I need to be dishonest but I really Kant (or, what I believe about lying)

I need to be dishonest but I really Kant0

Taking a page right out of the “Parents’ book of bad heuristics,” my father consulted a zodiac guide to raising kids while I was growing up. Among the ‘wisdom’ there, he found a line about the Taurus sign that claimed that we were prone to being particularly dishonest (to all the Parents reading that sentence and gasping in horror, you can relax. Not only am I somehow fine, but despite this and other bad idea, I grew up to be a skeptic. I dunno, nature vs nurture).  He decided to constantly remind me of this fact, and I don’t think I ever really forgive him for it. The silver lining to this is it just might be the motivation a person needs to stop and think about certain issues philosophically.

I’ve thought a lot about lying, likely thanks to this assumption my dad made. Don’t be too impressed, I generally didn’t take school seriously as a kid and thus had an abundance of free time to think about things that don’t matter. I took those thoughts and time and came to some conclusions.

A memory that stands out most sharply was during high school when an older friend  (he was in college at the time) recounted to me about how lucky he got when, having slept through his alarm and missed his first class at the university, he told his mom that classes were canceled due to a (extremely minor) snowfall, only to then find out that classes had indeed been canceled due to a minor snowfall. The way this person saw it lying was an act of saying something that was not true, all other facts being irrelevant in the discussion. Were I to, for no particular reason, inform you that the sky is purple, I would have lied to you. This doesn’t take into consideration the possibilities that a person is misinformed or stupid about a given subject. In those situations we don’t think the person is lying.

This is similar to another person I know, whom I have already blogged about, that will tell a workplace that Aunt Dorothy has died every time she needs a couple of mental health days. In her book, it isn’t a lie. Aunt Dorothy did die, some 15 years ago now.1

If you had asked me if it were actually possible for someone to fail an introductory level philosophy of language class, I would have said no. I guess I was wrong.

If grandmothers and Aunt Dorothys died at the rate at which people use that as an excuse to get out of work we could clear up the nursing homes of the world pretty damn quick. And if every time you used that as an excuse the Cosmic Monkey Paw of Karmic Justice felt it fit to knock off said relative whenever someone use that lie, I would find it excusable, but it would still be a damn lie.  My operating definition of a lie is The Intent To Deceive, and this is important enough for me to capitalize every first letter in the phrase. It doesn’t matter that serendipity fixed things for you or what level of “technically true” you want to reach for. You intended to deceive, thus you lied. Stop squirming.

There is a certain hurt to being lied to, which is why people have such an immediate negative reaction to it. And yet, anyone who functions in our society has likely found it necessary to at some point or the other lie to someone else.

One of the more famous arguments against lying comes from Immanuel Kant. Back when I was doing my master’s Kant was the favorite philosopher of a fellow student who was so doggedly fixated on having the ‘correct’ answers without doing any work. He likely came to this conclusion because an undergrad professor told him in stern authoritative voice that Kant was the ‘best’ philosopher around. Similarly, his favorite author was James Joyce despite his favorite novel being the garbage fire that is House of Leaves (a Venn diagram of ‘the works of James Joyce’ and ‘House of Leaves’ would be two small circles on opposite sides of the fucking solar system). I don’t fault him too much for this, because I am convinced that this is how most people go about choosing what they like (consider sports teams and music).

That grad school student caused me to harbor a great amount of skepticism when it comes to Kant. But I’ve noticed that people do not take kindly to this when I do. I have been met with quasi-religious ‘how dare you!’s at the very suggestion. Immanuel Kant, it would seem, was born of a virgin and fathered by a unicorn. And that is why he came up with the irrefutable philosophical idea of the Categorical Imperative, and that why telling the truth is a Categorical Imperative. For those of you who don’t know it, here it is:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.2

The idea here (in plain English) is that you should not do something if you aren’t fine with everyone doing it all the time. This is pretty faulty reasoning generally, but it is particularly wrong when it comes to lying. In the Very Short Introduction series to Ethics, Simon Blackburn doesn’t address Kant’s point directly (or maybe he does. I’m doing this from memory – and I read that book YEARS ago) but gives the pretty canonical counter-examples. If a man wearing a mask and carrying a bloody ax knocks on your door and asks ‘hey where are the children?’, telling him the truth is not the morally superior choice. That specific example is slightly absurd, but it does make the point clear. Also, seeing as we were on the topic of having the brass to tell Mr. Kant that he was wrong, the lying to a murder rebuttal is pretty much as old as Kant’s own argument, which means that people have been telling Kant he was wrong since the weekend after he wrote it. If you’ve ever tried to write anything, you know that this is pretty much a universal law.

