[This essay was originally published on The Ethics Scoreboard in 2004, and has been one of the most read and discussed of all the posts there. Ethics Alarms will periodically republished pieces from that site, sometimes updated and re-edited, sometimes not. This one is unchanged.]
In the instructive category of “Lawsuits that demonstrate the distinction between law and ethics,” we have the Massachusetts case of Conley v. Romeri.
Ms. Conley met Mr. Romeri when they were both in their 40s and divorced. As romance beckoned, Ms. Conley told her swain that she was childless, and wanted to begin a family before her biological clock struck midnight. The defendant, who had sired four children already, told her “not to worry.” He had seen a fortune-teller who had predicted that he would increase his number of children from four to six.
That held Ms. Conley for seven months. Then he told her that he had been vasectomized years ago.
Ms. Conley sued the bastard, claiming that her now ex-boyfriend had fraudulently misled her into believing he could father little Conleys in order to prolong the relationship, and that his actions had thrown her into emotional distress and depression.
Let us pause here and say that Mr. Romeri is a cur. Knowing that Ms. Conley was desperate for children and running out of time, he nonetheless deceived her for his own purposes, costing her perhaps her only chance to have the family she desired. For the fans of Bill Clinton out there, he was also clearly adept at Clintonesque deceit: he said “don’t worry” about having children, not that he was capable of creating them; he said a fortune- teller has assured him that he would have more kids, but never said her prediction was plausible. Mr. Romeri, like millions of deceitful people before him, probably doesn’t think he really lied. But of course he did.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court, however, found that while Mr. Romeri may have behaved abominably, it was not the place of the law to punish him.
Such claims, the judges said, “arise from conduct so intensely private that the courts should not be asked to resolve them….It does not lie within the power of any judicial system to remedy all human wrongs. Many wrongs which in themselves are flagrant–ingratitude, avarice, broken faith, brutal words and heartless disregard–are beyond any effective remedy.”
Our hearts go out to Ms. Conley. But the law will never succeed in making people be honest, caring, and fair. Only we can do that, by creating a society in which boys grow to manhood knowing that behavior like Mr. Romeri’s is wrong, and at the same time, a society where women take responsibility for their own welfare, without seeking government remedies for every challenge.