Mar 7, 2019 in Informative

The Problem of Admissibility of Lie


Immanuel Kant had repeatedly initiated discussion of  the problem of lie and provided thematically specific examples of the issue. In the “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because Of Philanthropic Concerns”, Kant examines the example of a person who provided a refuge to a friend, who was haunted by the attackers. Soon, the attackers knock in the door and request whether the person of their interest hides in this house. According to Kant, moral duty commands the friend to tell the whole truth to the attackers without concealment. The situation itself is not subject to typological qualification given by the title of essay: it is not about the right to lie “of philanthropic concerns”, but about the human right to lie in cases of conflict of duties, moreover, for the sake of protecting the person under the responsibility. The paper will discuss this situation as the most problematic Kantian example of lie from the standpoint of different ethical theories. 

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Utilitarian and Deontological Theories

It might be said that utilitarianism has a certain duality, which includes utilitarianism of action and utilitarianism of rule. Utilitarianism of action requires to determine all of the proposed consequences of any action which is evidently not possible to make in any way. Utilitarianism of rule requires taking into account the overall impact of that kind of action, which is associated with this particular, usually quite possible, action. Actions are usually carried out in the social environment. Even those subjects such as society, which have only a distant influence on this action, should be identified and taken into account, when assessing the consequences of one or another action.

Thus, the second approach, namely utilitarianism of rule, is the dominant form of modern utilitarianism. Its essence is reduced to the fact that the value of action is determined by its accordance with the set of rules adopted in the society and creating a condition of elevation of the common good. Application of the principle of utilitarianism does not provide an automatic solution to every problem. It requires reflection, analysis and impartial account of the facts and their consequences. According to the theory of utilitarianism, any action must be judged by its consequences, comparing good and bad results for those whom it concerns. When the good exceeds the bad, such action is regarded as positive; and if the bad exceeds the good, the action is considered negative.

Application of Ethical Theories to the Problem

As follows from the title, Kant’s essay addresses the problem of lie for philanthropy reasons or, in other terms, well-intentioned lie, precisely, inadmissibility of lie for philanthropy. In fact, it is not about the well-intentioned lie in general, but about the special case of it: lie in a situation of forced confession, moreover, improper compulsion to confess. Confession, the price of which can become well-being of a person or a group of people, with respect to whom the coerced to confess person has certain moral obligations. Kant, without going into too much plot analysis, argues that no good intentions can justify the lie and uses the logic of the arguments when considering situation of obviously false promises. 

Validity of this extrapolation is not obvious. It is characteristic that none of Kant’s followers in this matter tries to prove applicability of the arguments generated regarding inadmissibility of false promises to cases of improper compulsion to confess. 

Initiating the discussion, Kant replaces the requirement "do not lie" with the requirement “do not bear false witness”. He discusses  veracity of “testimonies” and the case when the testimonies serve as “evidences”, as if it was not about baseless claims of attackers, but about interrogation conducted by the law. Witnessing on a fair trial is not the same thing as informing attackers under compulsion; furthermore, it is not a same thing when violating duties to the third parties. 

However, Kant sees no difference between these different situations of compulsion. According to Kant :“The duty to tell the truth does not make any distinction between those persons in relation to which it is necessary to perform, and those for which may not be performed; on the contrary, it is an unconditional obligation which is valid in all respects”.

From the standpoint of deontological theory, society consists of corpuscular, communitarian and communicative indifferent individuals. Thus, the householder, being in answerable to the attackers by virtue of some normative logic, has no obligations with respect to his friend and is indifferent to the explicit threat of intruders in relation to the friend. Most likely, Kant had seen the truthfulness in relation to attackers as an expression of justice before mankind. 

It turns out that abstract justice is above the good of a particular person and a particular person is a means for the abstract improvement of man. Applying the deontological theory, Kant draws attention to its different aspects: duties of man towards himself, towards humanity and towards attackers. Though, he does not take into account the duties of a householder in relation to a friend. 

This situation can be treated from the standpoint of utilitarian ethics, or ethics of care. Both approaches are based on ethical consequentialism. This case can be also analyzed from the standpoint of virtue ethics, which is different from the two abovementioned, and more close to the Kantian principalism. The most important thing is that none of these approaches could justify a betrayal. Relationship between the householder and friend represents contractual duties, that is, relationship of duties. It is complex, twofold duties: not only duties of friendship, but also the duties of hospitality. The fact of granting a refuge eventually implies the promise of protection. 

