Character and Context: What Virtue Theory Can Teach Us About a Prosecutor's Ethical Duty to 'Seek Justice'
62 Pages Posted: 4 Apr 2006
A critical issue facing the criminal justice system today is how best to promote ethical behavior by public prosecutors. The legal profession has left much of a prosecutor's day-to-day activity unregulated, in favor of a general, catch-all admonition to "seek justice." In this article the author argues that professional norms are truly functional only if those working with a given ethical framework recognize the system's implicit dependence on character. A code of professional conduct in which this dependence is not recognized is both contentless and corrupting. Building on the ethics of Aristotle and modern philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Bernard Williams, the author argues that virtue theory can help bridge the gaps in prosecutorial ethics where other forms of moral reasoning fail.
The author analyzes three especially difficult ethical problems frequently confronted by prosecutors in the field. He demonstrates not only that the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the ABA Criminal Justice Standards fail to answer any of these complex questions, but also that future attempts to more closely regulate how prosecutors should act in any of these nuanced situations are unlikely to succeed. The author argues that honesty, fairness, courage, and prudence are the primary virtues that citizens have a right to expect of their public prosecutors. He then demonstrates how these four key virtues might provide important guidance to conscientious prosecutors striving to do what is right. The author concludes by offering several insights into how the field of virtue ethics might inform both the structure and organization of government law offices, and the manner in which individual prosecutors working within these offices might perceive and fulfill their professional roles.
Keywords: virtue ethics, professional ethics, character, Aristotle, casuistry, prosecutors, plea bargaining, cooperation agreements, attorney conduct, prosecutorial discretion
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