Absolute Deontology

This seems apropos:

Absolute Deontology



Kant’s position that there cannot be a case of morally permissible lying has not been met with much enthusiasm. The idea of absolute moral rules thus seems mistaken. W.D. Ross sought to remedy the problem for deontological ethics by qualifying the force of moral rules: instead of saying that we have an absolute duty to tell the truth, he suggested that we have we have what he called a “prima facie duty” to tell the truth—a duty that can be overridden in certain circumstances. This notion has always been obscure and the terminology less than satisfactory, though the problem it is intended to solve is real; also it seems to soften duties in a way that anyone sympathetic to deontological ethics will find unappealing. Do we never have an absolute duty to tell the truth? Are our duties always merely prima facie? I want to suggest an alternative approach to the problem, one that abandons the idea of prima facie duty.

The alternative view appeals to the notion of different categories of lie. Consider the lying allegation intended to harm the person accused: that kind of lie is surely absolutely wrong. Lying to protect an innocent person is a good counterexample to a perfectly general prohibition on lying, but lying in order to harm someone is nothing like that—it precisely aims at injustice and suffering. I suggest that this duty is absolute: under no circumstances is it right to lie in order to get someone into trouble (and thereby get them into trouble). Call this the lying accusation: then we can say that the duty not to make lying accusations is absolute—not merely prima facie. Kant would be right about the status of this duty. By contrast there is no absolute duty not to lie to children: it depends on the circumstances—and there are plenty of circumstances in which lying is the only way to protect children. Likewise there is no absolute duty to tell people the truth about their physical appearance or level of intelligence. So some categories of truth telling are unqualified duties while some are not; it is not that alltypes of lying are only prima facie wrong. This is a good result because we don’t want to say that all types of lying are only wrong at first sight—but maybe not at second sight or on deeper reflection. When it comes to the lying accusation we don’t want to tell our children that this is wrong only in certain circumstances or at first glance—it is always wrong, very wrong, necessarily so. If a mother catches her child lying about another child, in order to get that child into trouble, the mother might say, simplifying somewhat: “It’s wrong to lie”. She means to be speaking of the kind of situation at hand, not cases of benevolent lying; and her message is that it is always absolutely wrong to lie in that specific way. She doesn’t follow Ross and cautiously intone: “It is prima facie wrong to lie”. If later the child asks her about benevolent lying, she will be beyond criticism if she replies: “I was talking about lying allegations not all possible forms of lying”. She expected the context to make her meaning clear, and no doubt it was clear; the child is being a philosophical pedant if she responds: “But you said the words ‘lying is wrong’ as if it applied to every possible kind of lie”.

Semantically, the case is a bit like “camels have four legs”: that is perfectly true (absolutely true) but it isn’t true that every camel has four legs (some camels have lost or leg or two). Likewise, “lying is wrong” is not a universal quantification over every instance of lying; rather, certain kinds of lying are deemed universally wrong (necessarily so). It is intended as a conjunction of certain categories of lie, not every possible type of lie (e.g. lying to protect the innocent). It is wrong to make lying accusations about people and also wrong to lie in order to make yourself look better than you are and also wrong to mislead people for no reason—but not wrong to lie in order to protect an innocent person from falling into evil hands.

It is the same for prudential duties. We can say, “you should eat in moderation” or “you should take regular exercise””, but we don’t intend to include eating in moderation after starving or exercising when you have the flu. This should not make us regard prudential imperatives as merely prima facie; rather, a more specific imperative would be absolutely binding, e.g. “don’t have a massive lunch every day” or “don’t sit around in the house all day (unless you are not well)”. It is not that prudential duties are merely prima facie duties; they are absolute duties once they are properly formulated. Ditto for duties of etiquette or rules of the road: of course it is sometimes right to violate the usual rules of etiquette or driving (as in cases of emergency), but it is equally true that some of these specific rules are universally binding, e.g. “Don’t make loud noises in church (for no good reason)”, “Don’t go the wrong way up a one-way street (in normal traffic conditions)”. And if we are talking about such rules in particular contexts the point is even clearer: “Don’t bang into that old lady”, “Say thank you to this shop keeper”, “Don’t turn left here”, “Don’t eat another plate of spaghetti”. This absoluteness is quite compatible with there being othercircumstances in which in which one should bang into someone or not say thank you or turn left illegally or have the extra plate. What we should not say is that lying is only prima facie wrong in all circumstances: in some circumstances—indeed in nearly all—lying is absolutely wrong. The concept of prima facie wrongness is not the right way to handle the possibility of exceptions to a universal quantification.

It is a question whether this approach generalizes to all cases of duties, such as the duty not to steal or murder or break promises. We can all come up with examples in which it would be unduly rigid to insist that one not do anything of these kinds—to save the life of a child, to defend oneself against unwarranted attack, to prevent a catastrophe. But does that mean that these duties are merely prima facie?  No, because individual categories of these duties might be universally binding: one should never steal from the poor to give to the rich or murder an innocent child or selfishly break a promise because something better came up. A Kantian attitude about theseduties is correct, even if we don’t want to say that there are no conceivable circumstances in which stealing, murder, and promise breaking are morally permissible. The simple statement “Stealing, murder, and breaking promises are wrong” is just shorthand for a conjunction of these specific statements; it doesn’t need to be qualified and weakened by the use of the prima facie operator. In fact, moral duties are always absolute, admitting of no exception, once they are properly formulated. So we really don’t need to back off from Kant’s fundamental position—while disagreeing with him about certain kinds of cases.

