Or, How, At Age 11, I Ruined Christmas
The 2014 Bard College entrance exam leads off with the following question:
“On a Supposed Right to Lie” is an essay written by Immanuel Kant in response to a challenge to Kant’s ethical theory posed by a critic named Benjamin Constant; it is usually appended as a supplement to Kant’s “Critique of Practical Reason”. Constant asked if “the German philosopher” (meaning Kant) actually intended that, even if a murderer comes to the door asking for the location of his next victim, who you know to be in the next room, the right thing to do would still be to tell the truth. (This has been discussed as “the murderer at the door problem.”) Constant’s suggestion is that it seems obvious in this case that the right thing to do is to lie (despite what Kant’s theory would dictate).
In broad strokes, how does Kant answer this challenge?
More precisely, what does Kant mean by saying that the truth-teller is not, in a real sense, free to choose his or her action?
More precisely still, what does Kant mean in his last paragraph when he says that “exceptions destroy the universality”? Why does Kant believe this is so important? Is it, according to you?
When I was in the neighborhood of 11 years old, my grandmother gave me a globe for Christmas. It was the largest present under the tree that year, delivered a week ahead of time giving me plenty of opportunity to gloat about it to my younger siblings, and plenty of time to speculate on what might be in that largest of brightly wrapped boxes.
On Christmas morning at the unwrapping ceremony, lo! it was a globe, a world map glued to a ball on a stand. Not even the sort of ball you could play a game of catch with. Worse than a sweater, or underwear, it was an educational gift.
I suppose other, nobler children may have been happy to get a globe for Christmas. And I realize that my disappointment and ingratitude then was probably a telling sign concerning my life’s trajectory. But such was my feeling about it at the time. My disappointment was made all the more poignant in the moment because in a smaller package from my grandmother addressed to my younger brother was a toy truck. A good one, too, with front wheels that could turn and steer and a dump body with a lever-action dump.
While he cheerfully pushed his truck around the living room, I sat at the dining room table next to my globe looking on, wishing I had a truck, too.
I know now, and truth be told knew then, that my grandmother had my best interest at heart. It was a gift given of love and concern for my greater well-being. Years later, the truck is long gone but the globe still sits on a shelf in my parents’ basement. But I hated that globe.
The next day when my grandmother came by she asked me, what did I think of the globe? Did I like it?
I’d been told all my young life that I should always tell the truth. I’d been told, both at home and at school, the story of the young George Washington and the cherry tree.
“Grandma,” I said, “I cannot tell a lie. I didn’t like the globe. I’d rather have had a truck like my brother.”
I was so proud of myself for having told the truth, even though the truth was uncomfortable to tell, even though I felt almost an obligation to lie. And I knew I might get in trouble. But I thought, if it had worked for George Washington, it ought to work for me. And yet, my grandmother’s response to my truth-telling wasn’t at all encouraging. She wasn’t happy with my truth.
“Well,” she said. “I guess I won’t get you any more Christmas presents from now on.”
And she didn’t. Starting the next year, and every Christmas after until she died, all the grandchildren got an envelope with a $10 bill. No more brightly wrapped presents.
That Christmas I learned that even though grown-ups love to talk about telling the truth, they very often don’t want you to tell the truth, and they very often don’t tell the truth themselves. All these years later I still remember that moment, the change in my grandmother’s expression, in an instant, from excited anticipation to seething rage. The moment when I thought I’d channeled my disappointment into a moment as praiseworthy as George Washington’s moment, only to realize that I was the one who had in that very moment ruined Christmas henceforth and forever.
Now, with 35 more Christmases under my belt, I relive that moment every year, and I can put together a fairly vague answer for my grandmother that probably would have fit the bill. But I still wonder what an 11-year old could possibly say to satisfy both the demands of truth-telling and the expectations of family politics.
Even now, in the moment when someone asks me about something, “Do you like this?” I hesitate to answer, and in my hesitation I am invariably lost. If I answer “no,” the same scene plays out as with my grandmother long ago. If, after hesitating, I answer “yes,” the answer is no longer convincing.
If I were to encounter Benjamin Constant’s murderer at the door, my friend hiding within the house would be a goner regardless of whether I lied or told the truth. Try as I might, I don’t believe I’ve been able to lie convincingly on more than one or two occasions since my 11th Christmas. For me, Kant’s dilemma about whether a lie is justified is preempted by the problem of whether a lie is even a useful possibility.
In broad strokes, Kant’s response to Constant’s murderer at the door challenge is that ethics is not situational. In other words, the duty to tell the truth doesn’t depend on your perception of what the outcome of truth-telling might be. You can’t predict the future. You can’t accurately guess whether the outcome will be any different in a particular case if you tell a lie. “What if your friend has left the house to sneak away?” Kant says. If you’ve lied, the murderer may then also leave your house and have a greater chance of carrying out his plans. If you had told the truth, your friend would be making a getaway while the murderer was busy searching the house. In that case, by your lie, you’ve participated in the murderer’s success, and you are responsible. If, however, your friend had not fled and you told the truth, you would not be implicated, because even though things had not turned out well, you did what was right. And, perhaps there is a better way to foil the murderer’s plan than to lie.
