Thursday, May 23, 2024


Immanuel Kant vs John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant on the Morality of Telling a Lie

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant


In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Immanuel Kant argues that not only is it morally wrong to tell a lie but there are no circumstances in which a lie is justifiable, including situations in which telling a lie would be to your own benefit or to the benefit of others. The duty to tell the truth is absolute, allowing no exceptions. 

Kant’s argument for this involves an application of his supreme moral principle, the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Grounding, 402). All moral actions imply the application of a maxim or rule, whether or not you are aware of the maxim. It is the maxim we should test by the Categorical Imperative whenever we make a moral decision about right and wrong. 

 To illustrate what the principle means and how it should be used in moral decision-making Kant gives several examples, the most famous of which is the example of “a man in need [who] finds himself forced to borrow money.” Suppose you are an impoverished philosophy student, always short of money, and your next car payment is due. You do not have enough money to make the payment. You know someone who will lend you money, but she wants you to “firmly promise to repay it within a fixed time.” However, having just lost your job, you know that you won’t be able to repay her by the designated time. What should you do? Should you tell her the truth about not being able to repay her when payment is due, or should you hide this fact and make the promise anyway? Now suppose you take the latter option and decide to make the promise to repay the loan. Let’s call this a “lying promise” because it is a promise based on the lie that you will keep the promise. Kant says that the maxim you are acting on can be expressed as follows: “When I believe myself to be in need of money, I will borrow money and promise to pay it back, although I know that I can never do so” (422). This is a subjective rule because it applies only to you. Kant says that the moral question before you is not whether this maxim will promote your own self-interest or future welfare, but whether the maxim is morally right. The way to answer a question about whether an act is right is to transform your subjective maxim into a universal law: “How would things stand if my maxim were to become a universal law?” In this case, it would be a law that says, “Anyone believing himself to be in difficulty could promise whatever he pleases with the intention of not keeping it.” It is obvious, Kant writes, that if this law were to be adopted by everyone, then “promising itself and the end to be attained thereby” would make promising itself “quite impossible.” Kant means that promising would be logically impossible, not merely difficult or destructive. This is because no one would believe what had been promised him, but “would merely laugh at all such utterances as being vain pretense.” (422). The end to be attained by a promise is to put oneself under an obligation to do a certain act (e.g. repay a loan). But if it is generally understood that the person making the promise does not believe he is bound to keep it, then this defeats the purpose of making a promise and having it credited by the person to whom the promise is made. The obligation to do what is promised is contradicted by the intention of the promiser not to keep his promise, if this suits his purposes. 

 This is how Kant later puts it: "I can indeed will the lie but cannot at all will a universal law to lie. For by such a law there would really be no promises at all, since in vain would my willing future actions be professed to other people who would not believe what I professed or if they over hastily did believe, then they would pay me back in like coin. Therefore, my maxim would necessarily destroy itself just as soon as it was made a universal law" (423). 

Seventy-five years after the publication of Grounding, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill heaped heavy praise on Kant while at the same time writing that Kant "has not proved that …there would be any logical impossibility… in the adoption by all rational beings of the most outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is that the consequences of their universal adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur" (Utilitarianism, 4). 

But Kant does not say that a universal law permitting lying promises would have bad consequences. He says that the universal adoption of such a law is logically impossible. Something that is a logical impossibility can have neither good nor bad consequences. For example, if I tell you that we should adopt a rule allowing married bachelors to join the priesthood, you will not respond by saying that this would have bad consequences for the Catholic ministry. Instead, you would say that such a rule could not exist because the very idea of a married bachelor is a contradiction in terms. And that is what Kant says about the universal adoption of a maxim allowing us to tell lies when we think that a lie would be beneficial. Such a maxim could not logically exist. 

In a later passage Mill takes a different tack. He argues that there are occasions on which it is not only morally right but obligatory to tell a lie. At the conclusion of chapter 5 of Utilitarianism, Mill believes he has proved that justice is a name for a group of moral rules that “stand higher in the scale of social utility” than other rules, and therefore put a stronger obligation on us. These are the rules that are based on an individual’s right. And yet there are some cases in which the demands of utility will overrule a general rule of justice. Thus, "to save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty, to steal or take by force the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap and compel to officiate the only qualified medical practitioner" (62). Let us assume that our utility calculations require that we steal food or medicine to save someone’s life, or that we must kidnap at gunpoint the only doctor in town because he has refused to leave his house at 3 a.m. to give necessary medical help to our dying child. Should we say that utility trumps justice in these cases, or should we say that justice aligns with utility, that is, it is “not unjust” (wrong) to steal the food and medicine and not unjust to kidnap the doctor? Mill chooses the latter alternative, explaining that language allows this manner of describing what has happened and avoid saying that there can be “laudable injustice” (62). And this is what Mill would say about telling a lie. It would not be wrong to tell a lie if this would save someone’s life. 

