Moral Engagement without the 'Moral Law': A Post-Canons View of Attorneys' Moral Accountability

34 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2008

See all articles by Robert K. Vischer

Robert K. Vischer

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law

Date Written: 2008


Several years ago in my Professional Responsibility class, I wanted to see how far I could push my students in their embrace of the notion that the moral evaluation of conduct depends on the professional role one occupies. I asked students to imagine that they were medical researchers in Nazi Germany, and that the authorities brought them to a concentration camp, inviting them to experiment on live human subjects. Would they, as scientists, proceed with the experiments? The first three students I called on answered that they would do the experiments if it would advance the research. One explained that morality is constructed by society, and in that particular society, the experiments would not be considered immoral. Another asked, If those inmates are going to die anyway, why not have them contribute to the greater good? The third insisted that the job of the researcher is to expand scientific knowledge, and the job of the government is to define the limits of that research. Absent government prohibition, the researcher has no moral reason not to proceed.

These students, I am confident, did not believe what they were saying. They were engaging my question according to the rules of good lawyering, as they perceived them - figuring out a way around any and all obstacles standing between the actor and a given course of conduct. Indeed, much of the blame for their answers belongs with the messages they receive about the values of the legal profession. Much of the law school experience sends the message, subtly but unmistakably, that cleverness is valued over wisdom, and that the law is simply a problem to be solved, rather than an inescapably moral endeavor.

In comparison to the era when the American Bar Association, via the 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics, could confidently instruct lawyers to impress upon the client and his undertaking exact compliance with the strictest principles of moral law, today we are more skeptical about the existence of any moral law, much less that it could or should be impressed upon the client. Recognizing the variability of moral convictions and complexity of moral analysis has understandably made lawyers reluctant to judge their clients by moral standards not reflected in positive law. But this reluctance to judge seems also to have brought a reluctance to engage the client on moral terms. The resulting technocratic view of law is evidenced far beyond the walls of my classroom. A refusal to acknowledge the moral dimension of legal practice has contributed to several of the leading lawyer-fueled scandals of recent years, as well as to the broader malaise that has afflicted the profession for some time. Nevertheless, the prospect of putting morality onto the table of legal representation is unsettling to many. This essay looks to reframe our conception of morality's relevance to professionalism, using the Canons' espousal of moral accountability as an insightful point of entry.

This essay was written as a contribution to the ABA's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Canons of Professional Ethics.

Keywords: Professional responsibility, legal ethics, canons of professional ethics, law and morality, moral counseling, client counseling

Suggested Citation

Vischer, Robert K., Moral Engagement without the 'Moral Law': A Post-Canons View of Attorneys' Moral Accountability (2008). U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-01, Available at SSRN: or

Robert K. Vischer (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States
651-962-4838 (Phone)

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