In Kant’s thinking, any harm that comes to your friend is accidental if you’ve told the truth, whereas if you’ve lied any harm that comes to your friend is the result of a premeditated wrongdoing.
More precisely, Kant’s truth-teller must tell the truth because she has allied herself with the higher principle of truth-telling. According to that higher principle, that “categorical imperative,” to lie is to do harm to the foundation on which a just society is built. A lie undermines the entire social order’s ability to make contracts and to give credit to the word of other people within that society. As such, every lie always harms every person within that society, not just the person to which the lie is told. To tell a lie, to make an exception to the rule on the basis that in this instance it appears expedient places the needs of the few ahead of the needs of the many. It casts aside the certainty of damage to everyone everywhere to embrace the mere possibility of avoiding harm to one person.
This, of course, in the famous words of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, is not logical, and by it Kant reveals that he is part Vulcan.
Kant concludes his response to the murderer at the door question saying that “exceptions destroy the universality.” If there is an exception to a rule, Kant says, there is not really a rule after all. Or, to put it another way, either there is a principle that lying is wrong, or there’s not. If it’s a principle, then there are no exceptions, no matter how desirable it may seem in the moment to make one. If you’re free to decide to break the rule, then you’ve also decided that it’s not really a rule. You can’t have it both ways.
All of this was beyond me as an 11-year old. In my defense, it’s rare to find an 11-year old anywhere, and even rare to find a college educated person, who understands Kant’s categorical imperative.
At 11 years old, though, you are old enough to understand that people have feelings that need to be respected even when your own feelings have been hurt. There is a time to practice being young George Washington, and there is a time to just let it go.
The correct answer, and the one that I was capable of giving at age 11, and the truth, was, “Oh, thank you, Grandma. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of use out of it.”
That answer completely evades the question of whether I liked it. But it does answer my grandmother’s real question. The question my grandmother was really asking had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her. The question was really, “Do you appreciate me?”
To put it that way sounds like an awful, selfish thing. But it’s quite common that people look for some indication of his own self worth in the reflections they solicit from others. It’s a game we learn early on, even earlier than age 11.
Think about it. How many Christmas gifts are given because the giver feels a need to relieve their own sense of obligation? And how much of the resulting resentment about gift-giving obligation drives so much of the sour grapes attitude so prevalent around the holidays?
But I digress. Should an 11-year old who knows the difference between truth and falsehood tell the truth? Is telling the truth a rule? And if it is a rule, are there exceptions?
The answer to all three of these questions is, yes.
Yes, someone, of whatever age, should tell the truth. It should be a rule, and yes, there are exceptions. Kant’s categorical imperative simply doesn’t exist except within its own self-contained logical framework. The key to understanding the exceptions – and this is what was missing from my 11-year old understanding – is placing the issue of truth-telling into a human context that includes the equally important considerations of what it means to be grateful and generous.
In that larger human framework, gratitude makes generosity possible by having a sense that you are inherently good enough, that you don’t need to play the game seeking your own value in the opinions of others. Generosity, in turn, makes truth-telling possible because every situation no longer has to be about you. Truth-telling becomes an act of generosity toward others rather than a duty reflecting your own character.
My 11-year old self thought the gift was about me. It wasn’t. Instead of being grateful that something not about me had nevertheless benefited me, I made it about myself. I told the truth not for truth’s sake but for vengeance and to make the childish claim that “I’m better than you because I told the truth.”
Kant says that truth is not a commodity that someone earns the right to on the basis of character or intentions. According to Kant, the murderer at the door doesn’t lose the right to know the truth because he is a murderer. In the same way my grandmother, in spite of her intentions about what the gift should have meant, had the correct expectation that I should tell the truth. The truth she was looking for, though, was that I loved and appreciated her and had nothing to do with the gift. By telling her the truth about my feelings for the globe, I had told her a lie about my feelings for her.
To be fair, it was a trick question, both in the asking and the answering. Both of us were set up – framed by the difficult custom of Christmas gift giving.
The question about a supposed “right to lie” is also a trick question. It frames telling the truth within the difficult customs of legal rights and responsibilities when it doesn’t have to do with those things at all. Telling the truth is an act of generosity, not of duty. Lacking gratitude, such acts of generosity are difficult: so difficult it becomes possible to claim the moral high ground and ruin Christmas at the same time. But from a position of gratitude it is possible, even in the most difficult situations, even for even an 11-year old, to always tell the truth.