Civil Obedience

115 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2003

See all articles by W. Bradley Wendel

W. Bradley Wendel

Cornell University - School of Law


This paper is an attempt to construct a theory of legal ethics that takes justified moral disagreement as a central, rather than a marginal case. It assumes that people disagree in good faith about rights, justice, and moral obligations, but must nevertheless find a way to live together in a stable, ordered society. The framework for resolving disagreement in an orderly fashion is obviously the law, which provides the benefit of coordinated collective action in the face of moral disagreement. In a reasonably well functioning democracy, the law also treats people who disagree with one another respectfully, by providing fair procedures for resolving disputes. Although we may disagree about specific moral issues, as citizens we all share the following beliefs: (1) people disagree in good faith about what rights and duties we should have, (2) our views about the matter in question are just that - our views, and not conclusive of the debate, (3) we need to treat others in the public debate with respect, and not act peremptorily toward them, and (4) the disagreement must end somewhere, and we need to move on. Because of our shared interests in interacting peacefully with those with whom we disagree, we have a reason to respect the resolution of moral questions provided by the law. For this reason, the law is authoritative for citizens over a wide domain of contestable moral issues. This conception of authority owes a great deal to Joseph Raz, as well as Jeremy Waldron's recent book Law and Disagreement.

In order for a complex, highly technical body of law to perform this coordination function for ordinary citizens, there must be a body of experts who interpret and apply the law - that is, lawyers. Lawyers have a difficult dual role. They are ordinary moral agents in the same way as citizens, but they are also administrators of the legal system. My claim is that the moral agency of lawyers must be subordinated to their obligation to treat the law as an authoritative resolution of moral disputes, even in cases where the lawyer believes the law is morally wrong. This claim stands in contrast with many academic legal ethicists, who treat lawyers as ordinary moral agents first, and administrators of the law second. For example, Deborah Rhode argues that "[l]awyers can, and should, act on the basis of their own principled convictions, even when they recognize that others could in good faith hold different views." This position is incompatible with the coordination function of the law, which replaces the principled convictions of individuals with a distinctive social position on the matter, which is nevertheless authoritative for individuals.

Lawyers commit a moral wrong, vis-a-vis the second-order moral reasons to treat the law as authoritative, if they act directly on the basis of their own principled convictions, rather than deferring to a legal rule on point. This sounds like the familiar "dominant view" of legal ethics, in which lawyers are supposed to serve as zealous advocates of their clients' interests, regardless of contrary moral considerations. My position differs significantly from the dominant view, however, in treating the law, rather than the preferences of clients, as the principal consideration for lawyers to take into account in their ethical deliberation. Lawyers who treat the law only instrumentally, as a "cost of doing business" which may be disregarded by a client intent on manipulating the law, undermine the capacity of law to serve as a stable framework for coordinated social action in the face of disagreement. In an Enron-type case involving "aggressive" accounting and blatant manipulation of legal norms, lawyers can still be criticized in moral terms. The difference is that the appropriate moral framework is not derived from the first-order reasons about which there exists persistent disagreement, but from second-order reasons relating to the coordination function of the law.

Suggested Citation

Wendel, W. Bradley, Civil Obedience. Columbia Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: or

W. Bradley Wendel (Contact Author)

Cornell University - School of Law ( email )

108 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States
6072559719 (Phone)

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