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)