I know Kant doesn't directly address being 'authentic' in his views, but he does address that we can't tell lies because we have a moral obligation to others under the categorical imperative.

I guess I'm struggling to understand or interpret how Kant would view authenticity in relation to be truthful. Does he argue that being yourself always means being truthful?

  • 1
    Hi, which translation do you use? Can you possibly provide a quote and the translator, please? Would make it easier to compare with the original and point out possible subtleties.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 27 '16 at 6:17
  • 1
    I believe it is a terrible error to suppose that Kant's Imperative means we should never lie. The idea is nonsensical and renders the Imperative useless. Authenticity seems to be a slightly different issue. We can behave according to the Imperative and yet still be inauthentic, paying only lip service or not really believing in what we are doing or saying. . . .
    – user20253
    Nov 16 '17 at 13:15
  • Telling lies under certain circumstances is obviously useful, so I'm not sure that your understanding of the categorical imperative can be quite right ... Dec 16 '17 at 6:24
  • I don't think that whatever translations helloworld is using, the term 'authenticity' will turn up. I don't know of any Eng. tr. that uses the term. 'Autonomy', 'respect', 'the good will', &c. - all of these are commonplaces of translation. Not 'authenticity', which occurs far more often in tr. of Sartre and Heidegger. helloworld is clearly not suggesting that Kant does use any term translatable as 'authenticity'. The point is whether in his discussion of ethical issues, the or a concept (not the terminology, Eng. tr.or corresponding German original), of authenticity can be detected.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 16 '18 at 10:30
  • I don't see how it follows that, since 'Telling lies under certain circumstances is obviously useful', therefore a reading of the categorical imperative that rules out lying is wrong. Perhaps it's the CI that's wrong rather than helloworld's interpretation of it.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 16 '18 at 11:32

To start, I agree with Philip Klocking that the interpretation being used will alter the English synonyms used. It is difficult to rewrite abstractions into another language when you can't relate to the hermeneutic nuances being explored.

Authenticity is a referential concept. Your question; "...being yourself always means being truthful?" needs to be dissected a bit. "being your self" is a good start. Self is referential and not a possessive. We do not own a self, but we constantly refer to having one. We create the context for our self continually. It comes from all of our life resources, experiences and intellectual distinctions to become the person we are in the moment. We are always presenting that self into the world.

Ontology is about becoming, bringing forth, qualities to being in a moment to moment deliberacy. Even is we do not recognize how often we adjust our responses to the world by checking with the self image we define as us for referencing how to deal with the reality we are immersed in.

In that way we are always true to that reference of self we have created. It is not our psychological behaviors, which often get confused with authenticity, it is the practices we engage in that are the Authentic definition of a self.

Someone who practices deceit, is authentically deceitful. And, that person will authentically engage you in their deceit. While their agenda, goal, and fulfillment in doing it may escape you, it speaks to who they (as a referential self) truly are.

You have to go past asking if authenticity "...always means being truthful?". Truth is a positional variable, true on one side and false on the other. Authenticity is a relative variable, being authentic can include someone being inauthentic, as their standard of self reference.

Your question posited the possessive positional values of true and false to the referential concept of authenticity.


This question needs to be taken in two parts, one relating to authenticity and the other to Kant's rigorism about lying.


Kant does not use any term corresponding in sense to 'authenticity'. But this does not mean that he has nothing like a concept of authenticity. One can have and use a concept without having a specific term for it.

A concept of authenticity is present in Kant. Briefly, Kant recognises that one can be true to one's rational nature. This means (a) treating oneself and not only others as ends; it also means (b) acting on self-legislated, universalisable moral rules, and (c) overriding 'heteronomous' motivation - motivation induced by external constraints imposed by others or acting on mere impulses of nature. It is very natural, whatever Kant's language, to say that someone who observes (a) - (c) in their life is being faithful to their rational nature and in that sense, according to Kant's view of persons, is acting authentically as a rational being. Whether we accept Kant's view of persons is another matter.


