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Virtue Ethics, Lawyers and Harper Lee's to Kill a Mockingbird.

  • Date Submitted: 04/07/2010 03:31 AM
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Tim Dare University of Auckland, New Zealand

Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockin^ird, played by Gregory Peck in the classic 1962 film version, has been adopted as an exemplar by advocates of a virtue ethics approach to legal ethics. When Atticus condones a departure from the rules of law in order to spare Boo Radley a trial, these theorists argue, he displays practical wisdom, or phronesis, and shows that the good lawyer gives priority to judgement and character over rules and principles. Yet Atticus can be understood in a quite different way as a tragicfigurewho, when faced with the possibility of a tragedy in Boo's case, abandons the commitment to law which earlier was a central part of his character. From this perspective, Atticus' lesson for legal ethics is not about the priority of judgement and character, but instead about tke value of the rules and principles he abandons. •

LAWYERS AND VIRTUE ETHICS awyers are widely thought to be callous, self-serving, devious, and indifferent to justice, truth, and the public good. The profession could do with a hero, and some think that Atticus Finch of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) fits the bill. Claudia Carter, for instance, urges lawyers to adopt Atticus as a role model: "I had many heroes when growing up . . . . Only one remains very much 'alive' for me . . . . Atticus made me believe in lawyer-heroes" (1988: 13). Not everyone endorses Atticus' nomination as a role model. Most influential, Monroe Freedman argues that Atticus was hardly a man to be admired since, as a state legislator and community leader in a segregated society, he lived "his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice" (1992: 20). Although there is plainly disagreement between Freedman and his critics, there is also an important point of consensus. Both sides to the





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