UPDATE, June 26, 2009: Anyone interested in how I ended up developing this argument should check out the paper just published in PPR.

One of the more difficult issues for Kantian moral theorists is how, if at all, our moral obligations should be sensitive to others’ wrongdoing. It seems fairly obvious that what we are morally required to do can change in response to others’ immoral conduct. A clear example is promise keeping: If A and B agree to a mutually beneficial promise, but A doesn’t fulfill the terms of their promise, B is presumably not obligated to fulfill them either. So A’s wrongdoing influences B’s moral obligations. Another example is punishment: Since punishment is the infliction of harm, suffering, or deprivation (which is typically wrong), it must be the case that the wrongdoer’s wrongdoing justifies inflicting otherwise wrongful harm, suffering, or deprivation on her. This issue is acute for Kantians because Kantianism has long been seen as somehow more “principled” than consequentialism. The challenge for Kantians is to offer an explanation of how our moral obligations should be sensitive to others’ wrongdoing that invokes key Kantian values or principles (rational autonomy, the categorical imperative, etc.) without becoming so sensitive to others’ wrongdoing that Kantianism becomes indistinguishable from outright consequentialism.

The example that has of course stimulated much of the discussion surrounding this problem is Kant’s treatment of ‘the murderer at the door’ in his essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie.” There Kant seems to say that lying to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of the innocent victim he intends to kill would be morally wrong. Most Kantians (and most reasonable people in general) find this conclusion troubling if not absurd: If ever there were a situation in which lying is not only morally permitted, but even morally required, that would be it!

What follows is my own (admittedly long-ish) attempt to answer the ‘murderer at the door’ problem in Kantian terms. Whether my attempt is of value in addressing the larger theoretical problem of how our moral obligations should be sensitive to others’ wrongdoing, I’m not sure, but here goes:

My argument is actually quite simple:
1. It is morally permissible (from a Kantian perspective) for an innocent person (i.e., a person who does
not deserve to die for some other reason) to lie to a murderer in self-defense.
2. If it is morally permissible (from a Kantian perspective) for an innocent person to lie to a murderer in
self-defense, then it is also morally permissible (from a Kantian perspective) for any person to lie to a
murderer in the defense of another innocent person.
It is morally permissible for any person to lie to a murderer in the defense of another innocent person.

Obviously, my task is to defend the truth of the premises.

P1. One of the great strengths of Kantian moral theory is its powerful account of what’s wrong with manipulative or coercive behavior such as torture, promise breaking, and lying. Such acts in effect treat others as mere means to our ends, inasmuch as we manipulate the other person’s behavior or expectations in order to advance our own happiness. In the particular case of lying, the manipulation or coercion involved is doxastic, as Sissela Bok has observed: A lie attempts to cause another person to act on a belief that the liar believes to be false so as to benefit the liar.

But I would suggest that in the ‘murderer at the door’ example, two conditions necessary for lying to be wrongful (in Kantian terms) are not present: First, the lie is not meant to advance the happiness either of the liar or of the potential murder victim, but to thwart the abuse of the victim’s autonomy that her murder would represent. Hence, if lying to the murderer is manipulation at all, it is manipulation in the service of the would-be victim’s autonomy, a central Kantian value. Second, while Kantian ethics prioritizes the value of autonomous rational agency over happiness, it does not follow from this that we are obligated to honor another agent’s autonomous choices no matter the ends that a given exercise of autonomy is meant to serve. In the ‘murderer at the door’, the murderer intends to exercise his autonomy in the service of a morally impermissible end, and Kant claims that we are obligated to promote others’ ends (i.e., others’ happiness) only if those ends are themselves morally permissible. I take that to be an indirect statement of the notion that whether we must honor another’s autonomy on a given occasion may depend on whether that autonomy is being exercised in morally permissible ways. Autonomy may be the highest moral value, but it is not therefore an unconditioned value. To manipulate by lying is to deceive in order to thwart another’s otherwise permissible ends. In the murderer at the door example, this is not what we are considering doing.

It would seem to follow that if I am innocent (i.e., I do not deserve to die for other reasons), my lying in self-defense is not an impermissible violation of the liar’s rational autonomy.

