Kant and lying to the murderer at the door⋯ One more time: Kant's legal philosophy and lies to murderers and nazis

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In this paper, I argue that Kant's discussion of lying to the murderer at the door has been seriously misinterpreted. My suggestion is that this is primarily a result of the fact that the Doctrine of Right with its conception of rightful, external freedom has been given insufficient attention in Kant interpretation. It is in the Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world. Hence it is in this work we find many of the arguments needed not only to understand his analysis of lying to the murderer in “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” but also to analyze the added complexity the Nazi officer brings to the example. When we interpret lying to the murderer in light of Kant's discussion in the Doctrine of Right, we can make sense of why lying to the murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do wrong in general. The account of rightful freedom provided in the Doctrine of Right also makes it possible to see why replacing the murderer with a Nazi officer adds philosophical complexity rather than just one more reason to reject Kant's view. The introduction of the Nazi officer requires us to consider the role of a public authority in ensuring rightful relations in general and what happens to the analysis of lying when rightful interactions as a matter of fact are no longer possible. We will see that the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally punishable is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant's view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis. Two further strengths of Kant's account, I propose in the final sections of the paper, lie in its ability to critique how European legal systems aimed to deal with the Nazis after the war was over and in its contribution to our understanding of the experiences of war heroes.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)403-421
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Social Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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