to preserve one’s feelings, such as in the cliché case of a spouse asking, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

They rarely have any lasting effect, and are, for this argument, considered moot. On the other side of the scale is the outright lie, also known as deception, which is “a sender intentionally trying to get someone to believe something that the sender knows to be false”. These lies are the sort that have most often garnered scorn, as they are typically malevolent (or at the very least, selfish), and utilized to serve a personal end. We will see that this is not always the case, but for the sake of argument, the “outright lie” will begin as an evil. Lying, as a whole, is perceived negatively, because it is most commonly used in negative instances because the sender wants to protect themselves from pain and embarrassment. It is the attempt to avoid punishment or retribution that spurns most people to lie, and therefore, the concept of speaking such an untruth became associated with the consequences of something injurious, and is frowned upon.

The sender of the lie puts their ego into the frame, fearing for their reputation or wellbeing, and embraces what is thought of as a cowardly defense mechanism to selfishly salvage what is left of their reputation. But as there is an exception to every rule, there are also selfless lies. Kant is quite fond of what he calls the “Categorical Imperative”, which states that potential action should only be considered if it could conceivably become a universal will. That is, one should only follow through with an action if everyone could do it without harm. For example: if a driver is late for work, she might consider illegally driving through a red light. In order for this action to suffice as a moral one in light of the Categorical Imperative, it would have to be universally applied. If every driver could plausibly run red lights at a whim with no major negative consequences, it is good. Naturally there would be crashes and potentially deaths, so this action does not fit in with Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Respectfully stopping at a red light and waiting one’s turn, on the other hand, does fit, because if this ideal were universally applied (as it is through law), there would be no major negative consequences or harm to other beings.

In regards to the opening example, The Categorical Imperative finds itself on a blurry line. If everyone attempted to comfort a mortally wounded individual in a similar fashion, everyone would be lying, but towards the end of alleviating that individual’s fear – that is, serving the end that is the wounded one. There is no personal gain in such a lie, nor is there harm, but it is still a lie. Consider the case of the surprise birthday party. This is a party that is organized in secret so that the only person who doesn’t know about it is the person whose birthday they’re celebrating. Suppose, for this example, the birthday girl (let’s call her Emily) is told that she is just going to spend a relaxing evening having dinner on the town with one of her closest friends (Lindsay). Lindsay, meanwhile, has been planning a surprise birthday party for Emily, and knows that about ten of their mutual friends are waiting for them at the restaurant. In order to maintain the surprise, Lindsay must by necessity lie outright to Emily, for it is not merely a white lie to deliberately present false information about planned events.

A white lie, in this example, would be Lindsay’s response if Emily suggested inviting Jessica (who is already at the party): “I think Jessica had a play rehearsal tonight.” This would be a white lie, because while Jessica may have had rehearsal, perhaps she skipped it, or finished it early, and therefore Lindsay is not telling Emily that Jessica is absolutely unable to attend the dinner. This is not falsification, but simply a matter of quantity and clarity. The outright lie is Lindsay committing deception: lying about her intentions for the night, despite her knowledge to the contrary. Now, the result of this situation is (typically) one of excitement, joy, and contentment. Very rarely is there any real animosity or harm, so it would not be irrational to state that the lies involved in maintaining the integrity of the surprise are not inherently immoral. Indeed, Kant insists on serving the individual. The lies here service the entire assembled party in addition to the one being celebrated.

In a darker example, imagine a girl getting raped in a park. Women are taught to try to attract attention to themselves in such a situation by screaming, “RAPE!”. Unfortunately, it has been proven that more people are prone to react to someone shouting “FIRE!”, so an alternative strategy for many women is to falsely shout “fire” in hopes that more bystanders would come running to help. This is a lie to serve one’s personal ends, but also to deter the end of the action of rape – which does not serve Kant’s kingdom of ends as it infringes upon the victim’s intentions, derailing Kant’s vision of a “systematic union of different rational beings through common laws” (Kant, 211). Few people in their right minds would argue that rape is a moral action, so the victim is justified in demanding expedient intervention. The reason that this lie (screaming “fire”) is not immoral is because she has not committed herself to the statement’s truth.

