The Ethicist takes on Kant and Singer?

This week's Ethicist column doesn't contain anything as bothersome as the one which sparked the first post on this blog, but I do have a bone to pick with. One good thing about the column is that it uses a word I'd forgotten. That word is testudinal, "pertaining to or like tortoise or tortoiseshell." Also, Cohen says something which Kant explicitly disputes but upon which I agree with Cohen.

Cohen, as part of a response to a letter which I'll address later on, talks about the hypothetical situation of a person who is (secretly) a member of the underground railroad needing to answer falsely when asked about the location of slaves by slave-catchers at her door. This hypothetical is meant to work as an intuition pump to show us that lying is sometimes permissible. Cohen goes further to say that lying is obligatory in that situation, but all I need to generate the dispute with Kant is the asserted permissibility of lying here. Kant argues that you cannot take an action which you would be unwilling to accept as a universal maxim. To show how serious he is about this rule, he looks at the non-identical, but quite similar situation, of your friend having run into your house because he's hiding from a murderer. The murderer comes to your door and asks where your friend is. Kant says it is not permissible to lie in this situation because to do so it to will the maxim, "It is permissible to lie." Kant then shows that this maxim is self-contradictory. However, he doesn't consider the idea that you could describe the action as lying to a known murderer when you have good reason to believe it will hinder his actions, and then will as a maxim that everyone does that. This leads to the conclusion that Kant's concept of categorical imperatives requires a theory of how precisely an action must be described in order to be workable. Also, it's an odd situation to use as an intuition pump, since it seems clear that the answer isn't to lie or not, but to try to physically detain the murderer. Finally, Cohen's right about the permissibility of lying to prevent the evil acts of others.

Cohen brings up his hypothetical in responding to a rather odd letter. The writer's "friend" sees a man who had tied fishing line around a turtle's throat and was letting his kids drag it up and down the path. She wants to stop this, but thinks that just saying to the man that it's wrong to do that will lead to a fight. So she says, "I am a biologist with So-and-So University. Turtles are toxic; they secrete a poison that may make your kids horribly sick." Cohen acknowledges that the lie about the turtle is not as clear-cut a situation, but concludes that the "friend" acted "reasonably, if imperfectly." Well, I'm not sure about that. The letter writer says that they "stop[ped] tormenting the turtle right away." But I assume that they not only took off the leash, but got rid of the turtle, since they were told that having the turtle could seriously harm them. If they lawfully purchased the turtle, is there a problem with keeping it, or just with treating it badly? Even if they found it and captured it, is it now considered wrong to take an animal as a pet? There are many children's stories where exactly that happens and it's treated as the basis for a healthy relationship. So either Cohen is advocating the quite radical position that owning pets is a sufficient evil to justify a lie, or he is just not thinking through the impact of the action which he approved of.

I guess I did have as much to say about this article as I did about the first one.