Sunday, November 23, 2008


It is common practice for outgoing presidents of the United States to grant pardons as they are heading out the door. Among the recent notable pardons were those by President George H.W. Bush of Iran-Contra convicts to whom Bush may have had a connection, and by President Bill Clinton of indicted financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had contributed to Clinton's campaign fund.

Such pardons are unquestionably legal, and indeed are a long tradition of the presidency, but are they ethical? In particular, is it ethical for a president to pardon someone whose illegal actions may have involved him or his administration?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

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Sean O'Leary said...

Pardons of all kinds can be just, compassionate, and even necessary, because they can take into account a wider range of factors than might be considered pertinent in a court of law. In other words, just pardons increase accountability by making more known and taking more into consideration.

That is why, when pardons are granted in the name of the people, they should be accompanied by a commensurate opportunity for the people to share in that larger perspective and knowledge.

From that perspective, granting a presidential pardon to a crony whose crimes are a matter of public record is less troubling than granting a pardon for the specific purpose of preventing the crimes underlying the pardon from being fully investigated and becoming a matter of public record.

In short, just pardons increase accountability. Unjust pardons reduce accountability.

Sean O'Leary
Harpers Ferry, WV

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I may be wrong here, but since the Presidential pardons are traditional and unquestionably legal, I just do not believe that ethics enter in, unless we simply want to discuss the relative rightness or wrongness of a particlar pardon. My view is that these are like "get out of jail free" cards. The person(s) being pardoned is not being found innocent of whatever they did wrong, they are, under the President's traditional power at the end of the his term, simply being pardoned by the President taking this action because he feels the person deserves the pardon. From a stricly ethical point of view, if a person has committed a crime, and has not served their full prison sentence, it is ethically wrong to "pardon" them just to be merciful, but this presidential pardon situation is not judged by any authority, it is just done.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC