Bleak Work: Role Morality in Dickens and in Practice

31 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2016

See all articles by David McGowan

David McGowan

University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: June 7, 2016


Social roles help define acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They tell persons occupying the role what is expected, and they tell those who encounter such persons what to expect.

Roles are sometimes used to deflect moral criticism. When that happens, role proponents assert strong conceptions of a role, in which persons acting within the bounds of the role are supposed to be immune to moral criticism. Their morality inheres in fidelity to the role. Such thick constructions have no valence, however. If criminal defense lawyers may work to free factually guilty clients without moral condemnation there is no logical reason why lawyers helping landlords evict poor people could be subject to moral condemnation. The cases might be distinguished on political grounds, but the strong conception of the lawyer's role is supposed to trump such grounds.

This strong conception of roles may lead to moral criticism being reframed as professional criticism. Lawyers advising government officials on interrogation techniques may be criticized as bad lawyers, for example, and thus as not entitled to the moral cover of the role. Such moves try to reconcile thick conceptions of various lawyer roles with the social harms acts within such roles can cause. In separate work I will argue that this attempt at reconciliation cannot succeed.

This paper uses Bleak House to illustrate a different conception of lawyers' roles. In this "thin" conception, the various roles lawyers play are permeable. Persons working within the role are meant to feel the social effects of their acts, and are rightly praised or condemned for those effects. On this view, "thick" conceptions of roles leads to a blinkered social view, and a form of professional indifference if not blindness. The thick conception of lawyers' roles impedes the sentiment of common decency which Dickens hope would serve as a defense against abuses of power.

Suggested Citation

McGowan, David, Bleak Work: Role Morality in Dickens and in Practice (June 7, 2016). San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 16-221, Available at SSRN: or

David McGowan (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

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