Had she exclaimed, “Help! There’s a fire burning over here that requires extinguishing!”, she would have been immorally lying. For perspective, Professor Alexander R. Pruss (Baylor University) paints this example: ‘An innocent victim is fleeing a murderer. The victim comes to cross-roads. She lays a false trail leading to the left, dropping her handkerchief and leaving footprints in the mud. Then she carefully goes on the right-hand road, ensuring no footprints are visible for a while, hoping that the murderer will see the false trail, come to believe that she went left, and thus permit her to escape. The victim has done nothing wrong according to most people’s moral intuitions. Observe that the act is in a significant way different from lying. For while asserting a sentence commits the speaker to the truth of what the sentence expresses, laying a trail and dropping the handkerchief does not commit one to anything. In doing it, the victim does not invite the murderer’s trust.

The murderer when following the false trail does not do so out of trust in the victim but out of trust in the inductive generalization: “Where there are footprints, there likely a person has gone.” Following an inductive generalization is very different from trusting a person. The murderer would have no right to feel betrayed by the victim were the murderer to learn what happened. Here we have deception but no lie and no moral wrong. ‘ This case is true in the rape example as well. Although a confused bystander would point out that there was no fire, the girl had never claimed that there was. So her false statement was not a lie. This is, in Pruss’s words, “deception, but no lie and no moral wrong.” Consider this more substantial scenario: imagine you are hiding a family of Jews in immediately pre-World War II Germany. You are hiding this group for their own good – if they are found, they will be tortured and executed. Now, imagine several Nazi soldiers standing at your door, asking you if you have any Jews in your house.

According to Kant, lying is prohibited – even in this example. According to Kant, if everybody lied – even to Nazis inquiring about refugees – then the lying would not succeed because the Nazis would not believe it anyways, as it violates Kant’s Categorical Imperative. As Kant dictates, lying to the Nazis is an attempt to manipulate them towards one’s own end, and Kant insists that all men should be treated as ends in themselves, never as ‘means’. Rationality prevails, however, when we are reminded that the refugee Jews are ends as well, and lying to save them is a much more humane strategy. It seems that lying is irrevocably prevalent throughout contemporary society. Despite the overwhelming socio-moral drive to avoid lying whenever possible, most parents frequently lie without hesitation to their children. This is most clearly demonstrated by the cacophony of fictional characters that children are taught to believe in – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogeyman, et cetera.

Certainly most of American parents feel no moral conflict in convincing their children to believe in these falsities, but these characters are lies, and yet entire cultures embrace them as the mark of childhood innocence – that is, gullibility. It would be a far cry to declare that these manifestations are harmless – a child’s realization that Santa has not been visiting them annually is often a traumatizing event, spawning a frantic questioning and a loss of trust in their parents – but regardless, they are still practiced by many families without a second thought. Indeed, parents lie to their children quite often. The most common tactic is omission, explaining little more than necessary to make a point. Telling the whole truth, as Kant would have it, would only confuse the child. Imagine attempting to communicate the intricacies of governmental legislature, or the profound spirituality of sexual intercourse.

Young children are granted minimal information or even – in the case of, say, the baby-bearing stork – farcical myths to avoid the subject altogether.  Kant expects parents to tell the truth to their children, even when that knowledge would completely boggle them. Contrary to Kant, however, children need these myths to encourage their own growth – to maintain life’s certain mystique as they slowly learn of things greater than themselves. The lies are made out of good will – something that Kant himself holds in high esteem – so they serve a good end, and are intrinsically “good”. Although Kant would probably be infuriated by any attempt to justify lying, he also believes that nothing should be done unless it can be universalized.

Using the first formulation of his Categorical Imperative, it would be harmful to tell a fatally wounded individual that they were about to die a cruel and horrible death. It would be harmful to always unthinkingly drive through red lights, or to give away the secret of a surprise party before it was supposed to be revealed. It would absolutely be detrimental not to try to fight off a rapist, or to turn refugees over to the oppressive force for termination, just as it could be traumatizing for a child to learn too soon that there are more important and more complex things in life than their own perspective. So we see that Kant’s own philosophy contradicts itself to a degree, allowing room for leniency. Lies can be perfectly acceptable, selfless, and moral in the face of a greater evil, or when no harm is being done on any side.


  1. Gass, R. H., & Seiter, J. S. (1999). Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  2. Henningsen, D. D., Cruz, M. G., & Morr, M. C. (2000). “Pattern Violations and Perception of Deception.” Communication Reports. Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 1-9.
  3. http://www.allwords.com/word-white%20lie.html
  4. Kant, Immanuel. ‘The Foundations of Ethics.’ Moral Philosophy: a Reader. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Company, 1993. 194-213.
  5. Pruss, Alexander R. ‘Lying, Deception and Kant.’ Alexander R. Pruss Ethics Blog. 30 Aug. 2001. Baylor U. 8 Mar. 2008 .
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