The Magazine

The Prosecutor Who Would Be Kant

Kenneth Starr's pursuit of the truth.

Mar 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 26 • By DAVID TELL
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A Reassessment
by Benjamin Wittes
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $24.95

Final Report of the Independent Counsel Regarding Monica Lewinsky and Others
by Robert W. Ray
United States D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, March 6, 2002

FALSEHOOD has never been popular, exactly, but there are those who admire it. If shadows on a cave wall are all most people can perceive of reality, Plato thought, then they should at least be deluded in the right direction: A stable social order depends on the skill with which wise rulers justify existing political arrangements to their less enlightened subjects; in such a project, Plato advised, "honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty."

In more recent thought, the ethical force underlying Plato's argument has eroded--or been actively subverted. The truthfulness of a claim is irrelevant to its morality, Jeremy Bentham taught; what matters is only how the claim affects its audience. A few decades later, Friedrich Nietzsche--denouncing Bentham and other Utilitarians as "English flatheads"--would proclaim falsehood a positive virtue, superior to truth because lying "requires more spirit and will" to pull off. And today, more than a hundred years after Nietszche, most academic philosophy can't quite make up its mind whether such a thing as "truth" exists at all.

But Nietzsche's postmodern followers don't have much purchase in the world of daily affairs, and even Plato and Bentham seem a bit much to swallow whole. An entirely separate impulse of Western civilization continues to hold sway in the average American's moral imagination: an intense and persistent core of deontology--an ethics that judges words and deeds not by their practical results but by the extent to which they reflect a recognition and acceptance of duties. And one of those duties is invariably a duty to truth--which is something real, discernible, and good in its own right. Dishonesty is a sin, or the secular equivalent thereof. The only question is how intensely one is meant to despise it.

In the Christian tradition descended from St. Augustine, lying is never less than wrong, although it may warrant pardon. In the high-Enlightenment rationalism of Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, lying is never less than wrong--and never pardonable, either. "Whoever tells a lie, however well intentioned he might be, must answer for the consequences, however unforeseeable they were, and pay the penalty for them even in a civil tribunal," Kant wrote in a famously uncompromising essay of 1797--denouncing even those falsehoods told to protect a friend from murder. Every lie "always harms another," he explained; "if not some other particular man, still it harms mankind generally, for it vitiates the source of law itself." Truthfulness "in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency." Many of us would likely get off the boat before completing the journey from Augustine to Kant. But it is doubtless their sea and no other that we sail on. We do not teach our children to choose falsehood or honesty in equal measure--whichever seems required by shifting circumstance to achieve ends they deem desirable. Our bias, impelled by felt duty, is clearly for the truth.

OF COURSE, certain questions remain: Which truths should be kept private? Which must be revealed, and to what extent, in the public square? At what point does public dissimulation exceed the bounds of public forgiveness? And, alternately, when does corrective public exposure become too much truth to bear? The answers are nowhere written down--or even much discussed at the level of general abstraction. And the news only rarely provides an arresting set of relevant specifics by which we may collectively test and clarify our intuitions.

But it does happen every so often. And it happened here in the United States four years ago, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. For much of 1998, President Clinton and his White House aides and private attorneys lied to the country with great Nietzschean spirit and will. And once the lie was exposed, Clinton's most vocal civilian cheerleaders more or less applauded it as a noble lie, a pious fraud, something necessary to protect the higher moral excellencies of the president's political movement. The men to whom the president had lied were unethical, deranged by religious extremism, or otherwise committed to the destruction of the sacred Third Way, and thus did not deserve the truth.