Helga Varden on Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door… And law in circumstances beyond human authority. 

When are civil properties no more a theme of debate.


Kant’s example of lying to the murderer at the door has been a cherished source of scorn for thinkers with little sympathy for Kant’s philosophy and a source of deep puzzlement for those more favorably inclined. The problem is that Kant seems to say that it is always wrong to lie—even to a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his victim—and that if one does lie and despite one’s good intentions the lie leads to the murderer’s capture of the victim, then the liar is partially responsible for the killing of the victim. If this is correct, then Kant’s account seems not only to require us to respect the murderer more than the victim, but also that somehow we can be responsible for the consequences of another’s wrongdoing. After World War II our spontaneous, negative reaction to this apparently absurd line of argument is made even starker by replacing the murderer at the door with a Nazi officer looking for Jews hidden in people’s homes. Does Kant really mean to say that people hiding Jews in their homes should have told the truth to the Nazis, and that if they did lie, they became co‐responsible for the heinous acts committed against those Jews who, like Anne Frank, were caught anyway? Because this is clearly what Kant argues, the critics continue, his discussion of lying to the murderer brings out the true, dark side not only of Kant’s universalistic moral theory but also of Kant himself. We get the gloomy picture of a stubborn, old academic who refuses to see the inhumane consequences of his theory, and instead grotesquely defends the inhumane by turning it into an a priori, moral command.

In this paper, I argue that Kant’s discussion of lying to the murderer at the door has been seriously misinterpreted. My suggestion is that this is primarily a result of the fact that the Doctrine of Right with its conception of rightful, external freedom has been given insufficient attention in Kant interpretation. It is in the Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world. Hence it is in this work we find many of the arguments needed not only to understand his analysis of lying to the murderer in “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” but also to analyze the added complexity the Nazi officer brings to the example. When we interpret lying to the murderer in light of Kant’s discussion in the Doctrine of Right, we can make sense of why lying to the murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do wrong in general. The account of rightful freedom provided in the Doctrine of Right also makes it possible to see why replacing the murderer with a Nazi officer adds philosophical complexity rather than just one more reason to reject Kant’s view. The introduction of the Nazi officer requires us to consider the role of a public authority in ensuring rightful relations in general and what happens to the analysis of lying when rightful interactions as a matter of fact are no longer possible. We will see that the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally punishable is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis. Two further strengths of Kant’s account, I propose in the final sections of the paper, lie in its ability to critique how European legal systems aimed to deal with the Nazis after the war was over and in its contribution to our understanding of the experiences of war heroes.


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