Claims to a universal truth could be wrong

Question any claim to a universal truth, it could be wrong.

I attended a philosophy talk in Colchester this morning, and Immanuel Kant was the principle philosopher used in the topic on respect.

Mentioned in this talk was the idea by Kant of the “categorised imperative”, a commanding rule that applies to all situations.  One example I had problems with was used in relation to lying.  According to Kant it is good to be truthful, and this must apply to all situations regardless of circumstance.

In the talk an example was given of the murderer who comes to the door asking for a person you are hiding. According to Kant you should not lie to the murderer, but it appears okay to mislead, for instance to tell the murderer that the hidden person was seen by you earlier that day in the market, since that was where you met them in reality.

I think many people in the room had problems with this idea by Kant, I certainly did.  I went on the attack in the question and answer stage of the talk on three points:

The Jew and the Gestapo

Kant is German, and two hundred years later his countrymen produced the Nazis, a group who desired to exterminate Jews.  I gave the example of twenty Jewish children hidden in the basement, the Gestapo are at the door asking if there are Jewish children hidden in the house.  The Gestapo are known to be intense in questioning, thus it is unlikely that many individuals can be clever enough to mislead the Gestapo and keep to Kant’s principle of being truthful.  To tell the truth to the Gestapo would be a death sentence to both the Jewish children and the one hiding them.

Kant as the universal authority

To accept the universal law to always be truthful is to accept that Kant is a supreme authority.  Is there a greater authority than Kant, and can Kant be in error? Kant is influenced by his protestant faith in coming to his laws, he could be challenged on the grounds of bias, error, and that there are higher authorities than him, for instance his god.

Do unto others as you wish done to you

A fairly universal principle shared amongst a number of philosophies and religions is to treat others as you would like to be treated.  Would the person hiding the Jews wish to be betrayed if he was the Jew being hidden on account of a misguided rule? This principle conflicts with Kant’s rule, which principle is right?


8 responses to “Claims to a universal truth could be wrong

  1. “Mentioned in this talk was the idea by Kant of the “categorised imperative”, a commanding rule that applies to all situations.”

    Kant’s ‘Categorical imperative’ was more a thought experiment, not to be taken seriously? Kant suggested we Judge actions within a larger framework. Kind of along the lines of, “what if everyone did what I do?”. Ie it’s not ok for me to lie because then everyone would lie, then i could trust no one, the maxim of my will must then be truth.

    Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’, suggests behaviour is amplified (ripples in a pond) the ‘Golden rule’ suggests behaviours are reciprocal (snake chasing it’s own tail). Both should be taken with a pinch of salt, don’t you think? 😀

  2. Yes, well………that is why you have that saying, “It’s a lot of Kant”. However, trying to tell the truth all the time is a good idea. You’ll notice the ‘trying’. If your friend asks you how you like her dress and you don’t like it, then bending a bit is fine. You don’t have to tell a lie. Perhaps you like the colour, the style, the trim, etc., so you say something positive about those things. You haven’t answered her question, but gave a positive answer which made her happy.

    Lies make little holes in the self, and stick to you forever. You’ll always remember them, and why you lied. I think of them as tiny balls and chains, you’ll drag them around till you die.

    As far as the Germans go, they weren’t asking if you were hiding Jewish children. If they thought you were, you would be in the street at gunpoint while they checked out your house. If they found anyone, they shot you right there. Most of them were quite intelligent, asking if you were hiding Jewish children would not be intelligent, since your obvious answer would be, no. Grew up in Rotterdam after the war, know all about how they operated.

    • I agree that it is better to default to honesty, though I prefer to do so because I want to not because a rule by Kant tells me to. I wonder what Kant would have said about the Nazis?

  3. Kant must have studied Mohammed and the Shari’a principle of “taqiyya” or the doctrine of deception. Kant was a fool; and it is truly shameful that this far beyond the age of enlightenment that people still take his disturbingly irrational philosophy seriously. Of course, others are entitled to their own perspectives.

  4. Categorical Imperatives are defined by the question of “what is everyone behaves according to this action?” This means that lying is thought of as wrong because it would be unfavourable to have everyone lying all the time.
    The first problem is obviously that this has no grounding. “Unfavourable” was my choice of word, but translations of Kant that talk of “bad” effects are equally as ethereal and difficult to pin down.
    Equally, the whole idea of an imperative is to be without context. Lying to save a life is a lesser of two evils, but “to save a life” is a context point that must be ignored; lying is the actual action, saving a life is merely a one off consequence.
    But to your objection of misleading someone through use of the truth: that is still using the truth to mislead. What if everyone were to use the truth to mislead? Surely that would be as unfavourable (whatever that may mean) as lying outright.
    Sam Harris talks of issues like this in response to criticisms to his book A Moral Landscape (well worth a read). He says that the honest answer to the want-to-be murderer’s question is “I don’t want to tell you”, or “I choose not to answer that”. But then: “would it be favourable if everyone refused to answer questions all the time?” Probably not.
    I don’t like Kant either. Although, if everyone were to do their duty according to Kant we wouldn’t have a problem. If there were no murderer in your thought experiment there would be no issue. But that is an unrealistic world–a world without the need for moral philosophy–to ground any serious thought in.
    But that is a suppression of human nature. The biggest flaw with Kant’s philosophy is its inability to deal or even consider the immoral.

    (also, you promised me a post)

    • Thanks for your comments and insight on this issue. Sometimes an idea is good on paper, but when it comes up against the harsh reality of life, and all its twists, then the idea is less appealing.

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