The Half-Virtuous Integrity of Atticus Finch
Albany Law School Research Paper No. 6 for 2017-2018
71 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2016 Last revised: 6 Sep 2017
Date Written: July 29, 2016
Atticus Finch has two kinds of integrity, but only one of them is genuinely admirable. On one hand, he is rightly admired for standing up for the things he values. On the other hand, he is also praised for being “the same in his house as he is on the public streets.” But we shouldn’t praise him for this.
Atticus has achieved a kind of harmony between his identity as a lawyer and other identities like parent, neighbor, citizen, and moral person. This is a good thing for him, but it isn’t morally admirable. In fact, integrating one’s identities can sometimes make it harder to act virtuously. For example, the way that Atticus organizes his identities around his commitment to the justice system prevents him from noticing his only chance to save Tom Robinson’s life.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" shows that it is sometimes better to have tension in our identities. Far from presenting Atticus as the sole paradigm of ethical goodness, it shows other characters who are admirable because they are not like Atticus at all. The identities of characters like Calpurnia, Maudie, and Scout others are conflicted or divided, and these tensions allow them to be admirable in ways that Atticus is not. They can cross social boundaries, subvert their own social roles, and radically criticize their community precisely because their identities are fragmented or in flux. This should be inspiring to lawyers, and to the legal ethicists who have long worried that lawyers’ roles will cause schisms in their identities. Sometimes tension in the self is exactly what we need to be good.
Keywords: Legal ethics, virtue, virtue ethics, integrity, To Kill a Mockingbird, law and literature, Atticus Finch
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