Kant was aware of criticisms of his work many years before Mill’s publication of Utilitarianism. In 1797 the French philosopher Benjamin Constant wrote that “this philosopher [Kant] goes so far as to assert that it would be a crime to tell a lie to a murderer who asked whether our friend who is being pursued by the murderer had taken refuge in our house” (France, VI: No. 1, 123). Constant writes that it is not a crime to tell a lie to the murderer because the duty to tell the truth is not unconditional.  "The concept of duty is inseparable from the concept of right. A duty is what one man correspond to the right of another. Where there are no rights, there are no duties. To tell the truth 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" (id.). The murderer has no right to be told the truth about whether our friend has taken refuge in our house. Therefore, Constant says, we have no duty to tell the murderer the truth. Indeed, if we told him the truth and as a consequence, the murderer pushed us aside, ran into the house and stabbed our friend to death, we would not only feel guilty about telling him the truth, but we would also think of ourselves as accomplices in our friend’s death. I doubt that we would feel proud about telling the truth in circumstances such as this. 

So, my dear students, there you have it. The German philosopher is at a standoff with an English and French philosopher about the moral justification of telling a lie. Here is my question: Is it always wrong to tell a lie (Kant) or are there circumstances in which telling a lie is not only morally right (Mill) but also a moral obligation (Constant and Mill)?  

I pass the philosophical baton to you.


Constant, Benjamin. [1797] "On Political Reaction" in France, VI: No. 1, 123.  See H.J. Paton, "An Alleged Right to Lie" in Kant-Studien 45 (1953-54).

Kant, Immanuel. [1785] Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, Third Edition" in Ellington, James W. (translator). Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis. 1981.

Mill, John Stuart. [1861]. Utilitarianism, Second Edition. ed. George Sher.  Hackett Publishing Company. Indianapolis.  2001.


If you need extra help understanding either Kant or Mill, see my books on both of these philosophers, available at low cost at the Amazon online bookstore:

Houlgate, Laurence. Understanding Immanuel Kant: The Smart Student's Guide to Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Houlgate, Laurence. Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student's Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty.

Sunday, April 28, 2024


Fifty-six years ago I wrote a brief article for MIND, a philosophy journal edited by Gilbert Ryle at Oxford University.  The article is a critical response to Norman Malcolm’s theory that “no amount of intelligible sounds coming from an oak tree or a kitchen table could create any probability that it has sensations or thoughts.”


Norman Malcolm (1911-1990)

Here is a summary of what I wrote.

Malcolm’s supporting example is a talking tree.  The tree “says” that “there is a vixen in the neighborhood.”  And then, on request, the tree not only “defines” the word “vixen,” but it also defines the words in the definition, i.e. the words ”female” and “fox.”

[I put quote marks around “says” and “defines” because these words imply that the tree is speaking..  What I think Malcolm should have said is, “The words ‘There is a vixen in the neighborhood’ appear to come from that tree.”]

Getting back to Malcolm’s claim that there is no probability that the tree or table has sensations or thoughts, Malcolm gives the-example of a child who correctly uses the word ‘red’  by ‘picking out’ things that are red, e.g.a red ball. The child looks at, points to, reaches for, and goes to, the red ball, not the green or blue ball.

Malcolm writes that the tree is logically incapable of such behavior.  It does not have the human form.   Without the human form, a thing like a tree, table, or computer, cannot point to objects like a red ball.  It cannot understand the words that emanate from it. It cannot make ‘correct applications’ of the words “There is a vixen in the neighborhood.” 

In my paper, I have two responses to Malcolm. marked (a) and (b).

First, to be clear, according to Malcolm, a necessary condition for picking out objects to which one’s words refer is having the ability to point or look at, fetch or get the object.  If you don’t have these abilities, then you can’t perform the activity of ‘picking out.’  