Kant's rigorism about and against lying cannot be denied. It is obtrusively present in the Groundwork, in the Critique of Practical Reason, in the Metaphysics of Morals and in the essay 'On a Supposed Right to Lie'. It makes Kant look like a moral dogmatist, inflexible and insensitive to the complexities and nuances of the moral life.

A methodological point should be noted, though. Whatever the strengths and merits (or otherwise) of Kant's ethical theory, Kant is no infallible or even privileged authority on its applications. His ethical theory does not necessarily imply what Kant thought it did, especially concerning 'the madman at the door'.

A universalisability criterion works (sort of) against borrowing on the basis of a lying promise to repay. If everyone borrowed on this basis, then no-one would lend : lying would be counter-productive and destroy the very institution, that of lending, which it exploits. (I say 'sort of' because, while it would be highly odd if lending continued under these conditions, it is not logically impossible for it to do so. It is not logically impossible for the maxim, 'lie whenever you want money and can get it by falsely promising to repay', to be universalised.)

Now, about lying to the murderer at the door - there are two moves we can make against Kant here, both derived directly from his ethical theory.

The first is that in the Metaphysics of Morals Kant tells us concerning duties to ourself : 'The negative duties forbid man (sic) to act contrary to the end of his nature and so have to do merely with his self-preservation' (6 : 418 : M. Gregor tr., 1964). So there is a duty of self-preservation. This duty may require me to lie as the only effectual means of fulfilling it. If I may lie in order to secure self-preservation - perhaps my life is at risk from unjust aggression* - there is no relevant difference between myself and another (the murderer's potential victim) which forbids me to lie in order to secure their preservation. The maxim, 'If I can preserve another person's life from unjust aggresssion only by lying, then lie' is perfectly capable of universalisation without contradiction. It involves no logical impossibility of universalisation.

The second is that if Kant still insists that we have a duty not to lie, then we have a conflict of duties: in order to be fulfilled the duty of self-preservation (logically extended to another person) may require a lie, yet moral rigorism imposes a duty not to lie. But Kant denies the possibility of a conflict of duties; it is indeed implicit in his 'ought implies can' principle. If two or more duties conflict, they cannot both be fulfilled but as duties we ought to do them. The situation is incoherent.

Agreed, it remains open, if we have a duty to lie to the murderer at the door (as I have argued) and a duty never to lie (as Kant repeatedly insists), which duty has precedence. But Kant gives no grounds - rationally or morally - for giving precedence to the 'never lie' rule.

  • The phrase is Michael Cholbi's in 'The Murderer at the Door: What Kant Should Have Said', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LXXIX No. 1, July 2009, 17.
  • Authenticity in Kant is closely related to his concept of "Charakter", see e.g. Anthropology ..., Ak. 7:293-5. Having character, having dignity, and being truthful to one's own rational nature (which includes being truthful, i.e. not lying, in general) is basically equivalent there. Character is truthfulness both in internal and external relations.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 16 '18 at 18:00
  • @Philip Klöcking. Completely agree - thanks for this supplementary.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jan 16 '18 at 18:26

It seems that authenticity is an automatic requirement of autonomy in the sense Kant is using it. The first form of the CI contains a second person reference on purpose. The 'never mere means' version requires us to respect others as ends, who get served -- in order to be served one to take a given perspective on what is supposed to constitute service. The will is paramount, and the will is only really a will if it is authentic.

(Later edit: realize I forgot to answer the last question)

Truthfulness is a consequence of a genuine respect for autonomy. But it is not necessarily an aspect of autonomy itself. Authenticity definitely does not automatically dictate truthfulness toward others. We might wish to be true only to our own nature, and not to the nature of our species. (Then, a la Nietzsche, we should properly esteem the lie.) But (for Kant) if we are true to ourselves at a deeper level, we respect our species and care for the ability of others to be as authentic as ourselves. That requires they have good information and that we remain open to their ability to adapt and change.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.