The telling of the truth or the telling of a lie is a tool in your tool belt, and the process of becoming a functional adult in our society entails knowing when to use which tool. All actions are contextual, and given a correct context an action I have can moral or not. Showering this morning was not an immoral act, but would have been if I were in a drought stricken area.

For me, I think the categorical imperative doesn’t work as a rule at all. For starters, it is nothing but a polished version of the so-called golden rule. I don’t know why anyone would bother to polish that particular turd, but there you have it. Whenever someone tries to sell me on it (usually in a religious context, frequently citing Jesus) I have them quote it to me, then inform them that the rule gives me permission to punch them. They then ask me (as if I had missed something within the sophistication of their argument) if I like being punched, at which point I inform them that I do. They tend to come around to my line of reasoning after that.

It just doesn’t work to say that we should only do things that we wish were universal laws. Case in point: telling the truth. Can you imagine what kind of a hellscape the world would be if everyone always told the truth?

John: Hey, Sorry I am late to this meeting, Bob. I was busy giving it to your wife.


Person, likely me: Yes Dad, I have been ignoring your e-mails. I have my own fucking life to deal with, though I’m not really all that busy, and frankly you can fucking call Verizon yourself and deal with your own god damned internet bill.


Jeremy: Where you going?

Me: Oh, I am just running out to plan a few things for your surprise birthday party3.

or, continuing from the ‘where are the children’ example from the previous paragraph

Crazed, Ax-Wielding Murderer: Where are the Children?

Kant: Oh, they’re over in yonder nursery. But I’d rather you not kill them. Hey, you’re walking away. Well, I could impede your plans, but I don’t will that it were a universal law that I be interrupted while I was, growing turnips or whatever it is we do here in Königsberg, therefor I will now go sit by my fire and wash my hands of all this.

Nope, not the best of all possible worlds.

But maybe the world we actually live in. I am starting to wonder if it may not be the case where we have structured a context within our society where everyone must, out of necessity, lie. If that is the case, it is pretty god damn miserable. I hope to have demonstrated above that lying is not definitionally an immoral act, but one that depends on the context of a situation. What I would like to explore is what happens when everyone commits fully to lying.

I promise I am going somewhere with all this, but you will have to tune in two weeks for the second part of this post.


0 Yes. Yes I do feel bad about that horrible pun. Also, yes I did repeat the title here just so I could add this apology. Now fuck off.

1 But let’s thicken the plot a little here. What I would be curious to know is if the situation would be different if this person spoke a variety of Italian from the South, where people use a different verb tense for events that happened in the remote past. To be clear, this would be different from just using a perfective form in English. I would argue that if she used the present perfect in English (‘my aunt has died’: in the past from a present relative (and relevant!) reference frame) she would be lying even be her own, fake ass standard. But in the southern Italian variety, would she consider it a lie if she used the standard past tense voice for more recent events versus the historic past events meant for long time past events. These are the questions which explain why it is that I have no fucking friends.

2 I took this from Wikipedia because I am not enough of a glutton for punishment to read any Kant right now.

3 The irony to the opening paragraph is that at some point in my life I became extremely bad at lying to people. This reached a head at some point in my days living in Rome, where me and some other friends were planning a birthday party for another friend (and flatmate), Jeremy. I was leaving the apartment building to go do surprise birthday party stuff when who should I run into but Jeremy, who immediately asked where I was going and what I was up to. Finding myself under immense amounts of performance pressure, the best I could come up with was “I’m going to take James… to get an abortion.” Jeremy, knowing James to very much be a male, was left in utter confusion, and I just walked on by about my business.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Taking James to get an abortion. Fucking classic! 😆


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