Kant and Constant on Lying, Once Again




New York City Technical College

Brooklyn, New York 11201



Lying, in general, is something that we chastise and place a negative valence upon.  To tell the truth is considered the morally correct thing to do.  Much ink has been spilled on the nature of truth and its importance.  For instance, Kant thought that it was an imperative to tell the truth.  To do otherwise, he considered, is a violation of the categorical imperative since one could not will lying to be a universal law.  “This means that when you tell a lie, you merely take exception to the general rule that says everyone should always tell the truth” (Groundwork 24).  Objectively, a universal law cannot permit any exceptions; else a contradiction ensues.   Thus, Kant brings out both the excusatory nature we often place on lying as well as highlight the general contradiction it involves.  As a major Enlightenment figure, Kant thought that reason could prove to any person the necessity of telling the truth.  In spite of Kant’s best efforts, human beings continue to lie, and the question is even raised whether or not it is advisable to always tell the truth.  For instance, in response to Kant’s ethical theory, Benjamin Constant published an article in the periodical FRANCE in which he stated that “The moral principle stating that it is a duty to tell the truth would make any society impossible if that principle were taken singly and unconditionally” (p123 of FRANCE and pg 63 of Groundwork, Supplement).  Put simply, Constant thought that no society could ever survive on the pure truth.   One might consider Moliere’s MISANTHROPE as a comic example of a man obsessed with truth to the exclusion of societal mores.  Constant, however, was more concerned with serious matters, such as harmful effects that might follow from always telling the truth.   A debate ensued.  The purpose of this paper is to analyze that debate in more detail, as well as its aftermath, particularly as noted by Alenka Zupancic in her book, ETHICS OF THE REAL.

The essence of Kant’s response to Constant can be found in his essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns”.   In this essay he clearly states his position,  “Truthfulness in statements that cannot be avoided is the formal duty of man to everyone, however great the disadvantage that may arise therefrom for him or for any other” (64).   Kant felt so strongly about this position that he backed it even in the face of Constant’s extreme example.   The example, nonetheless, is this.  If someone were at your door to murder your friend who was hiding in your house and if asked if he was there, what would you do? Kant answered that you still had a duty to tell the truth. Constant claimed contrary to this that while  “To tell the truth is thus a duty, but it is a duty only with regard to one who has a right to the truth.  But no one has a right to a truth that harms others” (64).   Kant took issue on several counts.  He tells us that:

the expression “to have a right to truth” is meaningless.  One must say, rather, that man has a right to his own truthfulness (veracitas) i.e. to subjective truth in his own person.  For to have objectively a right to truth would be the same as to say that it is a matter of one’s will (as in cases of mine and thine generally) whether a given statement is to be true or false, this would produce an unusual logic (64).


Thus, Kant does acknowledge subjective truth, but he clearly distinguishes this from objective truth.  Also, he does not think that there can be a “right to truth” since, in his estimation, this would cause logical problems for objective truth.  In addition, Kant thought that whether or not someone would be harmed or not was irrelevant.  Kant replied:

And although by telling a certain lie I in fact do not wrong anyone, I nevertheless violate the principle of right in regard to all unavoidably necessary statements generally (i.e., the principle of right is thereby wronged formally, though not materially).  This is much worse than committing an injustice against some individual person… (67).


As further justification for telling the truth, Kant brings up the issue of future culpability, particularly its relation to the law, and to the idea of contract in general.

However, this well-intentioned lie can become punishable in accordance with civil law because of an accident (causus)…For instance, if by telling a lie you have in fact hindered someone who was even now planning a murder, then you are legally responsible for all the consequences that might result therefrom... But if you adhered strictly to the truth, then public justice cannot lay a hand on you, whatever the unforeseen consequence might be…ex – For if you had told the truth as best you knew it, then the murderer might have been caught by neighbors who came running while he was searching the house for his intended victim, and thus the deed might have been prevented.  Therefore, whoever tells a lie regardless of how good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences resulting therefrom even before a civil tribunal and must pay the penalty for them, regardless of how unforeseen those consequences may be.  This is because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, and the laws of such duties would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the slightest exception to them were admitted. (65).


Continuing with his reference to the law, Kant states:


For from a right to demand that another should lie for the sake of one’s own advantage there would follow a claim that conflicts with all lawfulness.  For every man has not only a right but even the strictest duty to be truthful in statements that are unavoidable, whether this truthfulness does harm [but not wrong] to himself or to others (66)


Further, Kant makes clear the universal claim to truth.

