I was wondering, what would Kant and the categorical imperative say about the following situation?

Person A has made a promise to person B that Person A would not tell of a crime of stealing in a shop that Person B was to commit. However, Person A also happens to know the shopkeeper and has in the past promised the shopkeeper to report any crime that Person A knew was committed in the shop.

Now, we are living in the moment just after B has committed the crime of stealing (unnoticed by others).

The question is now, from a Kantian view, what is the right thing morally for A to do?


Old question, slightly changed. The answer is: Person A should have never given that promise to Person B. Person could and should have known that the two promises could end up contradicting each other, and that therefore giving both promises is a (or could lead to a) performative contradiction (For Person A, in that moment after B committed the crime, has to want to both report and not report).

I guess one could also say that keeping the promise to the shopkeeper is more important. First of all, it's a positive duty, and Kant held that positive duties are fundamental (cf. Metaphysics 2.I.I §4). Second, giving a promise to keep a secret about a crime is an action not generalisable, so the promise shouldn't have been given in the first place.

I found this paper on moral dilemmas, maybe it's helpful. Otherwise, consider reading the chapter in the original, Kant explains why there can be no opposing duties. Also you might find more information in the answers to this question.


Neither of the two options are "morally right", and there is no right way out of it. No matter what A does, they're going to break a promise they made, and so they're ethically committed to acting immorally. In some sense, the moral wrong of person A has already been done, and the problem A has is not "how do I do the right thing" but rather "how to I cope while being in the middle of doing the wrong thing". Kant doesn't provide much in the way of consolation here, being as he is in the business of looking at categorical oughts rather than the production of personal virtues.

The best thing Person A could do I suppose is accept admonishment gracefully by owning up to both participants about all of the facts at hand. Neither will be likely to accept A's apology, but the point is that in their intentions to both the shopkeeper and the thief, A brought about conflict where they could previously have helped to find a resolution. A does, in fact, deserve the ire of both participants.

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