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Lawyers, Ethics, and To Kill a Mockingbird

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 25, Number 1, April 2001
pp. 127-141 | 10.1353/phl.2001.0003

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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 127-141


Lawyers are widely thought to be callous, self-serving, devious, and indifferent to justice, truth, and the public good. The law profession could do with a hero, and some think Atticus Finch of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird fits the bill. Claudia Carver, for instance, urging lawyers to adopt Atticus as a role model, writes: "I had lots of heroes when growing up. . . . Only one remains very much 'alive' for me. . . . Atticus made me believe in lawyer heroes." Not everyone endorses Atticus's nomination. Most influentially, Monroe Freedman argues that Atticus is hardly admirable since, as a state legislator and community leader in a segregated society, he lives "his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice."

Although there is plainly disagreement between Freedman and his opponents, there is also an important point of consensus. Both sides to the debate accept that Atticus's suitability as a role model is settled by his character. Freedman argues that Atticus should not be a role model because he is not the admirable figure he is made out to be: appointed counsel to an unpopular defendant, Atticus admits that he had hoped "to get through life without a case of this kind" (p. 98). He excuses the leader of a lynch mob as "basically a good man" who "just has his blind spots along with the rest of us" (p. 173). He sees that "one of these days we're going to pay the bill" for racism, but hopes that payment, and so justice for blacks, will not come during his children's life times (pp. 243-44). On the other hand, a leading Atticus supporter, Thomas Shaffer, argues that Atticus shows us precisely that what matters in professional ethics is character rather than moral principle:

One thing you could say about Atticus is that he had character. . . . We say that a good person has character, but we do not mean to say only that he believes in discernible moral principles and, under those principles, makes good decisions. We mean also to say something about who he is and to relate who he is to his good decisions. When discussion proceeds in this way, principles need not even be explicit. We can say, "How would Atticus see this situation?" or "What would Atticus do" rather than, "What principles apply?"

So understood, the debate about Atticus connects with the recent resurrection of virtue ethics and with concomitant suggestions that a virtue or character-based ethics might provide a particularly promising approach to professional ethics in general and to legal ethics in particular.

In the following essay, I argue that this character-based appeal to Atticus is misplaced. Although Atticus can teach us important lessons, they are not about the priority of virtue or character. Neither side to the debate has Atticus quite right. Sorting out what it is about him that makes him an appropriate or inappropriate role model for lawyers will both enrich our appreciation of a fine novel and further our understanding of what it is to be an ethical lawyer. More generally, my analysis will suggest that virtue ethics has little to offer toward an understanding of the moral responsibility of lawyers.


In brief, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in racist Alabama in the 1930s. Appointed to defend Robinson, Atticus Finch takes the task seriously, drawing upon himself and his children the slurs and taunts of neighbors. At trial he proves that Robinson could not have raped Mayella, showing that her attacker was left-handed with two good arms, whereas Robinson had lost the use of his left arm in a cotton-gin accident. Robinson is convicted nonetheless. The verdict does not surprise Atticus. Racism, "Maycomb's usual disease" (p. 98), has made it a forgone conclusion. Indeed, shortly afterward, Tom is killed, shot while climbing a prison fence in full view of guards. Tom's death completes one story in Mockingbird: an innocent black man has been falsely accused, wrongfully convicted, and killed.


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