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  1. Culture
26 February 2008

Should Kantians lie?

A teacher explores fibbing, waterboarding and respect for humanity

By Dan Harkin

So – some Nazis knock on your door. You’re pretty worried because, like any good New Statesman reader at this time (or perhaps this is some future time), you’ve got a bunch of Jews hiding out in your attic. The Nazi commandant asks you politely if you have any Jews in your house. Do you (a) tell a dirty great fibber or (b) uphold the important maxim of not telling a lie?

For most of us, this is a no-brainer: lie lie lie. For Kant it was a no-brainer, too: you just don’t lie. Kant also reckoned a few other things that I don’t feel comfortable with: only sex within a marriage can be acceptable, sodomites should be castrated, animals have only instrumental value and murderers should be executed. That’s not to say that nobody believes any of these things are justifiable today, but I’m trying to point out that Kant was a product of his time; often his opinions reflect certain historical prejudices and are not necessarily entailed by his own system of moral reasoning.

Which is sort of the point: those of a religious persuasion have a tendency to take what has been said as read. Many religious people, and religious organisations, can be reluctant to take their beliefs seriously – by which I mean a genuine desire to interrogate them and reconstruct them into a reasonable and coherent structure of belief. I remember someone once telling me that they were off to do a theology degree to “find out more about what I believe.” It strikes me this is a problematic starting position – you’re only looking to confirm not consider.

So let’s take Kant seriously and try and reconstruct him at his strongest. At the heart of Kantian ethics (and Lordie do I wish he’d had a different name – it is very difficult to get sixth formers to take him seriously) is the principle that the thing of greatest moral worth is our capacity to be moved by moral reasons, which he identifies as our humanity. It is not actually people we should respect but a person’s humanity. We should treat humanity – in ourselves and in others – as an end in itself. We can take “end in itself” in a positive sense – that is something we should pursue and cultivate and we can also understand it in a negative sense, where the value of humanity restricts us from performing certain actions. The upshot of this is that we can’t have moral reasons that prevent others from acting on moral reasons – so we rule out coercion of kinds. We should even restrict our own pursuit of the good life if we have to.

It is for this reason that Kant takes such a hardcore stance against deception. By deceiving someone, you prevent them from acting on full information and so they cannot be acting morally. So – tough beans Anne Frank. Well, not quite.

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If I’m about to undergo some excruciating but mercifully brief surgical procedure and my close friend deceives me and thus distracts me from the procedure until it is all done with, it is hard to claim that my friend has done me a disservice. He certainly doesn’t seem to have curtailed my humanity. Deception – and lying, therefore – doesn’t seem to be ruled out if we could, through some thought experiment, imagine someone hypothetically consenting to such a deception. (Hypothetical, of course, because if it was actually explained to me beforehand I couldn’t possibly meaningfully consent to the deception.)

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And that’s the gist of it. There: philosophy lesson over. Why then, do I find this so compelling? How does it shape my life?

For starters, it doesn’t immediately shape my life. Although it does mean I have mental volume upon volume of what conduct is morally permissible on London’s congested public transport network. I’ve often been tempted to draw up a little brochure and distribute it on the Tube. But I haven’t done that because it would be weird.

As a teacher, for me it has a very powerful consequence: I seek to cultivate humanity by promoting reason (or, at least I try to. There are limits to what can be reasonably achieved when it is period seven on a Friday afternoon and the lower third find sitting a difficult concept to handle let alone moral reasoning). I, like last week’s scientologist, am against brainwashing. Truth by told, I find the position of the Scientologist Church a little self-defeating, as brainwashing appears to be their main recruitment mechanism. I find the notion of unregulated faith schools more than a little unpalatable.

The Kantian underwriting of human dignity also gives one more powerful foes than the supposed ranks of psychoanalysts and prescription drugs. Some forms of deception might be permissible in Kantian ethics but torture never is. We should be a great deal more outraged by extraordinary rendition and the use of waterboarding than we currently are. Other than providing me with a moral framework when in transit, Kantian ethic has provided me with a strong sense of justice and a deep appreciation of humanity – which are very important things to hold onto when the moral compasses of others seem to lead them astray.