Ethicists explain exactly why James Comey isn’t qualified for his new gig teaching ethics

James Comey is not an expert in ethics.
James Comey is not an expert in ethics.
Image: Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst
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Former FBI director James Comey, who faced the moral quandary of how to appropriately investigate US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign and wound up upsetting all sides of the political spectrum, is due to become a professor in, of all subjects, ethical leadership. Comey has been invited to teach at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary in Virginia, which apparently decided the former G-man has the relevant ethical credentials.

We wondered if professional ethicists agreed, and so asked four professors in the leadership and ethics to evaluate Comey’s behavior.

He made the wrong choice


“Most investigators work very hard not to have their investigations impact other people’s lives unnecessarily,” says Thomas Kolditz, director of the John Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University.

As head of the FBI, Comey had been in charge of an investigation into Clinton’s use of an insecure server for her emails while working as secretary of state. In July 2016, he declared there was no case to be made against Clinton. In Oct. 2016—11 days before the US presidential election—he made a public statement that he was reopening the investigation to look into new information. Later, after review, the FBI confirmed its initial verdict that Clinton did not mishandle classified information. But Comey’s decision to make the announcement may have influenced the outcome of the election.

Kolditz believes morality is based on intention and so, though he considers it a mistake to have made the public announcement, he does not consider Comey to have made an ethical breach—unless it was made with dubious intentions, such as a desire sway the election.

Regardless of Comey’s motives, the implications were concerning.“There’s an obligation for an investigator to not do damage to an individual’s character before they have evidence to justify it,” says Kolditz. “Hillary Clinton…was never indicted or charged with anything. Arguably she did nothing wrong. And yet her character was assassinated by the mere suspicion of information [about her wrongdoing].” Based on these consequences, Kolditz believes that Comey’s decision was wrong, though not immoral if made with good intentions.

Comey supporters point to the possibile retroactive criticism the former FBI director would have faced had he not made a public announcement and had the reopening of the Clinton investigation been discovered later on. Kolditz says this doesn’t justify his actions. “It’s his obligation to put his own protection secondary to protecting the country and meeting his obligations as an agent of the federal government,” Kolditz says.

Unethical, or a fool?

Jorge Secada, a University of Virginia professor of ethics and political philosophy, agrees that Comey’s decision to publicly reopen the Clinton email investigation was misguided. “Politically, it was very ill-judged; he should have been much more careful. The FBI doesn’t have to make public everything they look into at any moment,” he says.

More information, though, is needed to evaluate Comey on the basis of ethics. If, for example, Comey did not believe the FBI would uncover evidence that would change the outcome of its investigation, but made the announcement so as to influence the election, that would be clearly unethical, says Secada. “Or if he was forced to do this by pressure from others, then one could judge him morally and say he displayed a lack of courage and allowed himself to be manipulated. Those are vices that we can judge morally. We would need to know more about him. He might have just been a fool.”

Not an expert in ethics


“My entire professional life has been dedicated to ethics education. I’m disheartened by the fact that educational institutions hire people to teach ethics who really don’t have a background in ethics,” says Aine Donovan, director of the ethics institute at Dartmouth University.

Certainly, Comey’s own behavior as FBI director would make the basis of a strong case study, says Donovan. But Comey’s experience navigating a moral quandary is not sufficient qualification. “I’d rather have moral exemplars teaching an ethical leadership class than somebody who has even a whiff of controversy associated with them,” Donovan says. In addition, Donovan adds, it seems Comey did not make the right moral choice at every stage. For example, Comey leaked documents about his conversations with Trump. “I’m highly skeptical that that would ever pass ethical muster,” adds Donovan.

A “puzzling” choice


“There is much to be learned about [ethics from] studying Mr. Comey’s own conduct, but most of it is not positive,” Howard Prince II, who holds the Loyd Hackler Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at University of Texas-Austin, writes in an email. Overall, Comey is “a puzzling choice” to teach ethical leadership, he adds.

Comey’s decision to leak FBI documents was “a blatant politically partisan act on the part of an official whose role as director of the FBI is supposed to be independent and free of bias,” says Prince. The UT professor also believes the leak, which was made to the New York Times, was a federal crime. Certain leaks have been legally protected in the past by whistleblower protection laws. However, Prince argues that classified material may only be shared with a person or persons who have a “need to know” basis and appropriate security clearance, according to the non-disclosure agreement (pdf) that all US federal government employees sign.

The former FBI director’s decision to grant immunity to Clinton’s aids made a “sham” of the investigation that followed the leak, says Prince, as the deal also limited the search of documents to within a specific time period, and so prevented a full review of the evidence.

“I was astonished by the announcement of Mr. Comey’s appointment to teach ethical leadership,” says Prince. “It makes me question the judgment of officials at William & Mary.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Clinton ran for president in 2017, when the presidential race was in 2016.