A Tempered “Yes” to the “Exculpatory No”

What circumstances trigger a person’s duty to tell the truth? Immanuel Kant claimed without qualification that all circumstances require truthtelling, even when speaking the truth injures the speaker. John Henry Cardinal Newman made exceptions for lies that achieved some positive end. Hugo Grotius permitted lies to adversaries. The philosophy of twentieth-century common sense largely permits white lies. Perhaps surprisingly, some courts have found that Kant’s absolute prohibition of falsehood more accurately characterizes a speaker’s duty to tell the truth to the federal government under 18 U.S.C. § 1001 than these other, more relaxed standards. According to this view, the prohibition on lying has no less force in informal circumstances, in which the speaker swears no oath and the government has no reciprocal duty.