2. But would it be permissible for me to lie to the murderer in order to save another’s life? To see why it would be, I’m going to introduce what I will call the Kantian Symmetry Thesis. An ‘agent’ is the person who actually performs the act, and a ‘beneficiary’ is the person whose autonomy is protected or advanced by the agent’s act.

Kantian Symmetry Thesis: Any morally permissible act performed by agent A in which A is also the act’s beneficiary is also permissible if another agent B (relevantly similar to A) is the beneficiary of A’s act instead.

We see throughout Kant’s casuistry implicit appeals to this thesis: Suicide, Kant thought, is wrong for just the same reasons (and in just the same circumstances) that homicide is wrong. Similarly, in Kant’s sexual ethics (not that we should accept much of it of course!) acts that treat another’s sexuality as a mere tool of one’s happiness (rape) are wrong in the same way that acts that treat one’s own sexuality as a tool of one’s own happiness (masturbation) are wrong. In other words, Kant did not think that there exists a special moral relationship to oneself such that the obligations one bears vis-a-vis oneself are importantly distinct from those one bears toward other agents. (This is a way in which Kant was not a ‘liberal,’ since one important feature of liberalism has been the idea of a domain of self-regarding behavior that is governed by different norms from the domain of other-regarding behavior).

So, if it is permissible for me to lie to prevent a murderer from killing innocent me, than by the KST, it would follow that it would also be permissible for me to lie to prevent that same murderer from killing another innocent.

Again, I don’t know if my thoughts about how to address the murderer at the door hold any general lessons about how to develop a non-ideal Kantian theory (one that takes account of others’ wrongdoing), but any ideas or suggestions are certainly welcome.

9 Replies to “UPDATE: The murderer at the door: What Kant might have said

  1. Nice argument. First, though, I don’t think Kant himself could use it to generate an argument for an obligation (as opposed to a permission) to lie to the would-be murderer. I actually think that one of the marks of Kant’s ethics is the self-other asymmetry (a point about which, e.g., Michael Slote has made a big deal). According to Kant, we can’t be obligated (properly speaking) to seek what we already seek as a matter of fact, namely the satisfaction of our ends, so while beneficence is a duty to others, there is no duty to benefit oneself. And, since ought implies can, and since no one can develop my skills for me, there is no (direct) duty for others to develop my skills, though there is a duty for me to develop my own skills.
    So now return to KST, “Any morally permissible act performed by agent A in which A is also the act’s beneficiary is also permissible if another agent B (relevantly similar to A) is the beneficiary of A’s act instead”. Kant couldn’t accept a related, stronger principle that would generate a duty (and not merely a permission) to lie to the murderer at the door, i.e., a principle that ‘Any morally obligatory act performed by agent A where A is the beneficiary (e.g., developing one’s talents) is also obligatory if another agent B is the beneficiary of A’s act instead.’ So one question here is whether Kant’s argument for the self-other asymmetry (with respect to obligation) is compelling enough to keep us from countenancing a duty to lie to the would-be murderer.
    Also, I wonder if there aren’t counterexamples (from ‘commonsense’) to KST as it is currently formulated. It seems morally permissible for me to benefit by increasing my income through high-stakes poker playing, but I’m not sure that it’s permissible for me to unilaterally make B the beneficiary of such a course of action. This seems to suggest that, at the least, we’d have to add a rider to KST that says “…where B consents (or, counterfactually, would agree when properly informed…) to being so benefitted.” (And maybe this isn’t even sufficient: I wonder if there are cases where even consent+benefit doesn’t generate permissibility, intuitively?) If that’s right, maybe KST would need a little refinement.