…truth is not a possession the right to which can be granted to one person but refused to another (66),


…the duty of truthfulness … makes no distinction between persons to whom one has this duty and to whom one can be excused from this duty; it is, rather, an unconditional duty which holds in all circumstances (66)



In short, Kant states that:

to be truthful (honest) in all declarations is, therefore, a sacred and unconditionally commanding law of reason that admits of no expediency whatsoever (65).


This statement seems to push beyond juridical law to include the law of reason as well as “all declarations”.  The implications of “all declarations”  has not been given much attention.   We will take it up again later.  For now, let us return to Kant’s response.

                 Kant also attacks Constant on the matter of exception, and says to him, as well as to anyone else who wants to make exceptions, the following.

The man who…instead asks permission to think first about possible exceptions – that man is already a liar (in potentia), This is because he shows that he does not acknowledge truthfulness as in itself a duty but reserves for himself exceptions from a rule which by its very nature does not admit of any exceptions, inasmuch as to admit of such would be self-contradictory (67).


Kant reminds Constant of his own words.

He concludes thus “A principle acknowledged as true must hence never be abandoned, however obviously there seems to be danger involved in it”. (And yet the good man himself abandoned the unconditional principle of truthfulness on account of the danger which that principle posed for society… (66).


…the French philosopher confuses the action whereby someone does harm (nocet) to another by telling the truth when its avowal cannot be avoided with the action whereby someone does wrong to (laedit) another.  It was merely an accident (casus) that the truth of the statement did harm [but not wrong] (66).


Kant understands the issue in Constant’s dilemma as one going from  “a metaphysics of right…to a principle of politics…” (66).  Yet, he cautions and states unequivocally that “right must never be adapted to politics; rather, politics must be adapted to right”. (67)

The positions of Kant and Constant raise critical questions for our enquiry.  On the one hand Kant raises issues of duty and responsibility.   The concepts of excuse and logical contradiction also come into play.  On the other hand, Constant asks us to reconsider the absolute obligation to tell the truth and asks us to consider if there might be important reasons why to tell the truth might not be the wisest or best decision.  Constant asks us to consider whether or not society can function on a practical level on the pure truth.

Alenka Zupancic, in her book ETHICS OF THE REAL (ER), takes up the debate between Kant and Constant, as well as Kant’s ethical philosophy in general.  She writes:

One of the most controversial points of Kant’s practical philosophy is incontestably the one epitomized in the formula “the right to lie.” Kant’s position on this issue seems to be, strictly speaking, ‘inhuman’.  What makes it especially intriguing is the fact that it concerns the very core of his ethics (43).


Zupancic points out that:

Kant’s position in this case did not meet with approval on the part of his critics.  On the contrary, it still remains the most ‘abhorred’ part of his philosophy.  Among those who consider it an ethical issue, it is clearly an object of loathing and rejection.  Herber J. Paton, for instance, takes ‘this mistaken essay’ as illustrating the way in which an old man [Kant was 73 when he wrote it]…can push his central conviction to unjustified extremes under the influence of his early training [namely Kant’s mother, who supposedly severely condemned lying].  Paton suggests that we dismiss this essay as a ‘temporary aberration’, which has no impact on the basic principles of Kantian ethics (44).


Whereas Paton wants to dismiss Kant’s extreme position to an aberration, Zupancic notes that others tried to save Kant on other grounds.

There have also been some attempts to save Kant by shifting the issue from moral to political philosophy, and to the philosophy of law.  This reading is not without justification…However, we must not forget, first of all, that Kant’s answer would have been no different had he treated the question as an ethical one, and secondly, that in his argument Kant himself often moves far beyond a purely juridical or legal ground, and off into ethical waters (44).


I agree with Zupancic on this point.  Kant has made his position sufficiently clear and his position on this issue cannot be explained away as an aberration.

Zupancic’s sums up her reading of the situation as follows:

Kant’s appeal to the legal perspective is weak, while the least we can say about the ethical aspect of the controversy is that Kant remains loyal to the basic principles of his moral philosophy (45).


Here I mostly agree with Zupancic.  Kant does remain true to his moral philosophy, and there are aspects of the legal defense that, as Zupancic notes, weakens his argument (as we shall shortly see).  However, Kant’s argument is not weak in general.

