Rashomon is a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa. I saw it at the Metrograph at the strong recommendation of Matyus. When studying the ethics and political philosophy of Kant, he is one of the few philosophers to spill a lot of ink on lying. Me personally, not just as a Kantian, I find the concept of lying to be a fascinating theme in stories and as a subject in philosophy. Movies like Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight, Frances Ha, The Farewell, or Parasite. People are lying to family, friends, and even strangers. Is there something wrong or right about lying? Do certain reasons or circumstances make it ok to lie? Let’s see.
The movie starts in pouring rain while a commoner sloshes through the rain to get refuge at a run down Rashōmon city gate. The commoner meets two people sitting there already who look full of sorrow. “I don’t understand it at all. I just don’t understand.” says the woodcutter. “What don’t you understand?” says the commoner. “I’ve never heard such a strange story.” replies the woodcutter. The other person there is a priest who says that even his wisdom is not enough to understand this strange story. Apparently what happened was that a person was murdered and the two men heard about it and witnessed it. “Just one? So what?” laughs the commoner. “On top of this gate, you’ll find at least five or six unclaimed bodies” the commoner tells the priest. “You’re right. War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague … Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this.” claims the priest.
The story then follows four different people who are at court recollecting the events around the murder of a person. There is a bandit, a samurai, his wife, and the woodcutter who all have information about the murder in some way. The priest was a witness to the stories of each of these people about their stories at the courthouse. The reason that the woodcutter and the priest were horrified was that they knew that each person was lying in some way about the story since they all contradicted each other in some way. After watching all these people lie out of selfish or stupid reasons, they see that believing people in this world is a fool’s task. As the woodcutter wraps up his story of the murder, the people at the gate hear a baby crying. The commoner runs over to the baby, checks it out, and takes a blanket and an amulet from it. The woodcutter, incredulous, pleads with the commoner to have some morality, that these were left to protect the baby. The commoner replies that he is only looking out for himself and that is what you have to do. The woodcutter keeps trying to get the commoner to return the items. The commoner, fed up with the “good two shoes” behavior of the woodcutter, calls the woodcutter out. The commoner listened to all these stories and notices that the wife’s expensive ornate knife was no where to be found, at that the woodcutter himself was lying as well in his story.
The commoner runs off in the rain with his loot, while the priest holds the baby. The woodcutter offers to take the baby, but the priest is horrified that the woodcutter was condemning the lying of the others while also lying himself and will not let him. The woodcutter then explains that he already has six kids and raising one more won’t be a problem. The priest then realizes that he wanted to stay out of this whole ordeal and that he lied about the knife so that he could feed his children and his family in these impoverished times. This act of kindness is what gives the priest a little bit of hope for humanity.
As shown in Rashomon, human nature alone is ugly. We lie, we murder, we steal, etc. There is a scene in Berserk that shows this particularly well.
I think sometimes people forget that most of human history was extremely evil and full of selfishness that caused much death and suffering for generations of people. This wicked side of humans is what Kant says prompts us to not look for morality there, but look at the what pure reason says about morality and then how that applies to us as rational beings. A rational being is a being that is able to decide what ends they want to set and go realize those ends.
Kant argues that it is unethical to lie. When we lie, we treat the person as a mere means, like a tool or a thing, to use at our discretion. Look at any form of paternalism, where a person treats another person as something they cannot make decisions for themselves. Look at the lying that goes on between friends and family. Some family member thinks that its not a good time or they do not need to know about this because they would not want to know about this at this right now.
Lying (in the ethical sense of the word), intentional untruth as such, need not be harmful to others in order to be repudiated; for it would then be a violation of the rights of others. It may be done merely out of frivolty or even good nature; the speaker may even intend to achieve a really good end by it.
What is unethical about that is you are not letting someone who wants to know something know the truth of the matter and account for that in their rational decision making. An important thing to note is that it is unethical to lie but it is not ethical that you tell the truth. What this means is that you have no obligation to tell someone the truth when asked, you may simply say that you have some reason for not telling the truth. If someone comes to your door and asks a personal question, you do not have to just answer it.
The area of right is the area of political philosophy. For Kant, ethics is about internal freedom while politics is about external freedom. The categorical imperative is what governs the law of morality while the innate right to freedom is what governs right. The innate right to freedom is stated as “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice) insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law”. What follows from this is that the power of the state is the power to use coercion to stop people from violating the innate right to freedom. A citizen using coercion on another citizen is wrong, but a state can coerce the citizen to stop their violation in the first place. How does this relate to lying?
If the state is about protecting people’s innate right to freedom, would a lie by a violation of the innate right to freedom? Well, Kant does not think that speech has coercive power and therefore it is not necessarily a violation. A private citizen may simply ignore the words of another private citizen. This gets a little bit more complex with libel, slander, and public officials lying.
By a lie a human being throws away and, as it wer, annihilates his dignity as a human being. A human being who does not himself believe what he tells another (even if the other is a merely ideal person) has even less worth than if he were a mere thing; for a thing, because it is something real and given, has the property of being servicable so that another can put it to some use.
Another area where truth comes in is in court, namely, when you take an oath that you will divulge the facts of the matter truthfully about some case. The truth is vital in this case since the judge needs to figure out what actually happened in order to render justice. If people are lying under oath, then a state will be impossible and we would live in a lawless land.
There are two things that Rashomon hit on the nail. The horror of the people who know of the story about the murder is that everyone was lying. First, they were lying in court. If people are lying in court, then the court can never really know all of the facts at the matter and thus render justice fairly. If we cannot rely on the courts for fair justice what can we rely on? Lastly, the priest was horrified at the lie of the woodcutter since it was a lie not to the state but the woodcutter lied to the priest. The priest would have understood lying to the state, I believe, but he would have understood why the woodcutter stole the knife if the woodcutter told him the reason. The priest forgave the woodcutter since the end of stealing and lying was good, but the woodcutter was still wrong in lying to the priest.
I particularly like this movie a lot because of this theme of truth and lying that was central to it, but there are many other reasons that this movie is great as well. Kant took lying seriously in his philosophy just like Kurosawa did in his film. Not only does lying obstruct us from living in a just external world, lying treats others as mere things and reduces ourselves to something worse than a mere thing.