  2. Interesting idea. Do you think that it could also be extended to provide a Kantian explanation as to why rights infringements are permissible against innocent 3rd parties? I’m thinking of examples where, in order to save Mary’s life from an assassin, I must break into Dave’s office without his consent. I have trespassed on Dave’s property, something that would normally be a rights violation. A Kantian might say it is wrong because I have used Dave purely as a means to some other end. But in this instance it seems permissible since I do so not to benefit myself, but rather to protect the rational autonomy/life of Mary. The problem here, unlike the ‘murderer at the door’ example, is that it’s an innocent 3rd party (Dave) whose rights are disregarded, rather than the wrongdoer’s.
    It seems tempting to me, in cases where the infringements are relatively trivial, to say that your argument can be extended to justify ignoring the rights of innocent 3rd parties. But when we make the infringements more severe (maybe for bizarre reasons we have to break one of Dave’s legs in order to save Mary from the assassin), then it seems far less obvious that it is permissible to ignore Dave’s rights.
    I don’t have any clear argument worked out, but it seems like there must be a way of explaining why we are entitled to disregard almost any of a wrongdoer’s rights in order to protect the autonomy/life of his victim, but we can only disregard a limited sub-set of rights when it comes to innocent 3rd parties. Since I am sympathetic to deontological approaches I worry that there is no coherent way of doing this that does not collapse into weighing the harm the wrongdoer intends towards his victim against the harm the 3rd party would have to suffer to thwart the wrongdoer’s aims. It may be that we can say the wrongdoer has forfeited all (or most of) his rights by planning to violate someone else’s rights. Since this is not true of the innocent 3rd party, there is at least an asymmetry there. I don’t know how far this line can be taken, and I don’t know whether this is consistent with Kant’s views on punishment and retributivism.

  3. To interject about the Dave-Mary example…
    In the case of the Dave Mary example, it is fair, under a Kantian schema, that we are not using Dave as a mere means to an end. We are in fact using him as a means to his own end; saving Mary. Kantian ethics dictate that we are obliged to have certain ends, such as the protection of collective individual autonomy (or at least this is how I interpret/extrapolate Kant). As such, it is Dave’s end to protect Mary (as well as mine), so Dave is not being treated merely as a means to an end.
    We can disregard the rights of wrong-doers more blatantly simply because they have the wrong ends, so we need not be concerned with their fulfillment (seems even to be the case that we ought not be concerned with their fulfillment). We can do more too him, simply because more of his ends are immoral ones, thus frustrating them is good, not bad.
    The common thread here is that when acting in these ways that appear problematic, we are doing so for good, either to fulfill moral ends (like in Dave’s case) or to obstruct immoral ends (in the case of the murder at the door).

  4. Chris,
    Thanks for your comment on my comment. I like your account of the Dave/Mary story, but I’m also worried by it. If we are entitled to disregard the rights of 3rd parties when there is some moral end they ought to be promoting (but for whatever reason, are not), I wonder to what exent our theory remains deontological rather than purely consequentialist. A theory of rights, I think, cannot see rights as things to be ignored the moment some worthy moral end comes along. If there are certain rights that are Dave’s, rather than mine, surely that means it is up to Dave to decide how he is going to excercise those rights, not me.
    Dave, for example, probably has a right of self-ownership that entails no one may break his legs without his permission. He also, I’m assuming, has property rights over his office. My point was that it will be difficult for a non-consequentialist theory to explain why we can ignore the latter right in our efforts to save Mary from the assassin, but not (my intuition tells me) the former right.
    As indicated in my original comment, I do I agree with you about the wrongdoer having forfeited his rights by choosing to pursue unjust ends. It’s just less clear to me that this logic can be extended to Dave if he refuses to let me use his office or break his legs in order to save Mary.
    I don’t have a definite position on these sorts of rights-in-conflict cases, but my hunch is that a constructivist/contractualist approach may be able to match our intuitive sense that it would be unreasonable for Dave not to waive his property right, but that he could reasonably reject a principle requiring him to waive his right that his legs not be broken. There are, of course, serious Euthyphro issues with contractualist accounts, but I’m not convinced they can’t be overcome. But that’s an entirely different discussion…

