In her essay, “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . . One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis,” Helga Varden shows that the traditional interpretation of Kant offers a seriously mistaken analysis of his view on lying to the murderer at the door.
Kant makes his statements on this issue in response to a challenge posed by Benjamin Constant in 1797. In his response, Kant is answering two questions: “the first question is whether a man — in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yes or No — has the right to be untruthful. The second question is whether he is not, indeed, bound to be untruthful in a certain statement which he is compelled to make by an unjust constraint, in order to prevent a threatened misdeed to himself or to another.”
Verden points out that the traditional reading of Kant’s position on the issue is developed by considering his account of the moral law in Groundwork. Verden writes;
“In [Groundwork], we learn that all moral actions must be based on a maxim that can be universalized and that we must do the right thing because it is the right thing to do—or from duty. When viewed this way the “Supposed Right to Lie,” including passages like the one quoted above, is seen as accomplishing two goals: it simply repeats how one ought never to lie as the maxim of lying cannot be universalized, and it cashes out the implications of this moral principle with regard to people’s enforceable rights and duties against one another. Because lying is not a universalizable maxim, Kant is seen as saying, lying to the murderer is a crime. And of course, it is continued, this must mean not only that one cannot lie to a run of the mill murderer at the door, but also not to the worst of murderers, such as the Nazis. Lying to Nazis is therefore also a crime.”
Verden says that the readers should be skeptical about ascribing to Kant such a flat-footed position as the traditional interpretation seems to suggest. She says that traditional interpretations have given insufficient attention to the conception of rightful, external freedom that Kant offers in Doctrine of Right. “It is in the Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world.”
According to Verden, the Groundwork is not the right work for analyzing Kant’s response to constant. This is because Kant is looking at the issue of lying to the murderer at the door from the point of view of justice or right and not from that of ethics or virtue. Therefore Doctrine of Right is fundamental to clarifying his position on this issue.
Kant is talking about cases in which someone is unjustly coerced into saying something to avoid wrongdoing to oneself or someone else, and cases in which the person answering the door does not have the option of asking the murderer to go away. His aim is to establish how a pubic court should judge cases where a person is forced to tell the truth about the victim’s hiding place to a potential murderer.
Verden notes in her essay that “Kant’s focus is not to unravel complicated scenarios such as those involving Nazis and other unjust regimes, but on how a just state’s legal system should handle cases involving an innocent private person’s imparting of information about a victim to a potential wrongdoer. His basic claim is that if a person chooses to stay out of the interaction between the murderer and his potential victim by telling the truth to the potential murderer, then a public court of justice cannot punish her for having done so. In these situations, only the murderer can be punished because the entire action is traceable only to him. In contrast, when a person lies to someone, she deliberately deceives another person (the potential murderer) with regard to his perception of the empirical world, and in this way she becomes a co-author of the action undertaken. The liar, therefore, is punishable for the bad consequences of the lie.”