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From the October, 2002
issue of Touchstone

 

Ethics in a Vacuum by Phillip E. Johnson

Ethics in a Vacuum

The Watergate scandals of the early 1970s involved so many lawyers that the law schools and bar associations felt compelled to placate the public by requiring students and lawyers to take courses in legal ethics.

Whether this development benefited the public would be hard to say, but it certainly benefited some law professors such as myself. I taught professional responsibility (legal ethics) at two prominent law schools and even earned some nice fees testifying as an expert in the subject.

Once a gentleman’s way of behaving towards other gentlemen, professional responsibility has become merely another economic regulatory system—the regulation of the behavior of lawyers. Like all other officially recognized forms of knowledge, it deals with means rather than ends. In accomplishing whatever they want or need to do, lawyers must stay within certain limits or they may get into trouble. The same is true of insurance salesmen. In both cases, you might teach economic actors to be careful by teaching them the rules and the danger of getting caught, but you will not teach them to be virtuous that way.

We professors can teach our students how to obey or evade the regulations, but we cannot teach them to internalize specific moral goals, because we have no basis or authority for doing so. We live in a nihilistic society where every individual claims the right to set his own goals without interference. To expect legal training to provide the goals is unrealistic. On the rare occasions when legal educators pretend otherwise, they should not be believed.

Today I see a similar charade being played out with the “ethics” of genetic wizardry. The scientists want to push technology to its limits, while the investors want to make profits to recoup their huge investments. Both groups tend to have little respect for squeamish religious folk who object in principle to promising techniques like cloning. If there is a chance you might find a miracle cure and be showered with scientific prizes and profits, why not go for the gold and leave the nervous nellies to their nattering? The corporations know that they need ethics advisors to craft a strategy for persuading the public that everything is safe and that they are only tampering with tissues, not lives, but no one takes the exercise at face value. Ethics is effectively a division of corporate public relations.

I do not blame any particular individuals for this amorality. The situation could hardly be otherwise as long as our culture defines knowledge in pragmatic terms. We can have knowledge only of how to get more of whatever it is we happen to want, and so that is all we study. If you ask what we ought to want, our learned authorities can only shrug. That is a matter for personal belief, as to which each individual is an independent sovereign in his own kingdom of ends.

If ethics is to be more than another regulatory system or public relations program, it must be based on firm convictions about the purpose of life. When I speak with Christian students who are interested in going to law school, I can ask what they feel called by God to do with their lives. Then we can discuss how the rigorous analytical skills taught in law school can help them accomplish their goals. I can hardly imagine asking a law school class a question like “What is God calling you to do with your life?” That question would be considered either ridiculous or threatening, because it would be seen to invoke an illusory Being in a setting where it can only be a threat to individual freedom.

We can teach grade-school children in detail about what used to be called sexual perversion, because that is promoting the state-sanctioned goal of tolerance, but we cannot teach seriously about God even in universities, because God is deemed to be a subject that can only make trouble for everyone. If God is truly dead and buried, this attitude is defensible, but if he comes back into the world as I expect he will, it is going to look very silly. The greatest superstition of modernism is that, when God is scorned and rejected, everything else we need will still be available. Our recurring ethics crises give us an occasional flash of light to see the modernist superstition for what it is.

The latest flash of light comes from the debacle in business ethics that led to the spectacular scandals involving Enron and Arthur Andersen & Company. What did the corporate executives and the independent accounting firms do wrong? Stated without cant, they took big risks when that seemed the way to get stinking rich, and then they got caught when the market turned sour. If their luck had held, they would still be being praised as creative improvisers who knew how to bend the rules just enough. We cannot truly say much more than that, unless the purpose of the energy business and public accounting firms is something other than making as much money as possible without getting into trouble and losing everything. Perhaps ethics means no more than knowing when to take a risk and when to play it safe. If you were asked to explain to a business or law school class why ethics does mean more than that, and hoped to be taken seriously, where would you begin?

I can imagine defining accounting as a sacred calling, dedicated above all else to maintaining honesty. In that case, the best accountant would be the one who did the most in his professional lifetime to increase the amount of honesty in business, rather than the one who made the most money or helped his firm grow to colossal proportions. But who wants to miss out on lots of money just to pursue a goal like that?

I could say the same about law, defining the legal profession as a sacred calling dedicated to justice, if we had a culturally authoritative definition of justice. I am certain, however, that my visionary notion that lawyers should be pursuing some overriding goal would be seen by many as threatening and even totalitarian. I do not agree with that opinion, but I admit that the question of ultimate goals is a difficult one. I can imagine orienting the legal profession to a coherent goal, but the job would probably require a religious revival and a century of teaching to make the goal coherent and persuasive.

The alternative to defining ultimate goals is to accept an amoral and chaotic social order. That is what we have done and the question is: How long will it take before we learn that this result is intolerable?


Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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“Ethics in a Vacuum” first appeared in the October 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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