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Kant's Theory of Universal Law

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Lindsay Mack October 17, 2001 PHIL-050 Sherman Imagine the Gestapo pounding at your door, demanding to know if you are hiding Jews. Fearful for your life as well as theirs, you resort to Kantian ethics to aid you in your decision: should I tell the truth, which Kant values so dearly, or lie to these people in order to save the Jews whom I have been helping? Although Kant appears to strongly condemn lying for any purpose, a further investigation of his various Formulae and their indications reveals that, in this instance, lying may be morally permissible. By examining Kant's rules for a moral life, in particular the Formulae of Universal Law and of a Kingdom of Ends, one proves the ability to make a logical exception to the Kantian edict against lying. Upon these grounds, you may morally lie to the Gestapo in order to protect Jews seeking refuge. Within this hypothetical lies a moral dilemma rising from the inevitable conflicts of duty. It is likely that in approaching a solution this dilemma, one will first refer to Kant's test of the Categorical Imperative, that is, unconditional command. Applying the test, the contradiction that Kant so despises presents itself blatantly; the indication is that it is wrong to lie in the given situation. ...read more.


With these two assumptions in mind, it is becoming to evaluate the background data with which one is supplied. In this example, one must consequently question the free will of the Gestapo; if one does not have a free will, then that will cannot possibly be undermined. According to Kant, a good will is the only determiner of morality, and those who possess this will are rational beings. Above all, the autonomous nature of the free will is exalted. Thus, any who do not operate on their own accord, who follow instead the rules, commands, or dictates of another, are not capable of being moral beings. It can suitably be stated that the Gestapo are not agents of free will; in contrast, they are very much agents of heteronomy. Rather than following the moral policy of self-determinism, they are merely agents of the government which commands them. This resolved, it can be argued that it is permissible to lie, given that one is not lying to another being who is exercising their free will. For so long as all rational beings follow a policy of truth and honesty toward one another, there is no weakening of the will or of morality; as it has been determined that the Gestapo do not represent their free will, it cannot be contradictory or corrupting the free will to lie to them. ...read more.


For if everyone to follow this imperative, it cannot be deduced that the free will of any single being would be weakened. Even in the case of those possessing but not applying rationality, their free will is not threatened, only the heteronomous command that they act upon is undermined. Furthermore, this statement of intention complies with the need for generality and universality. It is not situation-specific, does not rely on any notion outside of rational thought, and can be applied to a whole population of rational beings without consequence. Analyzing Kant's Formulae of Universal Law, Humanity, and Kingdom of Ends, one delves deeper into the moral considerations of Kantian ethics. What appears to be a simple question of lying becomes a moral dilemma; the conflicting duties of honesty and humanity must somehow be resolved. In doing so it becomes evident that the simple imperative not to lie is made obsolete through the rebuttal of elementary assumptions. This rebuttal draws on Kant's own definition of the three Formulae and discredits the former maxim through definition and analysis. The Gestapo are proven on these grounds to be separate from the realm of rational beings, thus allowing for the deception of them within the imperatives of Kantian ethics. Relying on this proof, an acceptable maxim is formulated. A deeper examination of the criterion results in a maxim diametrically different from that anticipated; through definition and analysis, one arrives at a suitable end of which Kant would approve. ...read more.

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