Monday, November 18, 2013

Kant and the killer at the door

Wilma is home, hears a knock at the door. It’s Barney. He’s panicked, asks Wilma to let him hide in the house. Fred is after him with a large knife, wants to kill him.  Wilma hurries him into the house. Barney hides. Half an hour later, Fred bangs on the door. Wilma answers. He’s off his nut, wild eyed, panting, foaming at the mouth. He asks Wilma if Barney is in the house.  What is Wilma to do? No-brainer you say? Well what does Kant have to say about that? Let’s find out:
Now, the first question is whether a man—in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yes or No—has the right to be untruthful. The second question is whether, in order to prevent a misdeed that threatens him or someone else, he is not actually bound to be untruthful in a certain statement to which an unjust compulsion forces him.

There are two possible questions facing Wilma:
1. Do I have a right to lie to Fred?
2. Do I have an obligation to lie to him in order to prevent the killing?
Of interest here: Read the passage carefully; the second question encompasses possible scenarios where the person being queried is him/herself in danger. Perhaps an example like this: The killer hates Wilma, yet has never met Wilma, doesn’t know he is looking at Wilma and wants to kill her. He asks Wilma if she is indeed Wilma.
OK, so that is the situation. What does Kant have to say by way of answering?

Truth in utterances that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of a man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise from it to him or any other; and although by making a false statement I do no wrong to him who unjustly compels me to speak, yet I do wrong to men in general in the most essential point of duty, so that it may be called a lie (though not in the jurist’s sense), that is, so far as in me lies I cause that declarations in general find no credit, and hence that all rights founded on contract should lose their force; and this is a wrong which is done to mankind.

If, then, we define a lie merely as an intentionally false declaration towards another man, we need not add that it must injure another; as the jurists think proper to put in their definition (mendacium est falsiloquium in præjudicium alterius). For it always injures another; if not another individual, yet mankind generally, since it vitiates the source of justice.

1. Any time you cannot avoid making statements such as is the case with Wilma and Fred, you must answer truthfully. (This is the import of the unhelpful phrase “formal duty…to everyone”)
2. …Consequences be damned.
3. Even if Wilma was doing no wrong to Fred by lying to him, she would be harming the presumption of veracity, the very important foundational social glue, making possible contractual intercourse, and justice. This is harm to humanity.
So, because she would unavoidably be doing work toward eroding the presumption of veracity, Wilma must tell the truth.
One can see what Kant is getting at here if one remembers how he treats lying promises when discussing the universalizability formulation of the Categorical Imperative. There, he asks us to universalize the maxim upon which we would act; imagine a world where it functions like a universal natural law (or at the very least, a world where people are free to act by it) and asks us if lying promises would even be logically possible in such a world. He argues they would not, because the presumption of veracity would not exist.  So, he is mindful of this sort of argument in the present case, bites his bullet, and advises Wilma to tell the truth.
OK, what else does Kant have to say? Well, he appeals to prudence (self-interest):
This benevolent lie may, however, by accident (casus) become punishable even by civil laws; and that which escapes liability to punishment only by accident may be condemned as a wrong even by external laws. For instance, if you have by a lie hindered a man who is even now planning a murder, you are legally responsible for all the consequences. But if you have strictly adhered to the truth, public justice can find no fault with you, be the unforeseen consequence what it may. (italicization mine)

1. In case you’re not convinced, you could be setting yourself up for legal trouble by lying. As the law now stands, you become responsible for all that flows from the lie.
2. If you tell the truth, however, because of the letter of the law, you cannot be prosecuted for things that flow from the truth-telling episode. You will not be held legally responsible for the unforeseen consequences that follow.
Now, not being familiar with late 18th Century Prussian law, I’ll take Kant’s word for all that. But, suppose a lawyer argues Wilma knowingly and recklessly placed Barney in great danger by telling the truth. After all, there is nothing “unforeseen” about the consequences that would be most likely to follow on her truth-telling. Isn’t that case compelling? What if the law took this into account? Well, then, this very same sort of prudential appeal would have Wilma lie.
The point? To argue from the contingencies of laws and their possible impact on personal fate is an appeal to prudence, not a moral argument. In any case, Kant continues by illustrating this prudential appeal with hypotheticals:
It is possible that whilst you have honestly answered Yes to the murderer’s question, whether his intended victim is in the house, the latter may have gone out unobserved, and so not have come in the way of the murderer, and the deed therefore have not been done; whereas, if you lied and said he was not in the house, and he had really gone out (though unknown to you) so that the murderer met him as he went, and executed his purpose on him, then you might with justice be accused as the cause of his death. For, if you had spoken the truth as well as you knew it, perhaps the murderer while seeking for his enemy in the house might have been caught by neighbors coming up and the deed been prevented. Whoever then tells a lie, however good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences of it, even before the civil tribunal, and must pay the penalty for them, however unforeseen they may have been; because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, the laws of which would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to them were admitted. To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency.

Kant illustrates with some possible scenarios for Wilma:
1. Look, it could happen that Wilma tells the truth, Barney had already hightailed it, and is safe. Happy ending. No legal trouble for Wilma
2. Look, it could happen that Wilma lies, Barney had left, but runs into Fred as he moved on in his search. Not so happy ending for either person.
3. Look, it could happen that Wilma tells the truth, Fred moves on, but neighborhood watch executes a citizen’s arrest. Happy ending for both.
4. All liars must be held responsible for all the consequences of their lies. Laws reflect this contention.
5. Truth tellers should not be held responsible in like manner. Laws reflect this contention.
This pair of contentions leads us to ask why questions. Here’s why, according to Kant:
6. The underpinning of laws of contract, the presumption of veracity is either seriously compromised even by the slightest violations, OR any violation counts as a serious violation
Regarding 1, 2 and 3, There is a frustrating aspect to these. Kant seems to be falling into the sort of trap students fall into when discussing hypothetical cases intended to put pressure on, or illustrate ethical theories. They try to avoid the terms of the hypothetical. One wants to say to him: No, no, no. Quit dodging the question. It’s really very simple. This is a hypothetical. Face it squarely. If Wilma lies to Fred, she will save Barney. If she tells the truth, he will kill the man. It really is that simple. Why? How do we know? Because it’s a hypothetical damn it. That’s why! Now man up and face the consequences of your theory. Are you going to stand there and tell us that Wilma should tell the truth?
Kant, to his credit, (and when not prevaricating with scenarios), bites his bullet and answers ‘yes.’
His justification does leave opening for criticism. In (5) he claims a truth teller should not be held responsible for unforeseen consequences of his/her acts, but quite noticeably says nothing about foreseeable consequences.
A liar who foresees harm coming from his lying should be held responsible precisely because he can avoid it by choosing not to lie. Why cannot the same standard apply to Wilma, who is similarly situated but ‘armed’ with the truth? Why should she not be held responsible for choosing to allow foreseeable harm to Barney?
From what we have read here, it would appear to be because her action will compromise the presumption of veracity, harming humanity “in general”. Kant claims if even “the least exception” to truth-telling is allowed, the presumption of veracity is damaged to such a degree as to disallow the move. This sounds implausible on its face. Wilma needs to lie. The presumption of veracity will survive. So will Barney.