Kant on why one should not make a false promise

Sam asked:

What is the reasoning by which the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative supposedly disallows making a false promise?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morality [1785], Immanuel Kant introduces and elaborates the morality of the Categorical Imperative. He provides various examples such as the one concerning Promising.

A person is in financial difficulty and needs money. S/he hopes to acquire the money by borrowing it on the basis of a promise to pay it back. S/he has no intention of paying it back. What is the morality of this? Is it right or wrong? Responses may be that ‘You ought to repay it as no-one will believe you in the future and you won’t be loaned money when you might need it.’ In other words, the motive for keeping the promise is self-interest. Yet this approach could hide many ulterior motives – not any that could be objectively and compellingly good.

If based on self-interest, all the person is really concerned about is him/herself, not the person who loans the money nor the rightness or wrongness of keeping/not keeping the promise. Perhaps the person wants to keep the promise for now so s/he can borrow an even larger sum in the future and then renege on the promise. S/he will honour the promise not because s/he believes in the act of promising; s/he keeps the promise as s/he wants to enhance their reputation as an upstanding citizen. S/he might repay the debt as the lender is a close friend who s/he does not want to offend out of affection. S/he might keep the promise out of love for their kneecaps – fear of failing to repay the debt – and not out of respect for the act and nature of promising.

It is objections like these that makes Kant dissatisfied with existing morality. Promising is kept not because it is right to keep it but, on the grounds of extraneous motives, inclinations, desires or perceived consequences. He terms this approach that of Hypothetical Imperatives. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted – the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Likewise, any means can justify the good ends or consequences.

To avoid the Hypothetical Imperative based on motives and consequences, there needs to be an objective principle or criteria by which the thinking being can decide upon right or wrong courses of action and, which is thereby free from the grounds of motivation, empirical consequences and passions. Courses of action are decided by the Will dutifully adhering to a law. This law is ‘I am never to act otherwise than so I could also will my maxim should become a universal law’. Right or wrong is dependent upon Reason deciding whether the maxim could be universalised or not. Note that it is not about acting from motives, feelings or perceived consequences be they good or bad. So with having the intention of making a promising and failing to keep it Kant responds:

“How would it be if my maxim were a universal law? Then I see at once that it could never hold as a universal law of nature but would necessarily contradict itself. For suppose it to be a universal law that everyone, when he thinks himself in difficulty, should be able to promise whatever he pleases with the purpose of not keeping it, the promise itself would become impossible as well as the end one might have in view of it, since no one would consider that anything was promised to him and would ridicule all such statements as vain pretences.”

To promise with the intention of reneging the promise undermines and contradicts the act of promising. Promising per se, would a priori, as concluded by Reason, become intrinsically inoperable. Hence, promising with the intention to renege the promise undermines the very act of nature promising thereby preventing it from becoming universalised. Yet isn’t there an element of consequentialism here? For Kant writes that ‘no would consider that anything was promised to him and would ridicule all such statements as vain pretences’? No, the deciding factor is that it judged by Reason as a priori inconsistent as defined by the reflexive criteria of the Moral Law itself-with respect to its internal logic alone. Empirical consequences are irrelevant.

Whilst this is a tribute to the genius of Kant, is it feasible?

Kant works on an Enlightenment model of what is is to be a human being – namely Rational. Reason is to be employed in most areas of human activity. With the Categorical Imperative it appears that acting detachedly following the pure conclusions of Reason relegates what others may consider to be ‘human’ creating instead, what would be a logical automaton. Firstly, as consequences are deemed irrelevant, the human being is merely following the orders of Reason. Lying for instance, is outlawed even if it could save hundreds of lives. This could be objected to.

Secondly, is Kant’s emphasis, even superfetation of Reason a convincing model for human beings? His underlying premise of what it is to be human (I.e. a Rational being) allowing the conclusion of the Categorical Imperative can be challenged. Finally, Kant’s conception of the human being is atomistic and innatist. It’s essential identity both particular and universal, arises from an innateness planted within by Nature. What is within is Reason. This allows the Categorical Imperative to function. Alternatively, what a human being is, including its moral norms and practices, is collectively acquired from ‘without’, from society. We must look therefore at the broader panoramic of society and its dynamics to link certain ideas (including moral codes and practices) with definite states, stages of a society?


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