                 In her analysis, Zupancic begins by setting the debate in historical context by reminding us that:

As a matter of fact, the principal addressee of Constant’s critique is not Kant but those who would like to reject principles in the name of ‘common sense’, which has for Constant the same meaning as ‘prejudice’.  Constant’s text must be viewed in the context of the French Revolution, and of the relation between the principles of 1789 and their devastating consequences in 1793. Its starting point is what was considered at the time the extreme discord between the principles of the Revolution and their application in practice.  This discord gave rise to a popular revolt against principles: lofty principles were considered responsible for all the evils of the Terror; or, in another version of this view, they were good in theory but had no practical value.  Constant offers a defense of these principles and, in his terms, strives toward their ‘rehabilitation’.  The way he goes about this task often evokes Kant’s own argument developed in his text from 1793, ‘On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory but Is of No Practical Use’.  He claims that if a principle is bad, it is not because it is too theoretical, but because it is not theoretical enough.  For this reason Constant introduces the concept of a middle principle which would allow more precision in the application of general principles to particular cases.  According to Constant, Kant lacks just such a principle (46).


By this reading Zupancic highlights the fact that Constant was not against principles.  However, he did call for some type of moderation or practical consideration.  When Constant says  “to tell the truth is thus a duty, but it is a duty only with regard to one who has a right to the truth.  But no one has a right to a truth that harms others”,

Zupancic says,

This also sums up Constant’s basic argument against Kant…for whom moral principles have an absolute value.  Constant claims that it was precisely this kind of absolutism that turned general opinion against principles as such (46).


Further, she adds that Kant only saw a direct response to the situation instead of thinking of other possibilities.

He (Kant) accepts the assumption that we can answer the murderer who is pursuing our friend only with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and that we cannot simply refuse to answer the question.  In these circumstances, says Kant, it is our duty to tell the truth (46).


In continuing her analysis of the problem, Zupancic thinks that  “the first question that arises here is: to what extent are truthfulness and lying legal ideas?” (46).  In answering the question several lines of demarcation are made, such as the following:

it is still helpful to insist upon the difference between the law as existing practice, instituted in particular state apparatuses, and the philosophy of law, which is concerned with the foundations and possibility of law (47).


Kant takes issue with Constant’s argument on 2 points. The first concerns the very concept of a lie, and the link between cause and effect that follows from it. Kant first points out that truth does not depend on the will.  In other words, we have to distinguish between the truthfulness (the intention, the will to tell the truth) and the truth (or falsity) of a statement.  The first case has to do with the agreement between our statements and our beliefs, while in the second case the accent is on the relation between our statements and the ‘facts’ to which they refer.  The same holds for the lie.  In order to illustrate this distinction, Kant modifies Constant’s example somewhat. In Kant’s version it might happen that I tell a lie by saying that the intended victim is not in the house, but because the latter has actually (though unbeknownst to me) escaped through the window, he is met outside by the murderer and killed. (47).


This version of the scenario shows that the liar might be mistaken about the truth.  If we want to deceive another, the intention to do so is not sufficient.  In other words – and this is what Kant is getting at – there is no necessary connection between my answer to the murderer’s question and his subsequent actions.  Thus, if I tell the truth, I cannot be held responsible for my friend’s death.  This is not only because I cannot know with absolute certainty where my friend is at the moment I am speaking, but also because I have no means of knowing how the murderer will take my answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, whether he will believe me or whether he will assume that I am attempting to protect my friend by lying.  Once again: there is no necessary relation between my answer and the act of murder; I can end up revealing my friend’s whereabouts even though I have the best of intentions to keep hum concealed. (47-48).


If we consider only the logical side of things, Kant is, of course, right.  But the problem is that the law deals mostly with cases where the link between cause and effect is not a necessary one, because an event X, become necessary only when it has actually taken place; until the last moment there is always the possibility that it will not occur.  For this reason the law can reasonably use the concepts of strong and weak probability.  Thus we may conclude that in terms of the legal aspect of the question, Kant’s argument is not very persuasive. (48).


Zupancic’s argument does not seem very clear. This could be read in Kant’s favor.  For instance, if you can’t know until the event happens, then it is still possible that your lie will do more harm than good.  Zupancic could, however, extrapolate an argument from strong and weak probability and argue that, given the odds, telling the truth will probably lead to the death of the innocent victim.  Nevertheless, Zupancic continues with another legal issue with the Kantian response.