Here is a difficult case to end with: it is only possible to save the innocent child from the murderous storm troopers by falsely accusing someone of something and thereby getting them into trouble. You save the child’s life but only by falsely telling the storm troopers that your mother is a thief (thus landing her in jail). In this case I would say you have chosen the lesser of two evils, but the lying accusation was still an evil. But I can imagine someone sticking to the strict Kantian line here, and not unreasonably: you should not accuse your mother of being a thief in these circumstances even if it would save the life of the child. The case is in sharp contrast to merely flattering someone about his physical appearance when he is in fact in horrible physical shape, or not telling a child the awful details of how her mother died in a car accident. In these cases what you did was morally right not merely the lesser of two evils. Lying isn’t always morally wrong even if most kinds of lying are absolutely wrong.


Colin McGinn




11 responses to “Absolute Deontology”

  1. Henry Cohen says:

    In reference to your final paragraph, if we conclude that falsely accusing my mother is moral under the circumstances, then how is it evil? In different circumstances it would be evil, but, in this one, it is not. In your second paragraph, you say that a lying allegation intended to harm the person accused is absolutely wrong. Shouldn’t we distinguish cases in which the purpose of the lying allegation is to harm the person accused from cases in which the purpose is good and the harm is collateral?

    By the way, you might have used the trolley problem instead of the accusation of the mother.

  2. Henry Cohen says:

    I see now that “intended” in your second paragraph can be construed to draw the distinction I draw. To foresee the harmful consequences of one’s action is not the same as to intend them. Or is it? I think that “intend” is ambiguous.

  3. There can be morally permissible evils, strange as it may sound. That’s why we speak of the lesser of two evils, and that’s why someone accusing his mother might well be haunted by his decision. Or take the bombing of Hiroshima. The concept of a necessary evil is a viable one.

  4. Joseph K. says:

    How does your verdict on the case in the last paragraph (that it is right to falsely accuse your mom of being a thief in order to save a child’s life) square with the claim that lying accusations are absolutely wrong?

    • I don’t endorse that view myself but someone defending it could say that it is as not as wrong as letting the child be killed, though still (absolutely) wrong.

  5. Stephen Dresser says:

    Great post! Its almost as if our culturally accepted moral imperatives are shortcuts, abbreviations, or heuristics. The exceptions to the rule are not exceptions but all together more specific absolute moral claims that don’t interfere with the less specific claim that it seems in contradiction with.
    How do you distinguish between absolute and objective? I’ve reserved absolute in my mind for the only absolute truth I think I can have, which is that I am experiencing something. I’ve been using objective for things that might as well be absolute but some extreme theoretical claim could undercut it.

  6. Joseph K says:

    Thank you for your earlier reply to my question. “I don’t endorse that view myself but someone defending it could say that it is not as wrong as letting the child be killed, though still . (absolutely) wrong.” The view seems to me to contradict itself. The statement ‘lying accusations are absolutely wrong’ is, it seems to me, equivalent in meaning to the statement ‘lying accusations are wrong in any situation’; also to the statement ‘there is no situation in which one should falsely (and willfully) accuse another.’ The statement that falsely accusing your mother would be less wrong than letting a child to be killed seems to be a confusing way of saying that accusing your mother would be *right* in this situation. Hence there is one situation in which making a lying accusation would be right; hence (if ‘absolutely wrong’=’wrong in every situation’) lying accusations are not absolutely wrong. Where have I gone…wrong?

    • I like your reasoning but the question turns on equating “absolutely wrong” with “wrong in every possible situation”. They don’t mean the same thing because the former is contrasted with “prima facie wrong” (as opposed to “sometimes wrong”). Something can be wrong tout court but sometimes the right thing to do in a given situation. As Ross saw, morality has two components, rules and all things considered judgments in actual situations, and we need a way to describe this. My point is that we improve on his terminology by saying that an action can be morally wrong even though there is no avoiding it in a given situation–it is then “the lesser of two evils”. We are dealing here with a genuine puzzle, even paradox, and we need a way to characterize it that isn’t conceptually mistaken.

  7. Joseph K. says:

    I am happy to receive another response; thank you for helping clear my confusion. The concept “lesser of two evils” does have a paradoxical ring to it. The paradox seems to lie in the fact that the evil action in question doesn’t attach to the agent in the same way that evil actions typically seem to. ‘An agent who does an evil action is (to some degree) evil.’ That seems true of evil actions generally–except lesser of two evil actions. We think that an agent who commits an evil in order to prevent a still greater evil is not necessarily for that reason an evil person; he might be a good person who just found himself in an unlucky situation.This is a surprising result, given how we generally think about evil actions, that the evil of the action attaches equally to the agent.

    Where does the evil come from if not the agent? Perhaps the situation itself is evil? But where does this evil come from? One possibility is that the evil comes from other (genuinely) evil agents–that is, agents whose evil is done gratuitously and not for the sake of avoiding a greater evil. At the risk of flying full speed off the rails, a second possibility is that the evil comes from reality itself; that is reality might be intrinsically evil, giving rise to evil situations of its own accord and not necessarily through the actions of evil agents. Perfectly good people in evil situations might be forced into evil deeds with only reality to blame.

    • This is a nice point–evil acts without evil actors. As you say, the evil stems from a source outside the agent. Reality might well force a virtuous agent to perform an evil act (so as to avoid a greater evil).

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