  5. It’s my supposition that all our rights are merely guidelines and not moral truths. Dave’s right to his property is a way of saying “most of the time it is not morally permissible to break into Dave’s office.” The same is with his legs “most of the time it is immoral to break Dave’s legs without his permission.” I think this is completely uphold with a deontological theory. Is certain cases where Dave does not allow us to break his legs to save Mary’s life we might say “Dave, you ought (you have a duty) to do this for Mary.” Whether this is counterintuitive may be one thing, but it need not be consequentialist.
    That being said, I am at the beginning of a long process toward establishing a Kantian Consequentialist position (there is a book k, which I have not finished by Cummiskey of the same idea, that is somewhat different) which is more action based than agent based. The thrust of it is this: there is a possible world in which all agents act morally; i.e. the collective individual autonomy is upheld in the highest regard. Obviously that in not this world, but a moral act is own that brings us closer to that world, modally speaking. The problems are there (obviously) but that’s the basic idea. Hopefully the project is more tenable than it appears…

  6. Cholbi manages to argue against Kant without first analyzing Kant’s argument against lying to the madman at the door. Perhaps that argument is too strong for him to take on. Besides, in any discussion on this particular topic there is the omnipresent refusal to mention other possibilities beyond the false alternatives of deceit and honesty. Kant noted that you don’t owe the madman or anybody else the truth (I take it he means under normal circumstances and not when one is under oath). Nobody has a *right* to the truth (except for yourself, regarding your own personal truth).
    As I always say, there is no use trying to “sneak out the back door” in order to get around Kant’s dilemma by creating all kinds of odd arguments. Just slam the door in the madman’s face, that way the innkeeper doesn’t have to say anything at all.

  7. I always thought that in the case of the murderer at he door lying was not okay because if we decided as a society that lying was okay to preserve life the murder would automatically assume we were lying to him because lives were on the line, thereby rendering the lie useless.

  8. Jon Quong,
    I don’t know whether you’ve looked at the Rechtslehre in the Metaphysics of Morals, but it is here that Kant most fully develops his account of justified coercion. A hindrance to a hindrance of freedom is no hindrance to freedom, he says. The idea is that one who violates another’s right may justifiably prevented or made to restore the victim to their original state (e.g. by returning stolen property). Unlike in Chris’ account above, this authorization to coerce doesn’t stem from an individual duty to maximize or protect collective autonomy (although, I’m not quite sure what Chris means by collective autonomy, unless it is just the autonomy of each individual?). It is squarely a political account, and only together can we legitimately authorize and use coercion to protect our rights.
    Deception is a funny case, because the murderer at the door case involves a discussion of a right to deceive. Kant claims that we never have a right to deceive, because deception is inconsistent with the very idea of right that he develops. Coercion, on the other hand, can be consistent with and even required by right. I am certainly troubled by Kant’s position in the case, but I do think his position is more subtle and reasonable that is commonly appreciated.
    I found Weinrib’s “The Juridical Significance of of Kant’s ‘Supposed Right to Lie'” helpful.

  9. A valiant attempt! (Just found it today on your update. Don’t think I have access to PPR right at the moment, so I’m replying to what you said here.) Alas, I don’t think the argument works.
    I don’t think premise 1 holds; Kant has no ground for lying in self-defence. You say: “First, the lie is not meant to advance the happiness either of the liar or of the potential murder victim, but to thwart the abuse of the victim’s autonomy that her murder would represent.” The “thwart” language points to the problem: one would be violating a perfect duty in order to achieve a particular consequence, and Kant is adamant throughout his work that that is immoral, indeed the essence of immorality.
    Murder isn’t wrong because it abuses the victim’s autonomy; that autonomy is always there, it cannot be abused except, perhaps, if it is used wrongly. It’s wrong because it disrespects the victim, treats her as a means to some other end; but that disrespect is there in the attempted action itself. The disrespect is present whether the action succeeds or fails. If the action fails because the victim stopped it, the victim’s autonomy is disrespected just as surely as if the action had succeeded. But if the victim has now lied, she has also disrespected the murderer’s autonomy, and is similarly culpable for it.
    Clearly one is not obliged to promote the other’s ends in this case; far from it. (That’s why – if memory serves – Kant recommends staying silent, not telling the truth). It’s that one is obliged to respect the other as an autonomous choosing being. One respects the autonomy itself, not the choices others happen to make with that autonomy; the choices others make do not in any way diminish the respect one is obliged to give them.
    Not that I buy Kant’s views on any of this myself; still, I do tend to be dazzled by the consistency of the system, including his willingness to bite bullets like this one.

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