Kant does, however, develop another argument against Constant, related to his philosophy of law.  According to Kant’s conception of law [Recht], truth (and lying) affects the very foundations of law, and of society as such, because legality and the rule of law are founded upon a contract.  But there can be no such thing as a contract without some fundamental truthfulness.  A contract makes sense only if the partners involved in it take it seriously.  The contract – the “social contract’ in this case – is that which enables us to enjoy a certain basic security, and thus a ‘civilized life’, so it serves as the basis for all other duties and legal rights.  It is owing to this view that questions of truthfulness and lying have, according to Kant, such weight in the sociojuridical context – they concern the very foundations of society and law.  Hence the lie exceeds the narrow frame imposed on it by positive legal considerations.  In terms of the latter, the lie becomes legally relevant only if its effects another person, and if this harm can be specified. (48).


Zupancic reminds us that Kant says:

For a lie always harms another if not some other human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, inasumuch as it vitiates the very source of law [Rechtsquelle] (49).


On this note, Zupancic points out that Kant has much support.

This is precisely the point stressed by commentators who defend Kant on this issue.  Julius Ebbinghaus, for instance, says: ‘Whereas the murderer’s maxim destroys the legal security of life, the liar’s maxim goes further, for it deprives any possible security – be it the security of life or something else – of the character of a legitimate demands, i.e., of a right.’ In other words: whereas the murderer violates a particular law, the liar makes law as such impossible, since he annihilates the foundation for any contract, and hence of society as such (49).


However, Zupancic sees the problem differently and makes an argument against Kant.

…To put the problem simply: the law is there precisely so that we do not need to rely upon the truthfulness of others.  It is very easy to sign a contract without having the slightest intention of respecting it. The purely symbolic gesture of signing the contract is what binds us to it, not our authentic conviction to abide by it. That is, violation of contracts results in legal penalties.  The whole reason for the law (and its attendant rights) is to provide a more solid basis for contracts than the mere truthfulness of others.  The lie would be the ‘ultimate crime’ only if real social relations were in fact grounded in the truthfulness of others.  Given the existence of the law, however, a lie is just one of may possible violations of legal norms, not something that would undermine the very possibility of the law and would therefore have much more disastrous consequences than murder. (49).


Again I disagree somewhat and agree somewhat.  Zupancic is right to point out the legally binding nature of a contract, whether or not we believe or intend to keep.  However, Kant’s argument is far more than law.   Elsewhere, he implies that lying brings problems for humanity and problems with basic communication.  In addition, he reminds us of duties to self and others.  In order to understand this, we need to look at some of his related writings in his METAPHYSICS OF MORALS (MM), where he makes such statements as the following:

The greatest violation of a human being’s duty to himself regarded merely as a moral being (the humanity in his own person) is the contrary of truthfulness, lying…  For the dishonor (being an object of moral contempt) that accompanies a lie also accompanies a liar like a shadow.  By an external lie a human being makes himself an object of contempt in the eyes of others; by an internal lie he does what is still worse: he makes himself contemptible in his own eyes and violates the dignity in his own person (182).


By a lie a human being throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a human being.  A human being who does not himself believe what he tells another (even if the other is a merely ideal person) has even less worth than if he were a mere thing; for a thing because it is something real and given, has the property of being serviceable so that another can put it to some use.  But communication of one’s thoughts to someone through words that yet (intentionally) contain the contrary of what the speaker thinks on the subject is an end that is directly opposed to the natural purposiveness of the speaker’s capacity to communicate his thoughts, and is thus a renunciation by the speaker of his personality, and such a speaker is a mere deceptive appearance of a human being, not a human being himself (182).


Lying (in the ethical sense of the word), intentional untruth as such, need not be harmful to others in order to be repudiated…(183).


Man as a moral being…is under obligation to himself to truthfulness (183).

In addition, if we also consider Kant’s general presuppositions such as:

we know our own freedom…only through the moral imperative, which is a proposition commanding duty…  (31),


along with the other general idea that “Respect for the law … is identical with consciousness of one’s duty” (210), then it seems that we may conclude from putting together the pieces that Kant’s idea of law is broader than in legal terms, and is meant to include the moral law in general.  In addition, for Kant, to tell the truth is a duty under the law.  Also, telling or not telling the truth implicates one’s basic humanity, aw well as perhaps having repercussions for the effectiveness of our basic communication.  In adding up all these factors, it seems then, that the issue of truthfulness in Kant’s system of thought does indeed have repercussions for society.   We may add to this repertoire Kant’s idea of respect for others as well as beneficence.