In part (a), my counter example is a color-blindness test.  If you are asked to identify the red ball from a distance you can do this by saying, “It is the ball on the left.” My point is that we can pick out things verbally (vocally, audibly). I call this ‘acts of verbal indication’.  If we add ‘verbally indicate’ to the list of ways that one can pick out an object to which one’s words refer, then this is a communicative activity that (logically) can be done by beings that do not have the human form.

Going back to the vixen example, suppose the words uttered by (emanating from) the tree are, “There is a vixen standing behind you.”   The tree has 'picked out' the location of the vixen by voice alone. Since Malcolm has already used the words ‘says’ and ‘defines’ when describing the activity of the tree, then why not also use the words ‘picked out’ as another activity?   Perhaps having the human form is not a necessary condition for picking out objects referred to verbally.

What I am trying to do in part b is to show first, that human beings are not the only things that have the human form.  Consider, for example, artificial things like Barbie dolls, puppets and robots.  How would Malcolm distinguish between human action and the movements of artificial things that have the human form? 

I ask this question because we often anthropomorphize our language when describing the movements of inanimate things, whether or not the inanimate thing has the human form.  The puppet “walked” across the stage, but also: the hurricane “threw” the car into the lake. The tree “dropped” its fruit to the ground.

So what is in common to these descriptions?  One commonality is that we cannot use the adverbs ‘intentionally’ and ‘unintentionally’ when talking about their movements.  ‘The tree dropped its fruit’ is identical to ‘the fruit dropped from the tree’.   We would not say ‘The tree intentionally dropped its fruit,’ nor ‘The tree unintentionally dropped its fruit.’

The same thing would be said of the movements of the puppet or the robot.  Their movements are neither intentional or unintentional, voluntary or involuntary, deliberate or not deliberate.  But the puppet master can unintentionally do something that affects the movement of the puppet, and the programmer can unintentionally do something to the robot’s program that affects the movements of the robot.  [Compare programming an electric automobile]

My conclusion is that it is intentionality not the human form that distinguishes human action from the movements of such things as trees, kitchen tables, puppets and robots. The tree can’t point or look at, fetch or get, not because it lacks the human form but because the tree (and the robot) cannot do these things intentionally or unintentionally, deliberately or not deliberately, voluntarily or involuntarily. 

And if it is protested that intentional behavior is only possible in those animals that have the human form, then tell this to a dog owner or to the aliens from outer space who look like lobsters when they walk down the ramp from their space ship while shouting “Humans look good to eat.”

Can intentionality be applied to AI bots?  Can a robot fueled by AI make a mistake or do something unintentionally?

I’ll leave that question to you.


Houlgate, Laurence D.  “Malcolm on Mind and the Human Form,” October, 1968.  MIND.  VoL XXVII: 584-587.

Malcolm, Norman. Knowledge and Certainty: Essays and Lectures. 1963. Prentice-Hall.

Monday, January 8, 2024



Whatever the Supreme Court does in its decision about whether Donald Trump can be disqualified as a candidate for president in the 2024 election... 

"... I hope its opinion hews as closely as possible to the ordinary meaning of the constitutional text. That is, after all, the Supreme Court’s job. The Court’s job is not to reach statesmanlike compromises based on political judgments about how particular decisions will be received. Its job is to interpret a written document. (Adam Unikowsky, 9 January 2024)

  Adam Unikowsky expresses his hope that the Supreme Court will hew closely to “the ordinary meaning of the constitutional text” when interpreting Section 3 of the 14th amendment. Scholars who hew in this direction are often referred to as ‘originalists’ and their preferred theory of constitutional interpretation is called ‘originalism.’  The ‘ordinary meaning’ of the constitutional text provisions is the meaning that was understood by the framers, judiciary and the people at the time of text’s adoption.

Originalism should not be confused with Textualism.  Originalism is historical and looks to the past when interpreting the Constitution.  Textualism is unhistorical.  Textualism ignores the history of constitutional provisions and looks only at the plain text.  For example, the textualist reading of the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”  The late justice Hugo Black wrote that if this is what the Amendment says, then this means “shall make no law” without exception.  Thus, on his reading, Congress shall make no law prohibiting the disclosure of military secrets, slander, libel or yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.  Of course, this is not what the Framers intended or what people in the 18th century understood by the First Amendment.  Hence, what an originalist must do is to look behind the text to discover the meaning of the Amendment in its historical context.

How should Section 3 be interpreted using the originalist theory of interpretation?  What did the Framers intend or understand when they wrote Section 3?

