By the word lie, Kant refers to a specific meaning – distinguished from error – of an intentionally untruthful statement.1 Contrary to the “duty of right” derived from the categorical imperative presented in GMM, a lie cannot be thought of as a universal maxim due to its particular ends.2 Kant’s opinion on the right to lie is one of the most controversial aspects of Kantian philosophy. In the essay Des Reactions politiques (1797), Benjamin Constant wrote:

“The moral principle stating that it is a duty to tell the truth would make any society impossible if that principle were taken singly and unconditionally. We have proof of this in the very direct consequence which a German philosopher has drawn from this principle. This philosopher goes as far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is pursued by the murderer had taken refuge in our house.”3

By “a German philosopher,” Constant in fact referred to Kant. Kant replied to Constant with the article “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” insisting it is our duty to tell the truth – as indicated in the title – under any circumstances. Kant’s insistence on our duty to tell the truth, even if it brings a consequent murder of our friend, seems merely to be inhuman. At first sight, Kant seems to purpose an unconditional command – “You should tell the truth at any price.” For Kant, the main principle governing the prohibition on untruthfulness is about the violation of the duty of right.4 An intentional untruth, when it does not violate the duty of right, is called falsification by Kant,5 which means a false statement is by no means necessarily contradicted with the duty of right, and more importantly, a lie only becomes a lie under the circumstances of a potential violation of the duty. Furthermore, Kant allows making a falsification to prevent another from making wrongful use of the truth.6 Following this very logic of Kant, the murderer in front of my door does not have the right to truth, and thus making a false statement to the murder should not be counted as a lie, a violation of the duty of right. It seems to be the case that only in situations like testification before a judge that the duty of right begins to be effective. Therefore, Constant’s counterargument against Kant is not without a point. His argument mostly overlapped with the above reading of Kant, with which Kant did not agree during their dispute:7

“Where there are no rights, there are no duties. To tell the truth is thus a duty, but it is a duty only with regard to one who has a right to the truth. But no one has a right to a truth that harms others.”8

What if we situate this choice of truth or death in Kant’s favor, that is to say, the subject is brought to the court as a witness. In his book The Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick purposed the following example: “in speaking truth to a jury, I may possibly foresee that my words, operating along with other statements and indications, will unavoidably lead them to a wrong conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the accused.”9 In other words, how should the subject act when an act of untruthfulness may lead to a consequence of justice (in its commonsensical meaning)? In such a case, the role of the murderer is replaced by the prosecutor, while the victim of potential murder becomes the defendant. Once again, the subject is faced with the choice of telling the truth or saving another’s life.

Of course, from a formal Kantian perspective, the consequence of our action should not be a determining factor before our duty. It is rather only the form out of which the action emerges that is our concern – in this case, the maxim of telling the truth. In other words, for Kant, humanity, the love for our fellows, cannot justify us in making an exception to the Law, otherwise, it would only undermine the universality of the Law.10 However, in the dispute between Kant and Constant, Constant’s position is as well understandable, especially when we take into account the context of Constant’s argument, namely the French Revolution. Facing the discordance between the principles of the Revolution and the devastating consequences in reality, as many anti-Enlightenment or anti-utopian arguments would say,11 the principles or reasons become the real source of the Terror.

However, despite the commonplace of law versus pleasure, the universal versus the particular, the rational versus the pathological, the true dilemma only reveals itself when we approach this problem with the multicity of truth in mind, where the demarcation of these dualisms become no longer clear. Suffice to recall the psychoanalytic insights that one can lie in the guise of truth, or tell the truth in the guise of a lie.12. The following is an exemplary case mentioned by Žižek: a woman rejected the transfusion that would save her life because of her religious belief. The judge asked her: “What if you were to be submitted to transfusion against your will? Would this also condemn you to damnation and hell in your afterlife, or not?” The woman answered no, after which the judge ordered the transfusion against her will.13 This intervention is nothing but a success – the woman’s life is saved and she was not forced to give up her religious belief. From a theoretical perspective, however, the truth she told (in the sense that, according to the doctrine she follows, a forced transfusion does not in fact count as sin) is a lie. She knew perfectly that once she answered no, the judge would follow it by a command to enforce the transfusion. If for some ridiculous reason she really intends to stick to her refusal to the very end, a lie of “Yes, it would be a sin even if the transfusion is against my will” seems to be the way to realize her (religious) truth.

Here comes the distinction between truthfulness (the will to tell the truth) and the truth (the “facts” our statements refer to). One can use the universal (truth, law, duty, and so on) to fulfill precisely its particular pathological ends. Thus we need to approach Kant’s emphasis on truthfulness with further investigations:14 with the concept of the unconsciousness in mind, how can the subject tell the truth? Is there any need to further distinguish “objective truth” and “subjective truth”? Or if the truth is truth, how can the subject achieve the accordance with truth? In the case above, would it be possible for the woman to answer “yes” with indifference to the outcome, in other words, non-pathologically in the Kantian sense? What should be already obvious is that the discussion of morality, the Law, the Universal cannot proceed without bringing into the light its very entanglement with the subject. This article intends to mostly center around ethics, with two philosophical questions as its basis: How is it possible for the Universal to sustain vitality? And what role does the subject play in the Universal?

  1. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 430, 227.↩︎
  2. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 402, 15.↩︎
  3. Quoted from Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns”, 162.↩︎
  4. ”I don’t want to sharpen this principle to the point of saying ‘Untruthfulness is a violation of one’s duty to himself.’ For this principle belongs to ethics, but here the concern is with a duty of right [Rechtspflicht].” Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” 163.↩︎
  5. Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, 63.↩︎
  6. Wood, “Kant and the right to lie reviewed essay: On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy, by Inmanuel Kant (1797)”.↩︎
  7. To be precise, Kant seemed to be fighting against an imaginary adversary. While Constant argued there was no duty (and thus no law to violate) in that case, Kant argued instead there should be no exception to the law.↩︎
  8. Quoted from Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” 162-3.↩︎
  9. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 97.↩︎
  10. ”[S]uch exceptions would destroy the universality on account of which alone they bear the name of principles”, Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns,” 141.↩︎
  11. For example, Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno.↩︎
  12. The former is a common situation with the obsessive in which they conceal their desire – including from themselves, a.k.a. repression – behind all the factually accurate or at least reasonable statements. The latter can be the typical scenario of a slip of the tongue which betrays the subject’s true desire.↩︎
  13. Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 128.↩︎
  14. ”Truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract.” Kant, “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns”, 164.↩︎