Every human being has a legitimate claim to respect from his fellow human beings and is in turn bound to respect every other.  Humanity itself is a dignity; for a human being cannot be used merely as a means by any human being (either by others or even by himself) but must always be used at the same time as an end.

…Hence there rests on him a duty regarding the respect that must be shown to every other human being. (209).


Nonetheless I cannot deny all respect to even a vicious man as a human being; I cannot withdraw at least the respect that belong to him in his quality as a human being, even though by his deed he makes himself unworthy of it (210).


Thus, it would seem that respect for self and others is a duty, as is the duty of answering a question truthfully. According to Kant, even a vicious person deserves respect.  One could argue from Kant’s thought that even a vicious person deserves a truthful answer.   Yet, Zupancic raised a possibility that Kant did not even mention.  What about if in reply one were to say “I will not answer you” or perhaps even not reply at all.  In such a case one would not be lying, but would be withholding the truth.  Perhaps, this is too close to, “a right to truth”, and Kant clearly felt there was no such right.  Yet, if we consider such extreme cases as prisoners of war being threatened to tell the whereabouts or plans of their government, clearly they have a duty to protect and safeguard the secrets entrusted to them.  Technically speaking, the prisoner should have to say no more than name, rank and serial number.  In these type of circumstances there might be a conflict of duties.  Yet, how would Kant’s theory of obligation to tell the truth apply?  Is it that one must always tell the truth in the positive sense of the word, or that one must not lie?

One might also consdier Kant’s idea of benevolence.

love your neighbor as yourself”, the maxim of benevolence (practical love of human beings) is a duty of all human beings toward one another, whether or not one finds them worthy of love (200).


These passages leave us to conclude that there are a multitude of relationships to consider.  One must consider not only the humanity, respect and benevolence due to the person in hiding, but also to the horrible person whom we loathe and who may do a terrible act.  In addition, one must consider how one’s own humanity is implicated, as well as humanity in general.  The problem may arise of a conflict of duties in this regard.  But Kant has already established the hierarchy when he says that truthfulness is a duty even if harm ensues.  We will return to this point again at the end.  For now, let us continue with Zupancic’s critique.

                 Zupancic raises another distinction when reading Constant.  The crux of the argument can be summed up in one sentence.  Namely, Constant’s comment:

“But noone has a right to a truth that harms others” (50).  Zupancic points out that:

“This passage can be read in two different ways…” (50). For instance:

Kant holds that Constant’s reasoning is an attempt to make a rule (a principle) out of the very exception to the rule.  According to Kant, Constant’s concept of the middle principle implies that the violation of a norm can (in certain circumstances) itself become a norm, which would make the very concept of violation of duty absurd, since this violation would then have to be seen as imposed by duty itself.  Kant is not, however, the only one to read Constant in this way.  In his commentary on the Kant-Constant controversy, Paton, for example, speaks throughout of exceptions to rules and to the categorical imperative (50-51).


Zupancic actually agrees that “if this were in fact Constant’s position, then Kant would have every reason to attack it.”(51).  However, Zupancic does not think that this is the case.  She thinks that Constant is doing something very different that is often overlooked.

Zupancic argues that there is a difference between the statements:

1. In certain circumstances it is permissible to violate the law.

There are cases where the law does not come into force (consequently, it cannot be violated in such cases) (51).


To strengthen her reading that Constant actually meant the second statement, Zupancic adds:

Constant never uses the term ‘exception’, and never speaks of ‘exceptions to the rules’ or of the ‘right to lie’.  He never says that in this particular case (that of the murderer pursuing our friend) we have the right to violate the general norm which requires that we tell the truth.  On the contrary, what he says is that if we lie in such a situation, we do not in fact go against any (juridical) norm or duty. (‘Where there are no rights, there are no duties’) (52).


In addition, Zupancic advises that:

…we do well briefly to consider the legal status of the so-called ‘case of necessity’.  This if often described as a logical and juridical paradox, since it involves a kind of ‘legitimate’ violation of the law.  Say I kill somebody in self-defense: if we describe this as a ‘violation permitted (or even prescribed) by the law’, we have a paradox. The paradox disappears, however, the moment we realize that the case of necessity is not an ‘instance of the law’.  In short, in such a case the judge would declare that no law has been violated, not that I was legally justified in violating the law.  Ant this is what Constant is getting at.  Constant is not (as Kant any many others maintain) saying that the murderer’s violation of the law legitimizes my own violation of the law (in the given case, my lying); he tries instead to show that in this case there is no violation of the law at all (52)...


1               Page 2       Table of Contents