Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Comey and Moral-Theology Debates

     I'll make this a quick post, without detailed analysis or links to supporting news stories. The Inspector General's Report for DOJ seems to confirm that Jim Comey decided to disregard department rules by commenting in July 2016 on the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton. (Having then commented in July, he felt he had to notify Congress in October that the investigation had been  reopened.) Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he decided to disregard the rules because he thought that: (a) there was a leadership void at the top of the Department (Attorney General Lynch's partial withdrawal, although not recusal, from the case); (b) Clinton was going to be elected President; and (c) failing to comment on the decision--and failing to give notice of the (briefly) reopened investigation--would undermine her credibility as president by opening the door for  people to argue that the department had given her favoritism and a whitewash. We now know that Comey substantially erred in predicting the consequences of his acts, and perhaps in analyzing the state of the election in the first place.

      It seems possible for this episode to become an example used in ethics courses, religious (moral-theology) or secular, to explore issues concerning deontological versus consequentialist (or proportionalist) ethics. One major criticism against the latter is that we lack the ability--at least, we overestimate our ability--to predict the consequences of actions. Thus we should stick with rules that reflect either deductions from foundational premises or (in rule-consequentialism) the accumulated wisdom about what consequences will likely follow. Comey's misjudgment, then,could serve as a dramatic example for this argument.

     Of course, that doesn't end the debate about "following the rules." There still may be cases in which the rules must be disregarded, even if Comey was wrong to think this was one of them. Segregation and civil disobedience present a strong example where positive law had to give way to higher-law principles. But I don't know if even Comey claims this was that sort of case (although his book, which I haven't read, is called A Higher Loyalty).

     But this also doesn't end the debate over "rules vs. consequences." There are, of course, many times in which two concrete but conflicting rules both might apply to a situation; we have to decide what the scope of each rule is. Some moral theorists, like R.M. Hare in Moral Thinking, have identified this as the function of consequentialism/utilitarianism: to resolve conflicts between prima facie duties.

     The previous two paragraphs are just ruminations by a non-expert in moral philosophy and moral theology. The main point I wanted to make is that Comey's misjudgment might be used, in ethics/moral-theology education or debates, as a prime example of the problem of uncertainty in predicting consequences. Comey's errors in prediction, and thus in judgment, were very substantial--but I don't think they were so substantial that they keep his actions from being a useful example.


Berg, Thomas, Current Affairs | Permalink