However, Kant does not take into account this fact. An abstract duty of householder towards the attacker actually turns out to be priority in comparison with the duty in relation to the friend, which is also connected with the duty of hospitality. Thus, I think that householder in this situation actually has no obligations towards the attackers and, conversely, has obligations towards the friend. Let us assume that I back away from my position and accept the truth of Kant regarding the fact that the householder has some obligations towards the attackers. However, I cannot agree with the fact that he has no duties in relation to friend. Then the ethical context of the story changes and we encounter a conflict of duties. In principle this is a very important moment of human relations, both legal and moral. 

I conditionally went back on my word just to highlight this point and raise the question: Whether the duties of householder towards folks and towards strangers differ or not? Paying no attention to this conflict, as well as to the fact of a possible conflict of duties expresses lack of understanding of practical morality and turns into analysis handicap. Ultimately, as we see in the case of Kant, it turns into a hidden apology of amoralism in the form of betrayal to the guest and friend for the sake of personal honesty before the attacker. 

From the point of view of Kant, behavior of the householder should not depend on possible particular characteristics of the situation. I disagree with this statement even from metaphysical-normative point of view. It seems that this is not true from the practical and ethical point of view as well. Otherwise, what is the sense of all ethics theories, if its recommendations are situationally indifferent or, in other words, if ethics is impractical?

Kant’s argument is characterized by the features that allow suggesting he paid attention to practical aspect of the matter. However, Kant had firm conviction that the person does not know the meaning of actions and intentions of others and does not control consequences of their actions. Thus, he makes the following argument in favor of truthful response to the question of the attackers, i.e. in favor of granting the friend to them. Imagine that the householder tells lie to the attackers for the sake of his friend.

At the same time, a friend, realizing that he is at risk, secretly leaves the house, while the killer (in the Kantian reasoning, “attackers” are accidentally transformed into a “killer”, which certainly enhances the drama of the situation) meets him on the road and commits a crime. In this case, Kant argues that the householder is rightfully prosecuted as the perpetrator of his friend’s death. Conversely, if the householder tells the truth, he bears no responsibility for any consequences. The householder is not free to choose, he is compelled by an external force to answer to the attackers.

Kant envisages potential development of the situation. While the householder frankly responds to the attackers, fulfilling the duty of truthfulness, the neighbors might learn about the accident and catch the killer. “If your lie prevented the plotting murder and fulfilling of killer’s intention, then you bear a legal responsibility for all the consequences which can occur. But if you stay within the strict truth, public justice have nothing to do with you, no matter what the unintended consequences of your deeds would be.”  This statement, eventually,  allows making only one conclusion: do not do anything, just follow the rules, hiding behind them from possible responsibility. 


Thus, it appears that truthfulness of the householder and foreseeable pace of developments and their obvious inevitable consequences provide the ability to act “on occasion”, remaining innocent and bearing no responsibility. Conversely, in the unlikely set of circumstances, when the friend attempts to unexpectedly escape the house and is detected by the attackers subsequently – the householder is responsible for what happened, that is, for the effects of the sequence of events.

Therefore, Kant states that the man is not fully responsible for the consequences of his actions, especially in non-standard conditions of the revolutionary (totalitarian, criminal) arbitrariness. However, this does not mean that people are not responsible for their actions in any case. According to Kant, in case when one tries to escape responsibility upon himself and his actions, then severe moral claims could be made to such entity  for refusal to preserve and improve as a moral subject. When people disclaim responsibility, they deprive themselves of membership in the noumenal world.  


It is complicated to define on which moral system Kant based his principles: “Do not kill” and “Do not lie”, as an absolute priority for morality. These principles are an inherent part in all moral traditions of humanity and are always among the basic ones, though, never regarded as supreme, absolute priority principles. Supreme moral principle is expressed in the commandment of love in Christian ethics. Love is recommended, whereas justice expressed in the demands of the Decalogue, especially those that are given in the form of negative prohibitions, is imputed. The most simple and general formula of justice is “Do not harm” as a minimum requirement of morality. 

According to moral philosophers, the demands “Do not hurt” and “You should love” are formal and mislead people. However, the golden rule is referred to in cases when one does not know what exactly lies in the words “doing no harm” and “taking care”. However, the general moral principles are not directly applicable in this case which is enforced by the Kantian analysis of this specific example. Human relationships are qualitatively different and multiple-vector. Therefore, application of general principles is mediated by, on the one hand, private in content requirements and regulations that provide certainty and effectiveness of general principles, and, on the other hand, by adoption of specific situations on the basis of their personal, moral responsibility and situationally appropriate solutions.


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