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Michael Sandel has long been fond of a certain eccentric position on the Kantian ethics of lying. Kant, as I’ve noted before, takes an absolute prohibition against lying, even in the most extreme cases: you may not even lie to a murderer seeking a fugitive. If Anne Frank is in your attic, it is wrong to tell the Nazis that she isn’t. The position is deeply counterintuitive, to say the least, but I think it does follow from Kant’s ethics of unconditional duty.

Sandel, however, claims that Kant’s position is not quite as counterintuitive as it seems. Sandel regularly makes this claim in his Justice course, which I taught for as a teaching fellow, and which Sandel has now made available to the public as a course as well as in a book. While Kant brooks no lies, Sandel says, he is quite happy with misleading truths. As evidence Sandel points to Kant’s own life:

Kant found himself in trouble with King Friedrich Wilhelm II. The king and his censors considered Kant’s writings on religion disparaging to Christianity, and demanded that he pledge to refrain from any further pronouncements on the topic. Kant responded with a carefully worded statement: ‘As your Majesty’s faithful subject, I shall in the future completely desist from all public lectures or papers concerning religion.’ Kant was aware, when he made his statement, that the king was not likely to live much longer. When the king died a few years later, Kant considered himself absolved of the promise, which bound him only ‘as your Majesty’s faithful subject.’ Kant later explained that he had chosen his words ‘most carefully, so that I should not be deprived of my freedom… forever, but only so long as His Majesty was alive.’ By this clever evasion, the paragon of Prussian probity succeeded in misleading the censors without lying to them. (Sandel, Justice, p. 134)

I was reminded of Sandel’s position recently while leafing through Śaṅkara‘s commentary on the Yoga Sūtras specifically sūtra II.30, which speaks of the “restraints” (yama) that a yogin must practise, similar to the Buddhist Five Precepts and identical to the five Jain precepts. On both of these lists is satya, truthfulness. And in expounding the concept of truthfulness, Śaṅkara specifically warns us against the kind of misleading truths that Sandel describes.

Śaṅkara refers to a famous episode in the great Mahābhārata epic, an episode I greatly enjoy. The Pāṇḍavas – the Mahābhārata’s “good guys” – are at a stalemate against their Kaurava foes, because the Kauravas are led by the great general Drona. As long as Drona commands the Kaurava forces, the Pāṇḍavas cannot win. But the Pāṇḍavas have a plan, hatched by Krishna (Kṛṣṇa), that great trickster of a god. Drona cares more than anything for his son Aśvatthāman, and if he thinks Aśvatthāman is dead, he will lose the will to fight. But the Pāṇḍavas have no way to kill Aśvatthāman. What they can do is make Drona think Aśvatthāman is dead. Drona will believe Aśvatthāman is dead, Krishna notes, if he hears news to that effect from Yudhiṣṭhira, the leader of the Pāṇḍavas. For Yudhiṣṭhira, Kantian before the fact in his unswerving regard for the moral law, never tells a lie.

The problem, of course, is just that Yudhiṣṭhira never tells a lie! So he refuses to tell Drona that Aśvatthāman is dead – until Krishna comes up with a different plan. The Pāṇḍavas will kill an elephant named Aśvatthāman, and then it will no longer be a lie to say that Aśvatthāman is dead. It will merely be a misleading truth.

Yudhiṣṭhira agrees. The poor beast’s head is smashed in with a mace, and once Yudhiṣṭhira is within earshot of Drona the Pāṇḍavas call out “Aśvatthāman is dead!” Drona turns to Yudhiṣṭhira and asks, “Is this true?” And Yudhiṣṭhira calls out “Yes, it is true! Aśvatthāman the elephant is dead” – adding the words “the elephant” in a voice too soft and hasty for Drona to have any chance of hearing it. Sure enough, Drona loses the will to fight, and the Pāṇḍavas begin to triumph.

Śaṅkara calls this story to mind in order to rule it out as an option for the yogin. The author of the Yoga Bhāṣya commentary says “The speech spoken to convey one’s own experience to others should not be deceitful”; to the end of this sentence Śaṅkara adds: “as when one states what one knows to be a fact, but this very truth is being spoken with the aim of tricking some other person. So Yudhiṣṭhira said ‘Aśvatthāman is killed – I mean the elephant.‘” Even though it was for a good end, what Yudhiṣṭhira did was wrong; one should not do it.

Śaṅkara, then, explicitly rules out “misleading truths” as an option. Does Kant? I’m not sure. I didn’t buy the account when Sandel made it in class; it seemed to me that Kant was merely being a bad Kantian. But in his book Sandel explains in more detail. “A carefully crafted evasion pays homage to the duty of truth-telling in a way that an outright lie does not. Anyone who goes to the bother of concocting a misleading but technically true statement when a simple lie would do expresses, however obliquely, respect for the moral law.” More importantly, the misleading truth can be universalized. One would not be able to lie to the murderer if everyone told lies in such situations, for the claim could never be believed. But one could tell misleading truths if that’s what everyone did; it’s not that the claims would not be believed, but that people would have learned “to listen like lawyers and parse such statements with an eye to their literal meaning.” (Justice, p. 137) And because it can be universalized, one is treating one’s interlocutor as an end and not merely as a means; the misleading true statement “does not coerce or manipulate the listener in the same way as an outright lie. It’s always possible that a careful listener could figure it out.” (pp. 137-8) I’m still a little skeptical of the point, but Sandel might just be right. With these arguments, he’s managed to do what I thought was impossible: to defend Kant’s actions on Kantian grounds.