Kant’s Thought Experiment (writers learning about their characters)

Today I want to talk super quick about Kant’s Axe, also known as the Inquiring Murderer.  

Immanuel Kant believes that all moral judgments should be rationally supported: He is a moral absolutist: what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong. There is no need to debate the scenario, because right and wrong does not change, regardless of surrounding circumstances. 

That sounds easy to implement and even an honest way to see our morals. Until you try to apply it to real life. 

Here is a question posed by Kant:

Imagine your friend came bounding into your house, and said, “There’s an axe murderer coming down the street and for some reason, he’s targeting me! I need to hide in your house, but don’t tell the murderer I’m here.” 

You Kant lie!

Your friend goes and hides in your closet.   

Then there’s a knock at the door.  

Most of us would end the discussion right there because we’re not crazy enough to open the door. Who opens the door knowing a murderer is on the other side? 

But for the purpose of the thought experiment, we do. And when we do, Kant’s question is this: do you tell the murderer where your friend is hiding? Or do you lie to save your friend’s life?  

Kant believes you should tell the murderer where your friend is, because you are accountable for every lie you tell. 

I am very un-Kant-like.

If I put myself into this thought experiment, there wouldn’t be a fire extinguisher large enough to cool my pants off. As a writer, I lie for fun. I’m not Machiavellian about it, but lying is an entertaining challenge for me. And in this situation, I’m also matching my utilitarian beliefs (meaning my moral compass drives me to act in a way that produces the most happiness for the most people). 

The reason I have Kant on my mind is that the middle grade book I’m editing right now (We Can’t All Be Show Dogs) deals with lying. 

I think lying is a tricky subject because we grow up being told it’s wrong, while ‌constantly being taught how to lie.

We learn to tell lies of admission: “Don’t say you hate their kid!” Or lie through encouraging statements: “Tell aunt Sally you love the sweater she made you.” We go to a wedding and watch our mom say, “Oh, this old dress?” when we know she just bought it for the occasion. 

Even our games promote lying. Can you imagine playing a game of hide and seek in a universe where lying does not exist? Or poker? Or *gasp* writing a fictional book?

So what is the line for my character? Is all lying immoral or is there a sliding scale for lies where some lies are justified? 

Does your character feel guilt with justified lies, or are they proud of their ability to think on their feet? 

Published by Annie Harmon

Visit me to learn more! www.annieharmonbooks.com

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