Section 3: Disqualification from Holding Office:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion   against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

In other words, if (1) a person has engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the Constitution or given aid or comfort to the enemies of the Constitution, and (2) that person has previously taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States “as an officer of the United States… etc.”, then (3) they shall be disqualified from holding any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State.

For example, if a sitting U.S. Senator engaged in the insurrection of January 6, 2020 at the U.S. Capitol, then said Senator violated his oath to support the Constitution and will be disqualified from holding any office, civil or military under the United States or any other State.

Both the originalist and the textualist would agree that “disqualified” does not mean “indicted.”  If a a 24-year-old person files a form to stand as a candidate for the 8th district of California in the House of Representatives and is later found to be underage, then she is declared ‘not qualified’ to stand.  This is not an indictment. She has not violated criminal law.  And so it is with someone who is disqualified because she has violated her oath to the Constitution. 

So far, so good.  At this point, there is no debate about meaning between the originalist and the textualist.  However, some originalists have gone so far as to claim that there was no insurrection that took place on January 6.  They say this because their historical paradigm of an insurrection is the Civil War.  They agree with the dictionary definition that an insurrection is “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” But like the Civil War, it is a revolt that lasted much longer than the few hours of revolt that occurred at the Capitol on January 6. 

But this paradigm was rejected by the 1866 framers when they removed the phrase “the late rebellion” from an early draft of Section 3. There is no specific reference to the Civil War in the final revision.   

An important qualifier was also added: “those who were to be excluded from government service would have to have violated prior oaths to defend the constitution by having engaged in insurrection or rebellion against [it] or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” (Portnoy).   What mattered to the framers was that those who will be disqualified from office violated their oath to support and defend the Constitution.  It does not matter whether the violation was in a civil war or in an assault on the Capitol.

Textualists have pointed out that the words ‘president’ and ‘vice president’ are not mentioned in Section 3 as “officers of the United States.”  (They are mentioned only in the phrase “elector of President and Vice-President.”)  Therefore, although electors can be disqualified from holding a government office, textualists would argue that a president or vice president is immune to disqualification.

Originalists, mindful of history, have pointed to the following brief conversation about these words that took place in the U.S. Senate in 1866:

"Why did you omit to exclude them?" asked Maryland Democratic Sen. Reverdy Johnson.

Maine's Lot Morrill jumped in to clarify.

"Let me call the Senator's attention to the words 'or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States,'" Morrill said, ending the discussion on that point.

Morrill’s response not only implies that Section 3 covers all those who hold a civil or military office, but it also implies that that the president and vice-president are understood to be civil officers under the United States.

Finally, there is disagreement about whether one who incites an insurrection or rebellion is
engaging in it.  The word “incite” means “to stir up, to urge on” and “engage” means “to enter into contest or battle.”  These definitions are of little help.  Stirring up or urging on might or might not count as a kind of entering into the fray.  To use an example from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, if I stand in front of a crowd of angry poor people assembled near the house of a corn dealer, and I stir up the crowd by shouting “Corn dealers are starvers of the poor,” and the crowd storms the house and kills the corn dealer, then I am as responsible for the death of the dealer as are the people who do the killing.  In this case, inciting merges into engaging.

I am inclined to think that if “giving aid or comfort to the enemies” is a violation of the oath to support the Constitution, then so must be “inciting the enemies to riot.”  If the President of the United States watches and waits while an angry crowd storms the Capitol, and does nothing to prevent the riot, then this deliberate omission makes the president partly responsible for the result even though he/she was not physically present in the assault.  An inciter is in the same causal position.  The inciter did not go into the Capitol with the mob, but he/she lit the match that led to their attack.

The 64 Dollar Question.  Will the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify Donald Trump as a candidate for president in the 2024 election?



Bassin, Ian. Protect Democracy. December 2023. In deciding Trump’s ballot eligibility, the Supreme Court should apply the law without fear or favor.

Black, Hugo. 1959. Concurring opinion in Smith v California.

CREW. 2023. The Precedent for 14th Amendment Disqualification.   See the full table of past disqualifications from public office under Section 3:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 

Mill, John Stuart. 1861. On Liberty.

Portnoy, Steven. 19 December 2023.  What the framers said about the 14th Amendment's disqualification clause: Analysis. ABC News. 

Unikowsky, Adam.  9 January 2024.  Why the Supreme Court isn't constitutionally barred from resolving Trump's eligibility before the election. Newsletter